I love writing action sequences, and frankly, I think I’m pretty damn good at it. In my modern writing career, I’ve tackled space battles, epic superhero brawls, car chases, monowheel chases, boat chases, even a dump truck chase. I’ve written martial arts fights, bar fights, and a shot to the nuts of seismic proportions.
The challenge with Hope and Undead Elvis has been to set that aside with a story that is decidedly not action-oriented. An action scene can be an excellent tool for moving a plot forward, but in this story, characters are far more important than plot, so I’ve had to invent new tricks for characters to avoid conflict instead of facing it head-on. Sure, there is a certain level of “action” at times, because characters who sit around and do nothing are boring. But the action I have included has been less of the violence-driven excitement that I love to write and more of the “doing something to solve a problem” variety. It’s been a challenge that, frankly, I’ve enjoyed. I love tackling new things.
One reason I think I’ve shied away from the violent aspects of storytelling is that action scenes by definition are in motion, and I don’t picture this story in terms of motion in my mind. Instead, I’ve been visualizing a series of still images-photos, mainly-that are beautifully-constructed glimpses of moments in the story.
Monday night, I completed the first “true” action sequence of the book. Thirty-five thousand words before getting to any serious violence. It was disturbing, the way one feels when seeing actual violence perpetrated in person. I’d like to share an excerpt, because even though it’s action, it’s very different from the usual cinematic kind of stuff I write. This is, of course, unedited and still in first-draft form.
Flames were already licking at underbrush, glowing red and orange through gaps in the trees around the convent. Hope could hear women screaming inside the convent and male voices shouting at them. Beneath the anguished cries of the brutalized and the gleeful yells of their assailants, behind the persistent crackle of fire that seemed to pervade everything, was the amplified voice of the man who led the Righteous Flame, exhorting them to do their utmost to cleanse the world of impurity. Hope knew that she would hear that voice to the end of her days, in her darkest nightmares.
A door banged open and an emaciated man dragged a screaming, naked nun out of it by her hair. Blood stained the inside of her thighs and ran from what looked like bite marks on her breasts. The man dashed her head against a large rock and she stopped struggling. He sank down and started to rip at her flesh with his teeth, growling and snarling like a wild dog.
Rae screamed, and so did Hope. She’d never been so frightened before, not even when she was trapped in a bar sinking into the sands so many weeks ago. Hand in hand, they staggered past the convent, limping through the forest in their soft slippers as they tried to outrun the flames and the screams. The smoke made Hope dizzy, and the change in her body had never been more apparent than when running. Her entire center of gravity had shifted, and it made her feel clumsy and awkward, like she was going to trip and fall headlong at any moment.
And then her ankle turned, and she lost her grip on Rae’s hand to sprawl onto the forest floor. Her first thought was of the baby in her belly, and hoped she hadn’t hurt it. Then she noticed the taste of blood in her mouth; she’d bitten her tongue when she hit the ground. She rolled over to look back at Rae and a man rose up behind the nun and grabbed her. He wrapped one arm around her neck and pulled her arm back with the other. Rae’s eyes bulged in terror but the man’s wiry arm prevented her from drawing breath to scream.
Hope didn’t have time to reach for her fallen pistol. She flung herself forward and grabbed hold of Rae’s ankle and pulled. She wasn’t going to let the young woman be carried away and raped, burned, or eaten. Rae slumped forward as the man tightened the pressure around her throat. The young nun became the rope in a desperate contest of tug-of-war.
The man’s silence unnerved Hope as she grunted and pulled, trying to keep her new friend. He began nosing along the curve of the nun’s neck, licking his lips like a dog anticipating a treat. He released Rae’s limp arm and reached around to grope one of her breasts. His filthy hand left a sooty print on her habit. Behind him, a tree erupted in flames. The wash of heat made Hope’s skin prickle. The man’s hips convulsed in a peculiar way and his eyes rolled as he snarled and laughed. She realized in revulsion that he was coming. The very act of wanton destruction and violent lust had aroused him to an orgasmic plateau.
He staggered as his muscles celebrated the ejaculation and Hope yanked on Rae with all her strength. The nun slipped from the man’s grasp and fell to the ground with a dull thud like a child’s doll dropped on the floor. The man’s smoke-reddened eyes fastened upon Hope as if he’d just noticed her. His face transformed into a leer and he licked his black lips with a gray tongue. Hope tried to scrabble away, but he sprang forward with inhuman speed and locked his hands around her ankle.
She kicked at his hands, at his face, but he clung to her with the burning lust of the fanatic. She glanced back and realized in horror his hair had caught on fire. It burned in bright counterpoint to the blazing tree behind him. As ashes fell around his face, he showed no sign of feeling the least bit of pain. He raised her ankle to his mouth.
Hope’s fingers closed on the fallen Shepherds’ pistol. She twisted at her waist and snapped off a shot. She could have blown a hole in her foot or missed altogether, wasting one of her two remaining precious bullets, but instead her aim was true. The bullet made an unspectacular third eye in the man’s forehead, where a Hindu woman would have worn a red dot. The mark Hope made was a shiny, liquid black amid the soot and ash of his face. For a moment, she thought she’d have to shoot him again, but then he released her foot and fell the the forest floor.
Hope gasped for breath. She’d fought off the immediate threat, but the fire still approached and she didn’t know how many more men were wandering the woods, looking to void their lust and satiate their appetites upon her. She crawled over to Rae, keeping the gun clutched tight in case anyone else dared to show his face.
Rae was deathly pale. Hope held the back of her hand against the young woman’s lips and felt a slight tickle of breath. “Rae, get up. Come on, get up. I can’t carry you. Please, get up.”
Another tree burst into flame. Hope looked up and saw the sparks leaping between branches. Soon the entire canopy around her would be afire. She had no more time. She tucked the gun into a pocket of her robe and wrestled Rae’s limp body up and across her shoulders into a passable fireman’s carry. The nun would be her cross to bear on this next leg of her journey.
So what do you think? Too grim? It’s intended to be a fairly dark moment in the journey of Hope.
All this discussion and analysis of action in fiction has gotten me thinking, and I’ve added yet another project to the mix: an outline to turn into an online workshop, conference workshop, or how-to book on pumping up the action scenes in your writing. More on this as I develop it.