Ian T. Healy, the most prolific writer I’ve ever met (internet “met,” that is), is the creator of the Adventures of the S-Team web comic, regular NaNoWriMo participant (and winner), and now the head of a workshop (which he imagined and then created) on writing successful action scenes. The workshop is scheduled to hold its first meeting in January of 2011 in Denver, Colorado. In the meantime, he’s accepting action scenes for critique.
I’ve known (internet “known”) Ian for a couple of years now, and my opinion of him is that he’s very nice.
Kristen: I can only assume, then, based on what I know of you, that you’ll also be a patient workshop instructor…?
Ian T. Healy: I think I’ll be a good workshop conductor. I’m animated in my presentation, bring a good amount of humor and earthiness to a discussion, know my material, and am a parent of three pre-teen children, so I know patience. 🙂
I know you’re always writing–your ability to find time to write no matter what has always managed to both impress me and make me disgusted with myself for my own lack of motivation–but what’s your writing background?
For years it was a picture of the planet Mars. More recently it’s been a picture of a steampunk-style workshop. Oh, wait, you mean my background in writing? I don’t really have one. I don’t have any real formal training. I grew up doodling out stories and even convinced a couple of teachers in high school to let me write papers in fictional format (for which I earned good grades, even!). A lot of my background comes from growing up playing Role-Playing Games – even into adulthood – where I really cemented my plotting skills.
What was the first book you wrote, how long ago was it, and how many have you written since then?
The very first “book” I wrote was a thumbprint comic book using a red inkpad on pieces of stapled-together 8 1/2×11 typing paper. It ws called “The Happy Days Gang Goes To The Disco” and I still have scans of it somewhere. I would have been about 6 years old. The first “novel” I wrote was back in junior high school, a horrid hackjob of an epic science fiction piece which has thankfully been lost to the ages (I suspect there may be a bootleg copy in my parents’ house somewhere). I’d say the first book of my modern writing career was a novel-length Star Wars fanfic I wrote in 2003. Since then I’ve completed ten other novels and have 3 (soon to be 4 with NaNoWriMo) active book projects going on right now.
How much of what you write contains action scenes?
Pretty much all of it with the exception of my current project Hope and Undead Elvis, which has been strangely devoid of action even fifty thousand words in.
What is it that attracts you to action ?
For me, a well-crafted action scene is lots of fun, like seeing a movie in your mind as you read. I love the sense of motion, clever stunts, witty repartee. I’m very much a GUY kind of guy in that respect.
The first one I clearly remember was in the junior high school novel. It was a car chase. My English teacher, whom I’d showed it to, commented on how well-crafted the action was (compared to, say, the plot). It really was a cut above the other stuff I was writing, and to this day I keep writing action because I’m pretty darn good at it.
Something must have prompted you to hold an action scene writing workshop. Have you read some pretty bad action scenes?
Oh my, yes. I’ve read some pretty bad ones in published books. I’ve seen workshops on developing characters, plotting, outlining, scene-crafting, conflict, etc. I’ve never seen anyone who’s teaching writers how to write action scenes, and it shows in their work. It’s hard to produce quality action on the page when you’ve got no basis for how to do it and your only references are some of the mediocre, disjointed scenes you’ve read by published writers. I’ve beta-read for fellow writers who have brilliant plots, outstanding characters and conflicts, but who fall flat when they write an action scene because they simply have no idea how to execute it. Numerous writer friends have come to me seeking help with their own action scenes, and it occurred to me that there’s a need I can fulfill with a wider group than just my closest writing buddies. It’s been an interesting job taking these scenes which I write naturally and really analyzing what I’m doing to make them work.
What do you hate to see most in an action scene, and do you have an example?
I have a laundry list of things I hate. Head-hopping (changing POV character mid-scene) is a biggie. So is interrupting a scene with a character’s self-absorbed pontificating. My biggest gripe, though, would have to be when an author sets everything up perfectly for an action scene, getting me very excited to read it, and then chickens out by taking the story on a different tangent to avoid having to write the sequence. I understand if the story you’re writing is about the character who stays home from a war, like you did in Pretty Much True.... But if you’re writing a story ABOUT the war itself, and you set everything up for the big main conflict between the heroes and the opponents, and then you write about watching the heroes go off to fight and then avoid writing about their heroic efforts, that sets my teeth on edge. I’m not going to name names, but there’s a well-known science fiction author guilty of this.
Is there one kind of action scene that’s significantly more difficult to write than another?
A large-scale battle is very tough, especially when the heroes are only one small part of it. Think of the way the final battle in Return of the King was filmed. Now think of how it was written. Does the written scene stick in your mind over the film? Because it doesn’t in mine. To keep your characters front and center when even bigger things are going on around them is tough. Your choices as a writer are to either pull the narrative way back to show everything that’s going on, which then minimizes the characters’ impact, or to pull in close to follow a character (or group) and then leave off some of the big important things going on elsewhere in the fight. I think it’s by far the hardest one to write.
What are the top three rules for writing an action scene?
Pacing, motion, continuity. Pacing is important because action scenes can’t be drawn-out, ponderous affairs; they have to pop off the page. Motion is important because all action is based upon the motion of characters through the world around them, and you have to convey that motion in your narrative. Continuity is important because the scene has to flow in a logical way from beginning to end. You don’t want to employ a scattershot, jump-cut scene technique where something happens over here, then something happens to this guy over here, but while that happened something else happened over here. That’s too hard to read and will turn off a reader.
Employing those rules, write an action scene in four sentences.
Detective Stein kicked open the apartment door. The suspect jumped up from his recliner, grabbed a shotgun from the end table, and fired both barrels at Stein. The detective ducked behind the jamb as pellets tore apart the masonry. He dropped prone, raised his gun, and put a bullet right between the suspect’s eyes.
Okay, then. Maybe that’s easy for you…
How can people get more information about your workshop?