How to Write Action SF

What’s the best way to kill an alien? Do you zap it with energy beams, blast it with bullets, burn it with a flame-thrower, drop an anti-matter bomb on it, or challenge it to a mano a alien duel?

Welcome to my world; these are the kind of difficult questions which occupy a large part of my professional life.

Shooting an alien with bullets can feel horribly old-fashioned, of course; so maybe what we need is a dual-use gun that fires a) exploding bullets and b) bursts of plasma energy.  Such a gun would be a fearsome and terrible thing, and it’s hard to imagine any organic creature being able to survive such an attack.

This means – BAD NEWS! START AGAIN! – that the alien we are fighting will be instantly and easily killed.  If there’s an entire army of aliens, each with twelve arms and three heads and brandishing swords, then a single human warrior can simply hose down the motherfrakkers with his dual-use gun and kill tens of thousands of aliens before any of them get near enough to lop his (or her) head off.

That, frankly, is a really bad action scene. It’s a massacre, a turkey-shoot; and hence, is no fun to read about.  Instead of enjoying the kick-ass action, the reader, confronted with his unfair massacre, is going to start thinking moral thoughts like: is it right to kill these poor aliens in the first place?

So the answer is – give the aliens body armour!  We fire plasma blasts at them, and alternate that with explosive bullets; but the plasma and the bullets bounce off  the aliens’ super-hard body armour and they keep on coming with their swords and, er, lop our hero’s head off.

Well that was crap too.  The novel is over, and the writer is consigned to the dustbin of history.

So the answer has to be: make the aliens and the humans fairly evenly matched in terms of weaponry and defensive capability. Maybe the aliens DON’T have body armour, but they have a special Thingummy that allows them to become invisible. So our plucky soldiers are fighting an enemy they can’t see. If they see it, they can kill it; but they can’t see the frakker! Now that works.

And that of course is pretty much the action-scenario of Predator. 

The Predator can camouflage itself so that our plucky soldiers can’t see it to kill it.  When they do see it, it’s too fast.  So as a result – the Predator can’t be defeated!

But that’s crap also, so

BEWARE MINOR PLOT SPOILER, BUT I REALLY DON’T THINK IT’LL HURT THAT MUCH

we contrive things so that Arnold Huge-Biceps Shwarzenegger discovers a way to camouflage HIMSELF, so the Predator can’t see HIM.  And that’s now an elegant piece of action-story plotting.  For it seemed as if the hero couldn’t win, he was up against unbeatable odds; but lo and behold, he now finds the one chink in the armour of his enemy that makes victory possible. 

It’s comparable to the case of the Greek hero Achilles, who was unkillable because he was dipped in a magical river Styx as a child; but his enemies learned that in order to be dipped, he had to be held by his heel, which hence was not invulnerable.  So his enemy Paris shot an arrow  into the back of Achilles’ foot, and killed him! Everyone, in other words, has an Achilles’ heel, especially Achilles.

And to find the enemy’s weak spot – well that takes brain work. For action scenes are of course not the same as scenes of violence.  Violence is just killing; action is killing + THINKING.  A dumb hero who kills is not a hero at all, he (or she) is just a murdering psychopath.

Action scenes are, I would argue, the core and staple of most modern SF writing.  That wasn’t always the case; I have plenty of books on my shelves that are cerebral SF explorations of ideas and themes.  But you would be hard pressed – I would tentatively suggest – to make a living as an SF novelist nowadays if all you do is write ‘novels of ideas’ in which clever concepts are unpicked.  Without kick-ass, books don’t sell; so even the cerebral writers do kick-ass.

Take Asimov’s Foundation trilogy; I loved it as a boy and as a young man, but when I re-read it, I was amazed at how little kick-ass action it contains.  Roland Emmerich is now doing a movie of it; and the first thing his talented screenwriters will do is add kick-ass – thus, obviously, defiling the very essence of the piece. Hollywood has already done that very thing with its adaptation of I, Robot.  Asimov fans will remember that the core premise of his robot books is the Law of Robotics that says a robot cannot harm a human being.

So guess what – these murdering frakking robots do NOTHING BUT harm or try to harm human beings.  They are psychopathic robots, which makes a mockery of Asimov. They are also ridiculously easy to kill – Will Smith knocks over dozens of the frakkers. Which is why this is a dull action movie.

