So yesterday, we went through a high action scene, working through the details that went beyond structure to words and cadence. “But, Susie, I don’t write a thriller!” you say.
Not a problem. You can still write a riveting scene using the basic princicples I laid out yesterday….
First, we: Start with Setting and the Current State of Affairs
Then we establish the Goals of the scene
And we won’t forget to fortify the Motivations of your characters action/decisions
Finally we can write the Action of the scene.
And we’re going to pay special mind to the sentence structure and words we use to create mood.
This excerpt is from Finding Stefanie – it’s a subplot character named Gideon who wakes up in Stefanie’s house after a horrible event. He’s 18, and on the run with his two kid sisters.
He’d died and gone to paradise. Only, Gideon knew he didn’t deserve paradise, so perhaps this was simply a dream. Or maybe just an old west movie, because everything about this place screamed cowboys and horses and an episode of one of those ancient Lone Ranger shows. From the warm, dry single bed, with the wool red and black checkered blanket, to the bull riding posters on the walls, the trophies lining the dresser, a coiled rope hung on the bedpost of the other single bed, to more trophies on the opposite dresser. Whoever had lived here had overachiever written all over them. Still, Gideon lay in the bed rested for the first time in – he did the mental math and couldn’t remember the last time he hadn’t slept with one eye open, waiting for the nightmares, both real and imagined.
[I set the scene, and used it to also compare and contrast how Gideon feels about himself]
No nightmares last night. Except, of course, the big one – the fact he’d burned down the house of mega-rich, mega-star Lincoln Cash. Yes, that should make the news and send the cops running in his direction. Apparently, he still had the knack of knowing how to really blow it, and big. Gideon’s eyes had nearly fallen from his sockets when he’d seen the movie star walk up – in fact, he would have considered brain-altering smoke inhalation before he believed that Lincoln Cash owned the house he’d commandeered, and by accessory, incinerated. But Stefanie Noble – she introduced herself and her big brother Nick, the guy who had probably saved his life, when they reached their ranch – had no problem identifying the actor.
[State of Current Affairs]
He wasn’t sure what he’d done to deserve Stefanie Noble’s loaded shotgun defense – he’d expected to be led off in handcuffs, right back to juvie hall. He made a mental note never to cross Stefanie Nobel.
Although it felt good, way too good, to have someone on his side.
[Motivation to trust her, alittle]
Especially when she offered him a place to stay, as much as he hated to say yes. But Haley and Macy needed some place warm. One night, he’d told himself. One safe, quiet, night. And tomorrow he’d hike back to the ranch, fetch the Impala, pile his sisters inside and head…somewhere.
[Goals – he wants to make sure everyone is okay, and then keep moving with his sisters. The last thing he wants is to get caught and have them go back to foster care.]
(note: I deleted a bit of backstory here that also went to motivation)
He sat up, hung his head in his hands. Laughter – was that Haley? — drifted from the kitchen.
He stood, grabbed his jeans and shucked them on. Then he crept toward the door. The aroma of breakfast – eggs and sausage? roped him in and he grabbed his shirt and edged out, into the hall.
[Okay, now we’re moving into the ACTION of the scene]
“I put a pair of Rafe’s old jeans and a shirt in the bathroom. You can take a shower and help yourself, if you want.” The voice came from behind him, and he turned, saw the woman he’d hit last night – Stefanie? – pulling a towel from the closet. She handed it to him and he saw her jaw had begun to purple.
“I’m really sorry about that.” He nodded to the bruise on her jaw.
“Don’t worry about it. Get cleaned up – breakfast is almost ready.”
She had pretty eyes – dark, yet they bore a kindness that made him duck his head. She didn’t look that much older than himself – with her long dark hair she’d plaited into two braids, and the pink tee-shirt under a brown corduroy shirt, her low-rider jeans. Yet, something about her made her seem…wise, maybe. He took the towel. “Thanks. We’ll be out of your way in a—”
“Uh, no, I don’t think so.”
[So, I start into the scene in a normal pace, interjecting some thoughts (-Stefanie? – ) but then we have our first conflict. She’s not going to let him go so easily. But remember, he wants to trust her…so this is good inner dissonance…she’s nice, but he doesn’t want to get caught]
He looked up at her. Her smile had vanished, and for a second, he saw the scene last night, and the way she’d dismantled Lincoln Cash with her bare hands. He stepped back, toward the bathroom, and refuge.
[He isn’t sure what power she has…note some of the words – dismantled, refuge…he’s nervous].
“Unless I’m reading the situation wrong, you have little money, an old car, no place to stay and two sisters to care for. You’re either runaways, or homeless, and my guess is that if you leave, you’ll simply drive until you find another vacant house, squat there for a while until some other disaster happens.”
“We’d make do.”
“Oh yeah, eating out of garbage cans, stealing. Sleeping in the car. How long before something happens to Macy, or Haley while you’re out ‘making do?’ And what, exactly, will you have to do to “make do,” Gideon? Because, you’re not in jail now, but from my vantage point, you might as well start forwarding your mail.”
