I love a good action thriller, by which I mean the kind of book you hold white-knuckled, promising yourself at 2am that you’re really, seriously going to put it down after this chapter, just as soon as the character’s out of mortal peril, only to find at 4am that you’re 80% of the way through so you might as well finish it, and then at 6am emerge from the final chapter in an oh-look-its-morning-how-did-that-happen daze. I know it’s a good book when my book hangover feels like a real actual hangover.
Crafting action which keeps tired eyelids prised open is a skill. But what exactly makes it work? And how do you learn how to do it?
Luckily, I had the opportunity to chat to author Tash McAdam. I persuaded Tash to share some tips and tricks for crafting the action in your story.
Alex: Hi Tash, thanks for submitting to being grilled here on my blog. So, let’s get onto the questions. Your stories are non-stop action thrillers. What do you aim to deliver to the reader with this sort of story?
Tash: As a reader, I’ve never had much patience for slow pacing. I hate getting bogged down by huge reams of description and world building. I like a quick start to the book—one that plunges me head first into events—so I’ve always been a huge fan of working the world building into the action bit by bit. That is what I aim for in my own books—fast pacing and edge-of-your-seat tension with things revealed as and when you need to know them. Lots of action within the world and character building done inside the action itself. Although my editor will tell you I often fall into the trap of ignoring world or character description in favour of flat-out action, and that’s something we work on together.
Alex: People sometimes think of action and drama as separate types of writing, and I think this might be because sometimes we see movies with random action sequences inserted between the dramatic plot points. But what a thriller is supposed to do, and what your story Blood in the Water does well, is convey the drama through the action. Can you talk about how you devise a story that does this? What films/books/authors do you look to as examples of telling a story through action?
Tash: In films, you can’t hear people’s thoughts—no internal monolog, except for specific examples. So there’s no simple way to expose those behind-the-scene processes. Screenwriters are dependent on physical action.
One of the best things about writing novels is that all the action comes through the lens of your protagonist, especially in first person, so we get that internal monolog, and interpretation of events. The reader gets a constant stream of great insights into what is happening. So while you have the action going on, you also get to hear the character’s thoughts, which bring out the emotion and drama. It’s something that movie-goers miss out on.
Personally, I tend to draft out my story without much character voice and then go back and really put myself into the shoes of the main character. I like to have them question events and try to figure out what’s happening. And then my editor tells me: ‘More emotion! What is he thinking? Why did she do this?’ and I add those things in as well. I think the way I write allows me to smatter the character voice into the events as they progress, rather than sort of taking a ‘break’ from the action for a huge character thought-reveal every few pages.
As for films and books that tell stories through action? I’m a huge fan of Brent Weeks (http://www.brentweeks.com), who definitely goes for character-driven action, always telling you just enough to make sense of things without dragging you out of the moment. You should definitely check his work out if you like fantasy.
I’m not a huge movie person, but I can think of lots of TV shows that walk the line very well, but I watch too much TV, so I’m moving on now in case this turns into a list of my favourite shows!
Alex: How do you go about working out the logistics of a fight scene? For example, do you do research? Do you have training? Do you map it out or act it out or does it just unfold naturally?
Tash: Fight scenes are tricky! I have a lot of training, which helps. I started doing karate when I was a little kid, and I have a couple of black belts to my name in that. I’m also an adequate boxer, archer, and sword fighter, and have dabbled with a variety of other hand-to-hand disciplines. My accident-prone nature is also an asset when it comes to writing injuries from combat.
On top of that, I’m lucky enough to have a girlfriend who doesn’t mind getting up and acting out scenes with me when I get stuck, which is very useful! I do sometimes wonder what our neighbours think, though. ‘Here, now, take this and hit me in the throat, and then I’m going to body slam you into the bed. Alright, how did that feel?’
Some scenes are more difficult than others, and I had to get more into physics than I thought I would for writing telekinetic fight scenes, because keeping everything consistent is really important to me. I have nerdy friends who I have check particular things, and my sister is a doctor, which is pretty much the most useful thing possible.
Alex: The story is narrated by Hallie, who is not herself a fighter. Why did you choose her as the POV character for the action, as opposed to one of the more experienced fighters or multiple POVs? What challenges did this present?
Tash: There are millions of books with main characters who are fighters or wizards, and weavers are the stand-out skill set in this series, which makes it a bit different. I also have a tendency to get far too detailed in fight scenes, and I think if I wrote from a warrior’s perspective I would get bogged down in logistics. Readers are more likely to understand the roles of a warrior and a warlock, as they are essentially familiar. I want to tread some new ground.
Blood in the Water is a prequel to my series, Warp Weavers, and the main character of the series is a weaver, not a warrior. Weavers are also the most magically complex within the mythology I’ve created, so having characters narrate the story from that background makes it more accessible, I think. Warp Weavers is a really layered universe, with a lot more going on than initially meets the eye, and later in the series it pays off to have a weaver in the driver’s seat.