In The Matrix, however, which is a GREAT action movie, Neo is given powers which make him more powerful than anyone else in the Matrix, ie the bad guys. So what do they do? They give Mr Smith CLONES, so that Neo has to fight an army. He goes from overdog to underdog in a single plot twist; and we CARE again. 

I love writing SF action scenes, and I take a lot of care to study other writers and how they achieve their effects.  Of course, there are no immutable rules about how to write Action SF, which makes a total nonsense of the title of this blog. So, ignoring that awkward fact, here are some rules – culled from experience and keeping my eyes open - of How To Write Action SF.

RULE 1:  ESTABLISH A PROTAGONIST WITH AN ATTITUDE.

Whoa! I hear you think – what’s this got to do with writing action? Action is all about kicking ass; ‘attitude’ is all about tone, and style, and character.  But it’s still my rule number 1.

Here are some examples of what I mean.

Wedged into the mirror’s frame was Axl’s driving licence which showed a round-faced European male with spiky, peroxide-blond hair…

Age 29, height 6′!”, weight 152 lb, name Axl Borja, status human. It lied about everything except his height, and that was only true if Axl wore Cuban heels….he was using another name these days too. Which one didn’t matter. He changed them as regularly as he swopped his dead-end jobs flipping hamburgers.

This is from Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Red Robe, which I revere as the book which rekindled my passion for science fiction; it’s the book that taught me that SF novels had become cool again.  And it’s a book with the wonderful log line:

Ex-assassin All Borja has secrets. The least of them is he’s just agreed to do one last hit. The only problem is, he hasn’t yet told his gun.

Wow! This is one book you just HAVE to read.

And that’s what I mean by ‘attitude’.  Action per se is, as I say, just violence;  but the EXPECTATION OF VIOLENCE FEATURING A COOL PROTAGONIST is, truly, action at its best.  So in the para above, Jon is preparing his ground; he tells us this guy looks cool, seems ordinary, but nurses a dark secret. We know bad stuff will happen to this guy; but we already suspect he will be more than a match for the bad guys. We EXPECT action, in other words; and that gets our adrenalin pumping and our synapses twitching (assuming that synapses do in fact twitch - but let’s not get TOO hung up on the science stuff just for now.)

Here’s another example of Attitude, from Richard Morgan’s Black Man:

He finally found Gray in a MarsPrep camp just over the Bolivian border and into Peru, hiding behind some cheap facial surgery and the name Rodriguez.

Here’s how it would be in a literary novel:  the protagonist would be introduced, he would have a backstory, and character flaws, and angst, and anxieties, and a family, and most of all (beware, screenwriting cliche ahead!) his ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ would be clearly identified.

Here’s what Morgan tells us about his protagonist:  He. 

Yup, that’s it. The one word, ‘He’. We don’t even know the guy’s name!  But we do know what he IS. He’s  a hunter; he’s smart; and he’s out to get this guy Gray.  And we know, by the end of the first sentence, that Shit Is Going To Ensue.

And so it does. Our protagonist – Carl Marsalis – comes off worst in an encounter with a knife, he is stabbed, but his enhanced conditioning kicks in, there’s a chase, a clumsy shoot-out – and Carl wins. He doesn’t win easily, things go wrong, but he copes, and he prevails, ruthlessly.  At every moment in this action set-piece there’s no guarantee that Carl will win – we don’t even know if we WANT him to! – but he does. 

And that’s great action.

Here’s the definition and embodiment of Attitude,  as embodied by the protagonist in an action story:

The clothes are cheap, he can’t afford a razor, the poncho is REALLY naff…but you know immediately that this guy is trouble.  He doesn’t seek it; he just IS it.  That’s Attitude.

Rule Number 2:  Suspension of Morality

Action is, first and foremost, about killing other sentient creatures. This is morally wrong.  If your boss is mean to you, you have no right to blow his brains out.  If you want a planet that’s occupied by another sentient species, you have no right to kill them all just so you can plant potatoes and palm trees and bask under an alien sun.

So for action to work, there has to be not just Suspension of Disbelief, there also has to be Suspension of Morality.  Thou Shalt Not Kill is a commandment that is of no use whatsoever to the writer of action.  Thou Shalt Kill, Plentifully and Bloodily and With Gratuitous Gore is the action writer’s only commandment.

So when is it justified to kill others?  Well in self-defence obviously.

