Making history come alive on the page - How to make your reader’s heart race!
The ex-centurion knew if the Romans caught him, he was dead. Marius felt the horse strain under his thighs. The animal’s head split the air in front of them. Wind roared, mingling with the pounding of Marius’ heart and the jolting rumble of hooves against the forest floor. Blood flowed from a throbbing wound on his shoulder and spattered behind him, staining the horse’s rump. He tightened his grip on the reins, bowing his head low over the animal’s neck. The smell of horseflesh was stringent in his nose.
A grim thought flashed through his mind. He may never hold Delia again.Marius’ throat tightened. He dug his heels into Brutus and forced him to move faster. He would make it up to the horse later, if he survived. – The Edge of Honor
What is it that makes this passage exciting? Is it the rhythm? Is it the words? Is it the short sentences? Is it being in the moment?
It’s actually all of the above.
Rhythm – I went to a seminar once with this very passage (before editing) and had the group at the edge of their seats. That is, until I decided to put back story in the middle of it. Rhythm is everything in an action scene. Don’t muck it up with back story, a lot of introspection, or anything else that will stop the action. You’ve promised movement…you better make sure you deliver or you’ll lose your reader.
Words – Like poets, words are very important to an action scene. Choose them wisely. For example, if you are in the middle of a chase, you probably wouldn’t stare at something. More than likely you would glance at it. Keep the words as vibrant as the action.
Short Sentences – My wonderful editor taught me this one. When you’re writing an action sequence, keep the sentences short. This gives the passage energy, life and a sense of urgency. Not that I always do it, mind you…it takes work to put action into short sentences when there is so much going on. Practice.
AND MOST IMPORTANTLY…
Show Don’t Tell – If you have done any writing classes at all, talked to another writer, or had any of your work critiqued, you’ve probably heard this one before. It took me the longest time to figure out just what that meant and believe me, I still have to work on it as my critique partner can attest. It’s something you have to practice in everything you write…and you have to do it constantly. A very good writer friend of mine defined it for me like this: You need to make your words create images, make them visual. Put your reader in the scene. Let her experience the event as it happens, one step at a time. Write it in real time as if you are experiencing it right now. Use all your senses when you’re writing: What do you see? What do you hear? What do you physically feel? What do you taste? What do you smell? What’s happening inside you? Work the senses into the piece; weave them into the action.
Here are some examples:
He liked the girl.
His heart pounded faster, leaving the faintest ringing in his ears, and an uncomfortable stiffness pushed out the fabric of his pants.
She blushed prettily.
The blush rose in her cheeks pulling her mouth into an impish smirk and brightening her eyes.
~LOL~ Like I said, this is hard, but one of the best exercises you can do. Now it’s your turn:
Below you will see a list of sentences. Make the sentences more exciting. Remember to “Show Don’t Tell” and don’t be afraid to be creative.
Joanne was upset.
She liked the way his hands felt.
The king acted standoffish.
He smelled her perfume.
If you have your own example from something you’ve done in the past, you can share that with us, too.
DISCUSSION: Why is it important to “show don’t tell” in writing?
ASSIGNMENT: Going to one of your favorite books, pick out a short passage that really made your heart pound when you read it. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us what it is about that passage that makes it so appealing. I’ll post these for everyone to see. Extra Credit: Write your own exciting paragraph and submit it for comments.