[She dives right in with the attack, and I put it in language that would bowl him over, as well as long passages of speech that seem to go on and on, like a barrage. ]
He already knew she didn’t pull her punches, and he wondered now if he might be bleeding. “Hey, I have a job. And I’m taking care of them.”
She held up her hand. He noticed the calluses. “Hold up. I’m not saying you aren’t trying. But is it the best life for them?”
He clenched his teeth, looked away. “Just, stay out of it.” What did she know? “I should have never come here.”
Stefanie stepped to block his entrance into the bathroom. “You absolutely should have.”
[Shorter dialogue pieces can give the feeling of either fast snappy talk, or profound statements. Don’t bury the important stuff in lots of dialogue – set it apart]
By the tilted head, the way she folded her arms over her chest, she didn’t look easily moved. Great. Only, for a second, relief streaked through him.
Which was why his, “What do you want from me?” came out less caustic than it could have.
Her eyes gentled. He felt like a piece of cellophane. If he didn’t watch it, he’d start babbling again. He looked away.
“Okay, the truth is, I want to help.” She lifted a shoulder, looked down at her stocking feet, then back to up, wearing a smile. “I know this is going to sound strange, but in a way, I think you’re sort of an answer to prayer. I’d like to help you, and your sisters, if you’d let me.”
Why would—oh, of course.
[This is a good way to show realization – cut off the sentence, and then have him figure it out mid-thought. The key is to SHOW the thought process by the way you arrange the words on the page].
Haley. Everyone loved Haley, with her big innocent eyes. In fact, it had been social services’ decision to list Haley for adoption that prompted Macey’s panic, and their subsequent escape from the foster shelter.
This woman wanted Haley. She’d probably give Gideon and Macey a full tank of gas and a bag lunch if they’d agree to leave Haley behind.
Sorry, but he hadn’t boosted a car and committed a couple misdemeanors for this know-it-all woman to swoop in and steal his sister.
[Note how here, he immediately reverts back into teenage street language, and from here on out, he’s the tough guy. The shift in how they view people, how they refer to things in their thoughts is a great way to convey body language, tone and demeanor].
“I don’t need your charity,” he snapped, and shoved the towel back at her. He brushed past her, thumping down the stairs, his chest tight. He stalked through a nice-looking family room, leather chairs, stone fireplace, lots of homey, sweet family pictures on the wall, and into the kitchen.
[Note the use of verbs here: snapped, shoved, brushed, thumping, tight, stalked… and it’s juxtaposed with homey, sweet…everything he doesn’t have].
Haley sat at a wooden table, clutching that stupid, grimy stuffed cat with one arm, scooping cereal into her mouth. Macey sat beside her, eating an apple. Although Haley wore a clean shirt over her grubby pants, Macey still wore her same filthy black I-hate-the-world uniform, the sleeves pulled down over her hands, her thumbs sticking out of a hole she’d made in the cuffs. She looked up at Gideon, but didn’t smile.
The pregnant woman he’d seen last night stood at the stove, scrambling eggs. She glanced at him. “Morning.”
He gave her a look, then went over to Haley, lifted her from the chair. “We’re leaving, Mace. Now.”
[Note his use of his nickname for her, establishing his territory, reminding everyone that he is their protector.]
He saw her jaw tighten, but for once she didn’t argue. Just stood up, and grabbed another apple, stuck it in her pocket.
“Gideon!” He heard Stefanie’s voice, but he didn’t turn, even with Haley’s hand limp in his.
“Thanks for the hospitality,” he said, not nicely.
“At least eat something.”
For a second, a crazy impulse inside screamed stay! Stay here and see what this woman, this family had to offer. He looked down at Haley, and her eyes had widened, her face pale.
Stay…so they could call social services, maybe even the cops and have him hauled away, back to prison. Only, this time he’d go to adult lock up.
Even he couldn’t deny the fear that snaked through him.
“C’mon Haley,” he said, tugging her.
Stupid. The word pulsed in his mind as he opened the door, walked out into the brisk air. He kept a grip on Haley he thumped down the steps.
[When you have a moment of hesitation, as if something is pulling your character back, write it like that. Stay. Stay here…. Etc.]
The sky seemed to have collected the smoke from the night before, gunmetal gray in tone, it mirrored the misery that Macey and Haley wore on their faces. The wind skimmed up dirt, spit it at him as he walked past corrals of horses, the cherry red truck from last night, miles and miles of pasture land. Off in the distance, he could hear cows mooing.
[I wanted him to get a good glimpse of what he was giving up, while still reflecting his attitude. Gunmetal gray, smoke, dirt skimmed up, spitting at him….juxtaposed with a cherry red truck and miles of pasture, contented cows. Scenery is a good way to mirror, reveal mood].
[We don’t even have to know who says this to feel the jerk, the pull of desperation in her voice].
He didn’t turn at the voice, refusing to even let it slow his step.
“Where are we going, Gideon?” Macey said softly.
He didn’t answer.
So, no jumping off boats, or beating up bad guys. But plenty of conflict (Remember: conflict in every scene!) and most of all sentences and words that convey mood and help the reader sense Gideon’s emotional tug of war.
We’re almost at the end of our character’s journey! Next week we’ll be talking about the final leg of the journey, and how to wrap up your story! Have a great weekend!