And also when your enemy is UGLY: 

Or when your enemy resembles the kind of bug we hate to have in the bathroom:

 Or when your enemy looks like a vacuum cleaner:

Another time-hallowed option is to create an enemy which resembles that annoying Russian President, Leonid Brezhnev:

This brute is both a) Ugly and b) reminscent of the actual enemy of Americans during the Cold War years when this show (NO points for guessing the name of the show) was made. 

The trick of course is to contrive an enemy who we, the reader, fear and hate; and that way we won’t quibble about seeing hundreds of the frakkers slain by our protagonists.

But often, of course, war is wrong; wars are fought for stupid reasons, or the wrong reasons, and a decent liberal humane person has to accept that it’s better to wage peace, not war. 

This admirable sentiment is fatal for the writer of Action SF; the war has to be vicious, and full of horror, and the violence has to escalate! More ass has to be kicked! (Which, you know, is kind of awful really; but as least we’re not as morally murky as those evil bastards who write horror.)

However, a number of writers do play complex games with our morality in teling their stories.  Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War for instance is a masterpiece of Action SF which (SPOILER AHEAD, BUT I’LL TRY AND BE VAGUE) has an ending that is morally complex and challenging to our whole understanding of what has gone before.

Sometimes, in other words, it turns out that our hero is WRONG too kill these bad guys; and that can be a powerful twist.

But, moment by moment, scene by scene, we have to root for the protagonist who is killing other people.  Even if we end up wondering if he’s morally wrong – like Carl Marsalis, a hired killer – we have to want him to win during the actual action scene/sequence.  Or the life goes out of the action;  and the reader starts to doubt the validity of his or own pleasure. And that’s when books get thrown in the bin which (let me be clear) is what we DO NOT WANT.

So, NEVER LET SUCH MORAL MURKINESS IN BEFORE THE ACTION IS MOSTLY OVER. Until that moment when you bare your liberal conscience, make the enemy ugly, inhuman, ruthless, utterly evil, and hence easy to hate…even if you reverse our perceptions and moral assumptions at a later stage.

3) Justify your visuals

Every job has its occupational hazards.  Firefighters walk into burning buildings; paramedics often have to deal with violent drunks; soldiers get shot and bombed. And writers of action science fiction novels have to wrestle with the vexed question of defining the POV of their storytelling.

Jeez, those other guys have it SO easy.

The question of defining POV is different in the movies, where you have a handy thing known as ‘ubiquitous POV’.  (For instance, in the movie 2012, you have all those shots of buildings falling into the sea etc, even though none of our regular characters bear witness to this.)  Most action movies use ubiquituous POV freely; or they might use antagonist POV, where you see what the hero is doing, but you’re also allowed to see what the villain is doing too.  Hardcore single POV films tend to be arthouse fare (e.g. the recent Fishtank) or crime dramas (eg Chinatown). 

But the point is – in the movies it’s easy to switch from protagonist POV to ubiquitous POV. In a film like High Sierra, for instance, we the audience see everything from the POV of main character Roy Earle  (Humphrey Bogart), UNTIL he’s being chased by the cops; then we cut to the cops chasing him.

In a novel, however, if you write the entire book in the first person or in the third person POV mode, you CANNOT then cut to scenes not featuring your POV’s eyes.   You can only say in your writing what your POV character sees. 

It sounds technical, but it’s a major issue for writers of action. Because in action scenes, especially in huge space battle scenes, YOU HAVE TO SEE ALL THE ACTION.  You can’t have this, for instance:

Reilly and Dwyer sit in front of the TV, switching channels. 

‘According to CNN,’ said Reilly, ‘the alien ships have just encountered the first wave of our space defence force.’

‘My God,’ said Dwyer. ‘My brother in law is a pilot on one of those defence ships – let me call him on my mobile phone so he can tell us what’s happening!’

This kind of scene does not play well with lovers of action SF; they want to be UP THERE with the defence force, killing alien ass at first hand.  The brother in law, in short, has to be the POV character; Reilly and Dwyer must be relegated to collateral damage.

Of course, it’s possible to have an ‘omniscient  narrator’ – this is the way Dickens used to write.  He’d be the god of the story, describing to us what HE saw with his eyes – the chimney sweep on the crossing, the old man in his Curiosity Shop, etc etc.  But the danger is, when you use this voice, there’s a loss of immediacy.  It CAN still be done, but has to be done sparingly.

