Posted On May 2, 2012 by Print This Post

How to Choreograph Direct Action Scenes

Weapons expert and literary consultant Adam Firestone recently gave a workshop hosted by the Ohio Valley RWA chapter. I picked Adam’s brain about a topic that interested many writers at the workshop.

Adam Firestone takes questions at the OVRWA workshop

Romance University: At an Ohio Valley RWA workshop in April, you demonstrated how to set up a timeline charting the sequence of events in an action scene (this applies to action scenes in any fiction genre). The key, as I recall, was to determine if the timeline supports the required plot element. I think you called this the Dynamic Entry Sequence. Could you elaborate on that for us?

Adam Firestone: Sure! I think that a bit of explanation as to where this comes from may be useful. I’ve worked in the defense industry for many years as a “systems engineer.” Systems engineering is an interdisciplinary branch of engineering that focuses on the design and management of complex engineering projects over their entire life cycle, from concept to retirement.

I’ve designed systems involving naval mine warfare, amphibious warfare, countermine and demining operations and cruise missiles. All of those systems have a temporal component that is critical in determining system validity, or suitability for use in the intended environment. That is, a system may operate perfectly, but simply take too long a time (or, too short) to do the job it’s meant to do.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say we have an air to ground missile system designed to kill air defense radar. The missile system has to do a number of things to make this happen. For example, it’s got to acquire the target’s emissions, provide an indication that it’s ready for launch, get launched from the attack aircraft, start the motor, ride the target emissions and successfully detonate when it hits the target. The prototype does all of this beautifully, and the engineers throw a wild party to celebrate. Well, as wild a party as engineers ever throw. Wouldn’t want to bend the slide rules too much…

Meanwhile, the program manager, a former Wild Weasel pilot (Wild Weasel pilots flew missions expressly intended to suppress enemy air defenses.) walks in with a very dour look on his face.

“What’s wrong, Burglar?” says one of the engineers. (Former pilots, by the way, always go by their call signs…)

“How long did it take from the start of the test until the missile acquired the target?” asks Burglar.

“Fifty one point nine three one four seconds,” says the engineer proudly. (We’re engineers; meaningless precision makes us happy.)

“Right,” says Burglar, “how long does it take for a Greyhound to acquire and engage?” (Greyhound is the nickname for the Russian SA-22 air defense missile system.)

“Ummmm….,” says the engineer.

“Exactly,”says Burglar. “For your information, it takes a Greyhound twenty seconds to acquire, two to launch, and one point five to get to the target aircraft. That’s twenty three point five seconds. That means that while your missile is still attached to my wing, thinking about what the *$&#!!@ it wants to do, the bad guys have put a missile right into my air intake, and I’m flying with the angels. Epic FAIL.”

In this case, while the system worked as advertised, it was unsuited for the job because the functional timeline failed to support the operational reality. Similarly, when a writer creates scenes, she may get the detail exquisitely correct, but, due to the cumulative real-world time elapsed for each detail, wind up with a scene that doesn’t ring true, or worse, derails the plotline.

Adam with members of OVRWA

RU: You used the term “Sequence Analysis” to describe this process. “Violent action,” my notes say, “is rapid action, a complex sequence of events.” This process includes decomposing the sequence into Atomic Events, analyzing each event for components and deciding what has to happen first. What sort of components should an author look for?

AF: You do this every day without thinking about it. When you want to make sure there’s food in the fridge, you “Go grocery shopping.” But really, grocery shopping is a collection of a number of atomic events, each of which can have plot impacts. A simple decomposition of the Grocery Shopping process might look like this:

1. Grab list from fridge.
2. Walk to garage.
3. Get into car.
4. Open garage door.
5. Exit garage.
6. Drive to supermarket.
7. Park car.
8. Enter store.
9. Collect products.
10. Checkout.

One or more of these may be broken down into sub-events. We could probably break down “collect products” into another ten (or if you’re a particularly picky shopper, more) sub-events. The important thing for writers to remember is that each sub-event both takes time and is the entry point for a plot element.

In the case of the former, this helps to avoid situations where a character’s back is figuratively turned for fifteen minutes and an hour’s worth of story happens. In the case of the latter, it provides the author a number of potential springboards. For example, the car keys could be dropped when the heroine is getting into her car, and as she unexpectedly bends over to retrieve them, she might spoil the assassin’s sight picture and dodge a bullet.

Becke Martin Davis with a US M-4 Carbine - holding it all wrong, of course!

RU: You cautioned us not to brush off tricky details in an action scene, assuming it will all come together in the end. “They can just…”, you said, isn’t a satisfactory answer, particularly if it breaks the law of physics. My notes include process model, over watch scenario and other mysterious terms. Can you give us an example of a “They can just…” plot twist that ignores natural laws?

