I’m one of those people who likes to make lists to keep track of things I want to do, things I want to get, books I should read etc… (and sometimes I even just add things to lists so I can cross them off). So, I had this list of books that have really great action scenes, because my action scenes need a lot of work, and completely forgot about it, like I usually do. But I recently I found and reviewed it and a funny thing happened. Coincidence? Fate’s sarcastic ways? Who knows? The book I just finished reading, Joe Abercrombie’s THE BLADE ITSELF, was on there.
Here I was just about ready to write a mostly unsavory review for it, but then all of a sudden, I realized that yeah, I had some issues with the book, but the action scenes were not on that list. That’s what I can learn from Joe Abercrombie.
The book starts with an action scene, which are usually good hooks. I can see why Abercrombie would do this as it is one of his strengths and is known as an effective kick off. In the first lines of the book we have:
Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head. He stumbled and sprawled onto his side, nearly cut his chest open with his own axe, lay there panting, peering through the shadowy forest.
The Dogman had been with him until a moment before, he was sure, but there wasn’t any sign of him now. As for the others, there was no telling. Some leader, getting split up from his boys like that. He should’ve been trying to get back, but the Shanka were all around. He could feel them moving between the trees, his nose was full of the smell of them. Sounded as if there was some shouting somewhere on his left, fighting maybe. Logen crept slowly to his feet, trying to stay quiet. A twig snapped and he whipped round.
There was a spear coming at him. A cruel-looking spear, coming at him fast with a Shanka on the other end of it.
What a way to kick off a story. I got sucked right into this. What is going to happen to this dude?
Good action verbs: Plunged, slipped, stumbled
Imagery: wet pine needles
What’s going on in the body: blood thumping, air rasping
Risk/loss: stumbling almost kills himself,
Uncertainty: doesn’t know where his friends are, doesn’t know where his enemies are
Every step of the way is in very close POV. Things happen as a person would see them unfold.
I wonder if Abercrombie spent hours coming up with that one, had to revise it twenty times, or if it just fell out of his fingers into the keyboard.
Especially with Logen, all the action scenes painted him kind of a clumsy old washout who really wouldn’t survive without a lot of help or the similar ineptitude of his fellow men. This makes him feel more human by our standards, and helps us relate to him. But we also wonder how the hell he got his badass reputation. All the characters, too, when put in tight situations were very worried and not sure of what to do next. This is very human and relatable. No one knows the future or can be 100% sure of the result of their actions. Surprise is a frequent result of the action=reaction equation, at least for this girl.
So that was the beginning. Let’s quickly look at a fencing match in the middle.
They closed quickly this time, and exchanged a cut or two.
Jezal could hardly believe how slowly his opponent was moving, it was as if his swords weighed a ton each. Broya fished around in the air with his long steel, trying to use his reach to pin Jezal down. He had barely used his short steel yet, let alone coordinated the two. Worse still, he was starting to look out of breath, and they’d barely been fencing two minutes.
Hmm ok, not too much action in this one at first glance…but it creates a sense of suspense, and we know that it is fencing, so that’s action right? I think that’s another of his tricks. He gets so down to the detail, using them to make readers see the concerns and holding off on the actual action, which is what makes the story move forward (ya know, people actually doing things). I also really like the description “fished around in the air with his long steel.” It’s a good action verb and imagery all in one.
And bear with me. One more action scene from the end. And this one really kicks ass! (spoiler haters be warned)
The talk was done. Stone-Splitter came at him with axe in one hand and mace in the other, great heavy weapons, though he used them quick enough. The mace swung across, smashed a great hole through the glass in one of the windows. The axe came down, split one timber of the table in half, made the plates jump in the air, the candlesticks topple. The Bloody-Nine twitched away, frog hopping, waiting for his time.
The mace missed his shoulder by an inch as he rolled across the table, cracked one of the big flat stones on the floor, split it down the middle, chips flying through the air. Stone-Splitter roared, swinging his weapons, smashing a chair in half, knocking a chunk of stone out of the fireplace, chopping a great gash in the wall. His axe stuck fast in the wood for a moment and the Bloody-Nine’s sword flashed over, broke the haft into splintered halves, leaving the Stone-Splitter with a broken stick in his paw. He flung it away and hefted the mace, came on even harder, swinging it round with furious bellows.
The biggest thing here? SHOWING. The strength of the enemy-risk. The effects of weapons on things other than people-risk and tension. Weapons breaking, building destruction-this is intense! “a broken stick in his paw,” the imagery again. Step by step unfolding of the mortal dance.
However, here, as it is the end of the book, it is less holding back and examining the details and more the full tilt ahead desperation of the time to win or die. It is just as rough and intense if not more so than at the beginning. Abercrombie’s energy does not flag. I think he wrote this entire book just so he could write this fight scene (I did not include all of it, and it does get better).
Aside from the action, I did learn a couple more things from this book. The way he handled his six main POVs (heh, you think this is an epic fantasy?) is rather interesting. All but one of them were usually in the same place at the same time. They were all overlapping witnesses to the same events, sometimes simultaneously, or from different times with different insights. It allows build up of tension and suspense as well as a sense of intrigue and gives the story a feel of space in a small setting. I like this, but haven’t seen it a lot in my reading and wish I could see it more than the usual display of all the different POV characters in a different part of the world as the story goes.
And then, there was always that POV thread out in the world letting us know what was on the horizon for the main clutch of characters.
This book is representative of a new voice who doesn’t follow all the rules, but at the same time you can tell this was his first work, or an early work, as it has an “unpolished” feel along with, or maybe because of, the newness. (But who am I to say anything about this?) It also works for the book’s noir, gritty feel.
I noticed a problem with hissing speakers. This word showed up numerous times as a speech tag, and not when any words ended in “s.”
There were a lot of exclamation points, but for some reason they didn’t bother me. Point for Abercrombie there.
The enemy-out-of-sight, the Shanka, are never really described very well, other than having the nickname “flatheads.” And as Abercrombie obviously has good imagery skills, I don’t know why he didn’t do this.
There was also a major reveal about a main character in the last twenty-or-so pages (totally done on purpose and I’m not sure I like it-maybe it just needed to be done more artfully) and the whole book was a set up for…the next one. Usually in epic fantasy, the first book in a trilogy resolves at least one semi-major plot arc. Nope, not here…“sorry, go buy the next book…” Good thing Borders is in its last weeks. Organization like this may be what makes me feel that this book is unpolished, or written by an inexperienced writer.
But in the end, the story is there and I cared about the characters, and of course, the action is full tilt all the way through.
Now how about you go and see if what I discovered above helps you improve your action scenes. I know it’s going to help mine.
Scribings is now available!
Submissions out (Sheesh… I don’t even know what those are anymore!)