Take this, the opening of Asimov’s Foundation:

The First Galactic Empire had endured for tens of thousands of years. It had included all the planets of the Galaxy…’ etc. 

In fairness that’s just the prologue; but even so, it’s dry as dust, pure expository prose. Contract that with the real beginning of the book, Park I, which has a quote from the Encyclopedia Galactica, then follows it with:

There is much more that the Encyclopedia has to say on the subject of the Mule and his Empire but almost all of it is not germane to the issue at immediate hand, and most of it is considered too dry for our purposes in any case.

That’s the narrator as character – Asimov himself, mocking his own sources for their dryness. It’s the Storyteller Voice.  And that’s certainly still one way of achieving ubiquitous POV. Douglas Adams does it brilliantly in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Far out in the uncharterted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western spiral arm of the Galaxy, lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

It’s exposition we adore, because it’s the voice of our Narrator, the adorable Douglas.

But in Action SF, the ominscient narrator is harder to pull off.  Who, the reader may ask, IS this guy? And if he or she is narrating it, does that mean the action has already happened, the result is already known?  The omniscient narrator, then, can interfere with the vital ‘present-tenseness’ of the action writing, the illusion it’s all happening NOW (even though the prose is technically in the past tense.)

To get over this problem, many action SF writers use the old trick of multiple POV. In other words, if you have enough characters, damn it all, at least ONE OF THEM must be there to witness the big action setpiece space battle.  Peter F. Hamilton favours this approach – he has so many character-POVs that you  need a flow chart to keep up (but remarkably, it always holds together, grippingly.)

I’ve also recently been reading Scott Westerfeld, who is a master of this multiple-POV approach. In The Risen Empire, for the first long section, he tells the story of a single setpiece action sequence  from the POVs of a vast range of characters – Pilot, Captain, Executive, Officer, Doctor, Pilot, compound mind (hey, this is SF), and so on.  Some of these characters settle down to be actual PROTAGONISTS; but several of them hold no long-term value; they are only there because of what they SEE.

And thus, by alternating from character to character to character, Westerfield achieves a perfect widescreen experience; we the reader see everything that a film camera would and could see.  We see the major characters, the minor characters, the long shots, the close ups – it’s a stunning replication of a cinematic experience though artful prose.  And damn it, it’s exciting.

(And, in Debatable Space, I vary this technique by having multiple POVs all in the first person.)

But even that isn’t enough!  It’s okay in the ground wars, and the classic mano a alien battles (John Scalzi has a great example of this in Old Man’s War, in which the super-powerful aliens with their super-duper weapons ‘prefer’ to fight the human soldiers in single combat. Why! How dumb are they! But it makes for an exhilarating action SF setpiece.) But when it comes to space opera battles – who can possibly see all THAT?  The heroes in their space ship see what’s on their screen; the villains in their space ships see what’s on THEIR screens.  But there’s no conceivable justification for seeing – at first hand – missiles flying through space, hitting space ships, being deflected by shields, etc etc etc.  All the great action scenes you witness in shows like Battlestar Galactica are only possible if you have cameras, or if you have established an Asimovian omniscient narrator voice.

I’m talking about images like this:

Great images – but who is seeing this? No pilot in a spaceship would have such a clear view, so you can’t describe it UNLESS you have a) microcameras in space b) a spaceflying alien’s POV c) an omniscient narrator or d) balls of steel.

Rule 4)  Define and escalate your jeopardy

This is the killer; it’s the hardest thing to do and also the most important.

Let’s say your troop of human soldiers arrive on an alien planet and start killing aliens. Why? 

Blood flows, limbs are lopped off, alien gore is spilled, plasma blasts burn, bombs explode…

But why?

It doesn’t matter how ‘enjoyable’ (sorry, but we can’t deny we love this stuff!) the violence is, it means nothing unless there’s an objective, and a jeopardy.  That doesn’t mean it has to be a ‘just war’.  You could have soldiers killing aliens just to steal their land; but if your likeable heroine is abducted and is about to be eviscerated or worse –  then suddenly SOMEONE WE CARE ABOUT is in jeopardy. And we know Why; and any amount of bloodshed from thereon in is permissible.

So writing jeopardy is all about asking the question, ‘What’s at stake?’ and ‘Who’s in jeopardy?’

When I worked in TV drama we would sit around a table and brainstorm these questions for hours on end.  So the bad guy has escaped from police custody and is about to murder another victim. Well, yawn, who cares? But if the bad guy has escaped and has abucted the hero’s cute 5 year old daughter – massive jeopardy!! We all care!

