So You Want to Write Action? Eric Beetner Scene Analysis
One time I began reading a book by an author whose work I usually enjoy. Most of the first thirty pages or so was action. The action was bloody and crisp, each move purposefully orchestrated with no excess detail or confusing movements.
But I stopped reading after that and forgot about the book.
The reason it failed to engage me was that I had little interest in the characters who I’d just been introduced to. It read like “X punched Y…” and I didn’t care about what happened.
One error that writers tend to make is thinking about action in isolation or as a way to “keep the reader engaged” when things get slow. But action detached from character and story and plopped down on the page isn’t effective.
Similarly, action that drags on and on becomes boring. Quick, vicious action that arrives after a careful increase in tension is always a better choice. See David Nemeth’s excellent piece at Do Some Damage on writing violence and how Lee Child has a tendency to pad his fight scenes, almost daring the reader to skip them.
One of the best action writers around is Eric Beetner. His recent novel All the Way Down uses action scenes almost exclusively to great effect. The scene I’m examining today is from his soon-to-be-released novella, White Hot Pistol.
In this scene, Nash and Jacy, two teenagers accompanied by some surprisingly helpful ex-cons, confront Brian, their stepfather and a corrupt sheriff who assaulted Jacy. The book has built to this final showdown scene: Brian is about to elude justice when he’s caught and appears to have the odds stacked against him.
“Sit the fuck down.”
The deep earthquake voice would be enough to stop anyone in what they’re doing. Brian froze. He turned slowly, seeing first the man who spoke, Mo. Then the two mountains beside him, and finally his stepson and stepdaughter. All of them had guns and he’d just zipped his safely away.
“Yeah, yeah,” Brian said. “Sit down. I get it.” Brian sat. “So what is this now? Vigilante time?”
“All we wanted to do was get out of town,” Nash said.
“So why didn’t you?”
“Because this place has claws, and they cut you and grab your flesh and they won’t let you leave.”
“You left once. Why didn’t you stay gone, boy?”
“Why didn’t you stay in your own fucking room with your wife?”
Brian had no comeback. The three enormous men in the room stood by silently. Jacy had tears dripping down her face.
“You got no more proof, girly. You got shit. Your word against mine? Good fuckin’ luck.”
Five of them. Shit. Five. If he could get to the bag and get it unzipped, he might have half a chance if they were all slow on the draw.
“We went home,” Jacy said. “We saw her.”
Yep. Not good, thought Brian.
“You want to get out of town?” Brian said. “Then you’re gonna need money.” He moved over to the bag. “I got two grand in cash here. It’s yours. Consider it a graduation present.” He got the zipper tag pinched between his thumb and forefinger.
“Enough talking,” Mo said. “You got last words to say, get ’em out now.”
“Now, hold on there—”
Mo aimed his gun at Brian’s face. “Not you, asshole. Them.”
Brian froze, his fingers still pinching the zipper. He drew it back an inch, waited, then slid another half inch. Small, short strokes to keep the noise and the movement down.
Nash said, “I hope you know why this is happening. That this is all your own doing.”
Jacy said, “I want you to know I hate your fucking guts.”
“Okay, whatever you think I did—”
Mo lifted the gun again, raised his voice to an angry bear volume. “You don’t get to talk anymore. Last words are just that. Last.”
Brian slid the zipper open another inch while everyone was dealing with the ringing in their ears from Mo’s voice. He could almost get his hand inside. His aim would be shit, but he could get a first shot or two off from inside the bag, maybe nail one of these tree-trunk-sized motherfuckers. There’d be confusion, he could pull two guns and waste the rest of them. Hero time.
“I want to do it,” Jacy said.
Nash pulled his eyes from Brian. “No, Jace.”
“Nash, it’s mine to do.”
Crackerjack spoke up. “No need for you kids to get your hands dirty. That’s why we’re here.”
“No,” Jacy said. “I should have done it a long time ago. This is my second chance.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Nash said to her.
Brian got his hand inside the bag. He touched his fingertips to a box of bullets, a nightstick he’d taken, then the butt of a gun.
“Nash,” Jacy said. “You came to rescue me. It got all fucked up and it’s kinda my fault.”
“Let me finish,” she said. “You’ve been dragging me around, protecting me. Saving my ass. Being better to me than I deserve after I dragged you into this shit. It’s time for me to do my own ass saving.”
Brian found the safety with his thumb, flicked it off.
At this point, I was dying to know what would happen because I was invested in the characters. The action that follows is constructed on the foundation of the story. After taking shit from Brian, the powerful sheriff, Jacy and Nash have finally flipped the script–they have the muscle of three ex-cons and get the drop on Brian when he’s about to flee.
Beetner slowly ratchets up the tension throughout the scene. This starts with the narrative switching to Brian’s point of view, which is a crucial choice. Brian has a gun in his bag that only he and the reader are aware of. He can do a lot of damage, but he’s gotta get the bag open first.
So he throws out the idea of paying them off as a ruse to get the gun. It doesn’t fly. Then he inches the bag’s zipper open, making just enough room to get his hand in. It’s a last-chance, hail-Mary move, but it could work because Beetner has established Brian as the kind of prick/sociopath who always manages to get away with everything. He makes the reader believe that he can take on five people with just a gun trapped in a bag. The action naturally follows from the character.
Meanwhile, the ex-cons, Jacy, and Nash are all arguing over who should kill Brian–who most deserves to kill him and who should get his or her hands dirty. This is vital stuff for Jacy and Nash’s character arcs, but while the they’re arguing, the reader can’t help but yell, “HE’S GOT A FUCKING GUN! KILL HIM NOW!”
It’s a horror movie cliche for the audience to react in a similar way, “Don’t go in that room! The slasher’s gonna get you!” But it works better here because the characters have every reason to believe that they can take their time as they have the advantage in weapons and manpower.
Lastly, this scene works because the characters will be forever changed by its events. The most frustrating action scenes have no long-term impact. The characters get into a scuffle, brush themselves off, and continue on their way. Why bother?
As Nemeth puts it: “Characters need to get injured in their fights and these injuries need to be long lasting, not forgotten by the next chapter.”
Here’s the tl;dr:
- Action should originate naturally from character
- Pacing is critical in action and it’s more important to build tension than to let bullets fly
- Keep it short. No one wants to read a twenty-page car chase scene
- Make the scene have a lasting impact on the characters