Alex: One thing I love about your story is how your characters react like real, contemporary people to all the bizarre stuff going on around them, and have an awareness of pop culture. Your character’s on the way to likely death and says, “Sorry, I react to abject terror with inappropriate nudity and jokes. It’s something I’m working on with my therapist.” It reminds me of a lot of Joss Whedon’s stuff. Firstly, are you a Buffy fan? And secondly, how do you coordinate Hallie’s smart-arse dialogue with the action so it doesn’t undermine the urgency/seriousness of the situation?
Tash: Huge, huge Buffy fan. Anything by Joss Whedon, really. Buffy was a major influence on this series, as, although I—love—the show, I often got irritated with the logistical fallacies. What if there was an apocalypse in Japan? How would she get there? To me it’s unrealistic that one girl could ever be in the right place at the right time, every time. Warp Weavers actually sprang to life, fully formed almost, from a single thought about Buffy. ‘What if the Watcher’s Council actually trained wiccas to work with the Slayer, and gave them a team instead of isolating them?’ I started thinking of a place that would train them, teach them to work together and give them the tools they need instead of hoping they figure it out as they go. And thus, the Protectorate, where the teens train, was born.
Beyond that, I love quick dialogue and banter, and Hallie is the first character I’ve written that I’ve really tried that with, so I’m glad it worked for you! My editor is a huge help in cutting out parts that destroy the tension, and suggesting tweaks of emotion to really add impact to the snark.
Alex: You write with a lot of strong verbs. For example, even before the fighting starts you don’t just write that your characters got into a car, you write: The other van door shuts, the engine revs, and I’m shoved into the person next to me with the force of acceleration as we peel out of the garage. Is this something you have learned to do, or something you focus on in the editorial process?
Tash: Ooh, I am so flattered! I think that if the writer is putting in the mundane and obvious, they should do it in a way that keeps the pace up and doesn’t trip readers back into reality. Looking at that sentence you’ve quoted, now I wish it says ‘The other van door slams’ instead of ‘shuts.’ To answer your question, this is both something I do naturally and something I’m learning to do better. I’m an English teacher, and a lot of my students have questions about verbs and adverbs in their creative efforts. There’s been a lot of backlash against adverbs in fiction, and how it weakens writing, etc., but I have mixed feelings. I always tell the students the same thing: If you can replace a verb + adverb with a stronger verb, do it. If you can’t, don’t. But if the adverb doesn’t really change the sentence, leave it out. ‘Says loudly’ becomes ‘shouts’ or ‘yells,’ and ‘walks quietly’ becomes ‘sneaks’ or ‘creeps’.
When I’ve finished drafting, I go back through my work and try to raise the bar for the verbs I use, because that adds tension and variety to the writing, but I lean toward the hyperbolic and dramatic in everyday life, so I definitely land on strong verbs just by my nature.
Alex: Can you talk to us about some of the other choices you make to help bring the reader into the experience of the action? (eg. in terms of word choice, sentence rhythm, tense, use of particular sentences, close POV etc)
When I was a teenager, I was part of an online RPG called Steelsings (Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series, if anyone cares), and we wrote in third-person present. As a promising young writer, I was trained up by scary mentors with high standards, so that’s what I default to. If you go back to my earliest fiction efforts as a child, I wrote in third-person past, because that was ‘normal.’ But from the age of fifteen on, everything is in third-person present. After SLAM was criticized for my tense choices, I changed the entire first novel of Warp Weavers to first-person present, because we decided that it would be easier on the readers. Present tense is definitely enjoying a spate of popularity, too, but they are all in first person. There are a few successful books in third-person present and maybe one day I’ll be able to go back to it, but as a newbie author I don’t want to put people off.
I think my love of the English language helps me out with word choice, as I don’t like repeating words at all, and have the vocabulary to back that up, most of the time. (Although I do find myself particularly enjoying a word and using it over and over again. Like ‘edifice’ was my favourite in SLAM. I had to ctrl+f for that at the end of every chapter!)
For format, my editor calls me out if I repeat the same sentence rhythm, so that’s more her than me. But when it comes to particular sentences, we do disagree a little. I have a tendency to go into a sort of stream-of-consciousness state when my characters are under high pressure, and she always points it out. We’ve butted heads over some of my favourite sentences in the books, but I respect her opinion a lot and we tend to compromise pretty easily. Interestingly enough, a sentence she wasn’t convinced about that I fought for has been pointed out as a favourite by four separate readers, and as a problem by three, so I guess it’s a case of to each their own. If I ever get famous I will be very interested to see what quotes people pick out of my books, for sure!
Alex: I think you might find out soon enough! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I really appreciate it.
Tash: You’ve asked some great questions, some of which made me think about my own writing in a way I never have before.
Alex: Excellent. Good luck with the writing!
If you want to check out Tash’s writing, there are two YA novellas, both of which I can highly recommend: SLAM and Blood in the Water . Tash’s first full-length novel, Maelstrom, will be released by Glass House Press in February 2016. You can visit her website at http://www.tashmcadam.com.
Image of Hallie by Mathias Rosenthal at Shutterstock and Tash McAdam. All other images provided by Tash Mcadam.