All Hollywood movies work around this jeopardy template.  What’s at stake, who’s in jeopardy, and is the somebody who’s in jeopardy vulnerable and cute?  If the hero’s cantankerous old bat of a granny has been abducted by the aliens – well, a) it’s not as exciting and b) you do rather feel sorry for the aliens.

But it’s not enough to have one jeopardy; there have to be multiple jeopardies, which escalate by the end.  Humanity itself is usually at stake in action SF stories – the planet Earth will be destroyed unless we kick this particular alien ass!  But jeopardy can be subtler. It may be it’s the hero’s integrity that’s in jeopardy.  The hero – a brilliant soldier – has killed aliens all his career and has suddenly realised it’s humanity who’s the bad guy here. So he has a moral choice; do the right thing, or the wrong thing? And if he does the right thing – he’s saved his integrity! Even if he loses the battle, he’ll have won the story.

This, pretty much, is the story of Avatar; and also the story of High Noon. A man’s gotta do what a  man’s gotta do; if he doesn’t, he loses his soul. 

And jeopardy is also tied in with POV.  Every time you create a POV in a novel, you create a character that the reader has to care about – even if it’s only a brief cameo role.  And once the heroes of the story are defined, then those are the people the reader will care about most.  So they, by definition, must be MOST in jeopardy; and their integrity, and morality, must be the most challenged.

So when you write from the POV of a character, you’re not just creating ‘eyes’; you’re creating a character the reader can care about, and love or hate.  And you do this a) because creating rich characters is a pleasure in itself and b) because (from the action SF writer’s perspective) you can’t have exciting action stuff unless IT INVOLVES THE POTENTIAL DEATH OR MUTILATION OF CHARACTERS THE READER GIVES A SHIT ABOUT.

God, that sounds cold-blooded;  but it’s true.  Action without character can work okay on a movie screen – where you can lose yourself in the spectacle. But it doesn’t work nearly so well on the page, where the reader’s empathy has to be snagged on the writer’s hook. 

Rule number 5) Give your characters a break

The perfect action story is a series of exciting setpieces intricately woven together and escalating to an even more exciting finale.  But you can’t achieve this if EVERYTHING is action.  There needs to be light, in order for there to be shade.

One of the most impressive pieces of action writing I’ve ever read is the original screenplay of The Fugitive by David Twohy and Jeb Stuart. I read it for a film company who were looking at acquiring distribution rights for certain territories; and I was awed at the sheer shameless pace of the damned thing. In the opening scene the prison van containing Dr Richard Kimble crashes and Kimble escapes; and he doesn’t stop running after that!  Setpiece led to setpiece with barely a pause for breath – but that ‘barely’ was esssential.  Running away; searching for clues about the one-armed man; cleverly evading capture; running away again – that was the underlying rhythm.  The mystery and the chase interwove to create non-stop suspense, with (as I recall) a single slight romantic digression, because the writer knew that’s what was needed.

In fact there are two versions of this version of the Fugitive. The script I read by Twohy is the one that blew me away; Jeb Stuart did the major rewrite which was actually filmed, and was different in very many respects – the setpieces, the characters, and the addition of the brilliant Tommy Lee Jones ‘shithouse’ speech.  But both versions were brilliant in my view because they both preserved the balance between action & mystery; the suspense never faltered, but the action was never repetitious, or ‘so-what-ish’.

So variety is a key tool for the action SF writer.  Sometimes there’s action; but sometimes there’s suspense (which is anticipated action). And sometimes there’s mystery (who’s to blame for the frakking action which killed X or Y?)  And sometimes there are gentle subtle character scenes (establishing characters who the reader can empathise with SO THEY GIVE A SHIT WHEN THOSE CHARACTERS ARE KILLED OR INVOLVED IN DANGEROUS ACTION.)

Writing action SF is a tough job – nay, a dangerous job!  It’s very easy for the Action SF writer to be struck by an off-target simile, or wounded by a hyperbolic description of gross carnage.  We constantly imperil our moral sense by revelling in scenes of murder and depravity.  But we are a fearless and indomitable breed, and never falter as we go about our business of killing and maiming bad guys and endangering the lives of adorably cute secondary characters. 

In conclusion, I should just say that these brief comments about how to write Action SF are no substitute for the real thing; so get out there, and kill!

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