“They never would have given up so easily…”
I frequently discuss action sequences on this blog, both because I enjoy thinking about them and because they’re a place in which all the familiar challenges of good writing rise to an unusual pitch of intensity. This might not seem like the case, when we look at how most action scenes in movies are made: many are all but outsourced to the stunt team and second unit crew, and your typical screenplay will often just state that a fight or a car chase ensues without attempting to block out the individual beats. Yet this is almost always a mistake. As I’ve noted here before, my favorite action scenes of recent years—notably the ones in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, The International, and Drive—all have one thing in common: they seem to have been worked out in detail on the page. An action sequence isn’t a good place for the screenwriter to abdicate responsibility; if anything, it’s the opposite. When I talk about the importance of structuring a plot as a series of clear objectives, the primary reason is to keep the reader or viewer oriented while we focus on the dialogue and the characters and the atmosphere and everything else that made us want to write the story in the first place. A sequence of objectives is the backbone that, paradoxically, gives the writer the freedom to indulge himself. And if that’s true of writing in general, it especially applies to action, in which narrative clarity is all too vulnerable to being swallowed up by sound and fury.
In fact, when we talk about great action scenes, we’re usually talking about the clarity of their writing, often without even knowing it. By now, it’s a critical cliché to complain about the visual grammar of modern action movies, in which an otherwise straightforward sequence is cut into countless tiny pieces of film shot using a shaky camera. (The classic example has quickly become the moment in Taken 3 that uses fifteen cuts to show Liam Neeson jumping over a fence.) In almost the same breath, we usually add that one of the few directors who can do it properly is Paul Greengrass, and that his use of the technique in the Bourne movies has inspired countless imitators to do the same thing less well. This is true enough—but it misses the real point, which is that these scenes work mostly because we know what Bourne is doing and why. This isn’t to understate the sheer technical facility required to take all those brief flashes of the action and assemble them into something coherent in the editing room. But it’s the script, which lays out the situation and the big blocks of the scene in a logical sequence of decisions, that allows for so much visual chaos and excitement. If anything, the editing style obscures the clean lines of the story, which are more obvious in a scene like the lovely opera house set piece in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, a gorgeous example of an action sequence that unfolds almost novelistically in its series of logical complications.
I can’t help but think of this when I go back to look at Chapter 52 of Eternal Empire, which is one of the few sequences anywhere in my work that I can enjoy without reliving the act of writing it. In part, this is because it’s been long enough since I wrote it that the details have started to blur—although I do remember being nervous about it. I knew from the start that this would be the action centerpiece of the entire novel, if not the whole trilogy, that it would have to cover a lot of plot points in a limited space, and that it hinged on the accurate depiction of a complicated event, in this case an attack on a megayacht by a drone. (I faced a similar challenge in City of Exiles, when it came to describing the sabotage of a private plane and its subsequent crash.) As usual, I started by gathering up all the information I could find on the subject, with the assumption that I could structure the ensuing scene around whatever facts I had available. In the end, many of the beats and much of the language in this chapter came from a little book I found called Megayacht: True Stories of Adventure, Drama, and Tragedy at Sea. None of the incidents it described exactly matched the situation I was writing, but I was able to cobble together enough in the way of persuasive color to construct what I thought would be a convincing naval disaster. And one story in particular caught my eye: the account of a yacht caught in a storm that had to push the helicopter off its upper deck to avoid being tangled up in the wreckage.
When I first read it, I made a note of that idea for a number of reasons. First, it was an exciting sequence, and the book told it with enough circumstantial detail that I knew I could put a version of it into my novel without having to invent too much else. (The rest was filled in with manuals and technical specifications, and I learned more than I ever wanted about tiedown straps and lashing points.) Second, it gave me a few nice images, my favorite of which is the sight of the helicopter sinking into the water, its navigational lights all going up at once as the circuits shorted out, so that it glowed like a ghost in the sea—an image taken directly from the account in Megayacht. Third, and most important, it gave me a sequence of objectives around which I could build the rest of the chapter. What matters, after all, isn’t the helicopter, but what Ilya is thinking and feeling at the time, and by giving him a concrete task to accomplish, I established a clear direction for a chapter that might otherwise have degenerated into a mishmash of furious action. The attempt to push off the helicopter goes badly, of course, and in my original outline, I had Laszlo, the bosun, simply caught in the wreck as it fell overboard. That didn’t seem all that satisfying, especially since it depended on a moment of uncharacteristic incompetence, and as I was working on the chapter, it occurred to me that the drone should turn back and smash itself like a kamikaze into the yacht. That’s what finally happens, and I still love it. But it wouldn’t have occurred to me at all if I hadn’t put together the other pieces first…