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10/09/2006: A Flurry of Nouns and Verbs
I got a lovely letter recently from Karen in Virgina, asking about writing action sequences. She asks me to compare writing action for Buffy versus for Battlestar Galatica and if I "...have any tricks-of-the-trade for mapping an action scene?"
Ooh, thanks, Karen. This is an interesting area. When I started at Buffy, I was totally stumped by the action sequences. My favorite fall-back phrase was "Buffy responds with a flurry of kicks and punches." I had the right instinct, to use figurative language ("flurry") when I needed to convey the general effect I wanted, but I didn't have anything specific in mind to back it up.
I quickly realized that I needed to come up with more than that. I don't think I ever brought the imagination to these sequences that some of the other writers did -- Doug Petrie, in particular, lived for this stuff. But I did get better at, for example, thinking about the props that a given set might furnish that could be used in a fight. Remember in "A New Man"? Buffy fights Monster Giles in a hotel room, using the little folding luggage stand.
And I got to where, instead of freezing up and trying to bluff my way through an action sequence, I would instead lie down and close my eyes and seriously try to visualize it. And I'd go and look at the set if it existed. (A wonderful option that eludes spec writers unless you're good at sneaking onto studio lots, which I cannot recommend.) But I still found it helpful to sometimes make the descriptions more evocative than literal. This is from my second draft for "Harsh Light of Day," when Buffy is fighting Spike:
Buffy slams him, a powerhouse punch. He's back up like one of those pop-up clowns...
Later on, as the scene continues, the action gets more precise. I'm eliding the dialogue here, for the sake of space:
Buffy deflects the pipe again, the impact jarring.
She throws a kick, he rejects it with the pipe.
The pipe swings down again, connecting with her arm.
He's bringing the pipe up for another blow.
He just went a bridge too far. When he swings again, she ducks it and comes up under him, throwing him down on his back. The pipe goes flying, hitting [unconscious] Xander again, who moans. Buffy jumps and lands on Spike, pinning his arms down with her knees, pressing his head into the ground with one hand, twisting his neck. He bucks, but she's pulling at the ring.
Audibly breaking a finger in the process, she gets the ring. Spike ROARS in pain and bucks again, in panic, knocking her off. He scrambles up and away, starting to SMOKE and SIZZLE in the sunlight. He drops into an open manhole and is gone. Buffy sinks to the ground, exhausted. But she holds the ring.
You see I'm still relying a lot on the stunt team to come up with glitzier moves than my description really provides, but there are a few nice touches, like the pipe hitting Xander, and the audible finger break. I was getting better at it, anyway.
And I had picked up a few tricks of the trade beyond just searching for usable props: Get your hero in a very bad, almost defeated position right before they rally. And wrap up the action quickly after it's clear who has won. (No need to kick Spike's butt all the way home, for example. Just down the manhole and he's gone.)
Next time: I'll continue, with tales of action on Battlestar and... Andy Richter Engages in Fisticuffs!
Lunch: Something called "fig cake with chocolate" from that same import grocery where I got yesterday's sandwich. Compressed fig with teensy little chocolate chips. Teensy chocolate chips should totally be a Newton option.