AF: It’s a longhand way of pointing to Occam’s Razor. Paraphrased, Occam’s Razor says that the simplest answer to an issue is usually best. For our purposes, this means that authors shouldn’t make characters do inexplicable or extraneous things. For one example, a character (other than in a paranormal story) can’t traverse a three mile distance in five seconds. For another, unless it’s absolutely necessary for the story, a character shouldn’t need to load her pistol at superhuman speed before she uses it.

RU: In a recent post on your blog, you noted that handguns aren’t very good at what they’re intended to do—which is not to kill, but to defend. Timing, as you noted, is critical:

Handguns aren’t especially good at providing effective personal protection. Let’s look at an illustrative example:

Alice, our innocent victim, is walking her dog. Bert the Baddie appears and threatens Alice with a knife from about ten feet away. Alice produces her pistol, a 9mm Parabellum Glock 19. Bert comes toward Alice to attack her.

Question: How much time does Alice have?

Answer: About three quarters of a second.
(The average man can run 21 feet in about 1.5 seconds.)

Alice has, in all likelihood, time for a single shot. If that shot does not, nearly instantly, incapacitate Bert, Alice is going to get very badly hurt, if not killed.

It gets worse, by the way. The average person can run seventy yards – that’s most of the way across a football field, folks – after being fatally shot with a handgun. Given that, in the above case, Bert may very well die after Alice shoots him, but not before he carves Alice like a Thanksgiving turkey. From the example and the timing (all of which is real, by the way), we can equate “effective personal protection” with “near instant incapacitation.”

Bearing that in mind, what defensive weapon and ammunition would be optimal for our heroes and heroines in a similar situation?

AF: I’m going to assume that you won’t let me arm your heroine with an AT4 antitank rocket or an M4 carbine with an underbarrel M203 grenade launcher , and that we’re limiting things to handguns. It’s important to realize that with handguns, as can be seen from my blog excerpt above, it’s really about multiple hits and shot placement.

It’s an article of faith in defensive handgun training that the threat is engaged with two rapid shots (a “double tap”), assessed to determine if it is still a danger, and either engaged again or attention is shifted to a new threat. Given that I’m a belt and suspenders kind of guy, I’m more a fan of what is called the “Mozambique Drill.”

This tactic, according to legend, derived from an experience by a Rhodesian mercenary during the Mozambican War of Independence. The Rhodesian, armed with a 9mm Parabellum pistol, turned a corner and bumped into a terrorist with an AK-47. The Rhodesian double tapped the terrorist, two rounds to the chest, but the terrorist didn’t go down. Taking deliberate aim, the Rhodesian shot the terrorist in the head. This time he went down and stayed that way. A Mozambique Drill, then, is a quick double tap to the chest followed by a deliberate aimed shot to the head.

It isn’t about being bloodthirsty, it’s about stopping someone who wants to do very, very bad things to you. Useful in plot situations where the bad guy is wearing a vest!

Anyway, the “best” is a combination of the largest and most potent caliber the character can carry that’s consistent with the story – it may be a pistol in some cases and a rifle in others, the most effective defense ammunition available – usually some form of jacketed hollowpoint and effective control of the firearm.

Author Kay Stockham at the OVRWA workshop

RU: In a sequence diagram, time is vertical—I think I’ve grasped that concept. In the workshop, you discussed breaking the diagram components into the technical and operational aspects of the scene. How does an author determine which category an event falls under?

AF: Operational refers to the character’s or the story’s goal. The character might need, to, oh, I don’t know, kill a dragon with a pistol. The technical refers to the means by which the goal or objective is achieved. Continuing the dragon killing example, the technical means would be the pistol itself. The writer should compare the technical means to the operational requirements to see if the two mesh.

For example, a 9mm Parabellum Glock, given the currently popular crypto-biology of dragons, wouldn’t work, and would likely turn off readers who are knowledgeable paranormal fans and gun buffs. A modern incarnation of the Confederate LeMat revolver firing a custom shaped charge shell would fulfill the scene’s technical requirements and resonate well with a wide spectrum of readers. To reiterate, operational equals the “what,” technical is the “how.”

RU: In the example I quoted earlier, you noted that an average man can run 21 feet in about 1.5 seconds. Is it necessary to know this kind of information, as well as details like the time it takes to shoot a gun or the speed of the bullet before we can create an accurate timeline?

AF: The short answer is “yes.” Timelines are as much a product of the “how” as the “what.” If you don’t have a handle on the mechanism by which the scene is effected, then the scene fails. This spans genres and historical periods. For example, a realistic description of transportation by horse requires at least some understanding of the horse’s carrying capacity, average speed, food and rest needs and the effects of terrain. Taking that a step further, you have a system consisting of horse, rider and environment and writing effectively requires familiarity with all three.

RU: Do you have any other tips for choreographing action scenes?

AF: Can I be shamelessly self serving for a moment? The best tip I can give is to retain me as a consultant to help with your novels.

Following that, the answer is to learn as much as you can as often as you can. Knowledge of the “how” makes the vision of the “what” much easier to convey. In the end, writing is about creating and sharing a vision with the reader, and the more you know, the richer, more complete and more plausible that shared vision will be.

