Lessons on Action From Conan the Barbarian

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on a chase and escape scene. (My novel centers on the historic invasion of a major Islamic city.) I like making characters move through space. But in a first draft especially, action scenes can be challenging. In particular, I’ve been having trouble with verbs and pacing.

I told my non-reader husband about this dilemma, and he, being a rocket scientist,* had a great solution. He pointed to me to the collection of Conan books he inherited from his older brother.

Now, Conan’s a bit pulpy for me. My novel has more (ladeeda) literary aspirations, but I learned some lessons from the chase scene (the first chapter of the first book I cracked open, no less!) I skimmed — both about what to do and what not to do. I also got some strategies from the section of Tea Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” that I’m reading right now.

Here’s the advice I’ve given myself about verbs:

  • When your character is running, or doing some other simple action, just go ahead and use that word instead of some fancy synonym.
  • Along those lines, don’t be afraid to repeat simple verbs like run, walk, sit, say. Don’t overuse them, of course, but a reader notices them less than sprint, stride, perch, opine.
  • If you use any of those fancier words, your character had better be actually doing those things.
  • Come up with a metaphor that enables you to use a verb you normally wouldn’t use to describe a particular action. For example, your character is a flame that burns across the floor. Terrible metaphor, but you get the point.
  • Sentence fragments. Again, don’t overuse this technique, but it allows you to skip a verb or two. (See?)
  • Make something other than your character, say an inanimate object, the subject of the sentence. I’m stealing from Obreht here: Instead of “They came around the bend and were surprised to see a house,” write “The house surprised them.” (The second is amazingly better, isn’t it?)

I’ve got no advice on pacing at the moment, if you were hoping for that. But stay tuned, and I’ll be posting a writing exercise for anyone who wants to play around with action and making characters move.

*Technically, he’s a mechanical engineer who works in the aerospace industry, but that’s kind of longwinded.


3 thoughts on “Lessons on Action From Conan the Barbarian

  1. carrie

    David will be thrilled to hear that Conan helped you, especially considering the amount of disdain I show for Conan. I love this post and I can’t wait to see the exercise! I’m kind of a huge fan of sentence fragments, but I overuse them.

  2. Sarah

    Oooh, this is great! And very timely, I’ve got a fight scene coming up.

    The last bit of advice, about making an inanimate object the subject of the sentence, is really interesting. In a way, it’s simply a trick for avoiding passive voice. But having an inanimate object be the actor also contributes to the overall feeling of “action” in a scene.

    How is The Tiger’s Wife? It’s next on my list after Away.

  3. Pingback: Reading Like a Writer « Firstborn Literary Child

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