RU: Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us!

***

Do your stories include action scenes? Do you plan them out step by step?

Join us Friday when author Amy Atwell discusses taming chaos in story structure.

***

Bio:

Adam Firestone brings more than 25 years of experience with weapon systems including small arms, artillery, armor, area denial systems and precision guided munitions to Romance University. Additionally, Adam is an accomplished small arms instructor, editor, literary consultant and co-author of a recently published work on the production of rifles in the United States for Allied forces during the First World War.

Adam has been providing general and technical editing services to authors and publishing houses specializing in firearms books since the early 2000s. Additionally, Adam provides literary consulting services to fiction authors including action scene choreography, technical vetting and technical editing. In this line of experience, Adam has had the fortune to work with well known authors including Shannon McKenna and Elizabeth Jennings.

You can read Adam’s full bio here. Check out Adam’s blog, Arma Virumque Cano. He’s also on Facebook

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Discussion

38 Responses to “How to Choreograph Direct Action Scenes”

  1. Adam,

    Welcome back to RU! Really enjoyed reading your interview. My stories take place in the early 1800s, so I don’t have all your cool weaponry at my disposal. But I’m going to keep your timeline process in mind. I confess to “just writing” my action scenes and not planning them out.

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | May 2, 2012, 4:41 am
  2. Loved this post! I chuckled over the “Burglar” scenario – I work in that industry and you nailed it.

    I don’t have a ton of action scenes (I write straight contemporary romance) but I am planning a girl fight soon – so, I will definitely apply your method.

    Okay – I have a hero who, until recently, was a mercenary. What is the firearm of choice these days?

    Robin

    Posted by Robin Covington | May 2, 2012, 5:52 am
  3. Hi, Adam. Welcome back.

    Apparently I need to print this post out and study it! So much great information here.

    I actually just learned the tidbit about a man being able to run 21 feet in 1.5 seconds. It came up when I was choreographing the action scene for my new release. My critique partner bonged my scene because he told me the bad guy could reach my hero in 1.5 seconds. Those little details are so important!

    I love your posts. Can we beg you to come back again?

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | May 2, 2012, 6:30 am
    • Hi Adrienne,

      You’ve got me blushing with the kind words – thank you!

      As for return engagements….I’m happy to come back…I’d like to hear some more ideas on future collaborations with RU!

      All the best,

      Adam

      Posted by Adam Firestone | May 2, 2012, 6:35 am
  4. I was watching the movie Iron Man on TV the other night. As Stark began demonstrating his weapons, my first thought was, “I wonder how many things Adam Firestone would find wrong with this scene…”

    Adam, I’ll never look at an action scene the same way again!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | May 2, 2012, 7:01 am
  5. Hi Adam,

    I often thought handguns weren’t handy. What are your thoughts about self-defense classes?

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | May 2, 2012, 7:12 am
    • Hi Mary Jo –

      First – what kind of self-defense classes do you have in mind?

      Next, handguns aren’t *IDEAL.* That doesn’t mean they aren’t useful.

      If I had to defend myself, I’d rather have an M4 carbine loaded with 75 grain Hornady TAP ammunition. However, for a number of reasons, walking about with something that looks like, weighs as much as, and is as long as an assault rifle is less than optimal.

      The pistol is the next best thing, and certainly beats impact or edged weapons for self defense – if only because of the stand off it provides between the attacker and the defender.

      Just my 0.02…

      All the best,

      Adam

      Posted by Adam Firestone | May 2, 2012, 7:28 am
      • Self defense meaning there are no weapons. There are classes geared towards women to defend themselves against attacks.

        Posted by Mary Jo Burke | May 2, 2012, 7:52 am
        • Ah. In that case, not a fan.

          The principles of self defense (awareness, attitude, preparation, etc.) are the same for all people – and can lower the probability of your being involved in an altercation.

          However, the simple fact is that when someone who outweighs you, is stronger than you, and doesn’t care what happens to you wants to hurt you, you’re going to be badly hurt, period. Unless, of course, you have some means of rapidly neutralizing the threat.

          Just Adam’s perspective…

          All the best,

          Adam

          Posted by Adam Firestone | May 2, 2012, 8:47 am
  6. Morning Adam!!

    First – Becke – you MUST have that photo of you blown up to poster size! What a hoot! =)

    Adam, great to have you back again..=) In my current ms, my baddie carries a gun, but so does my hero. I never mention what kind they are, and there’s never an actual gunfight, more or less just bullets winging through windows and car tires, etc. (It’s a romantic comedy) But I do have a scene where the bad guy is shooting at the good guys while they are in a house. How on earth do you figure the time lapse for something like that? Do you make a list? 1. Duck behind door 2. Scuttle behind living room sofa…..etc? to make sure you have the action flow correct, then do the bad guys side as well? 1. Shoot at h/h in doorway 2. take aim through picture window..

    is that choreographing a scene?

    Thanks Adam!!!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | May 2, 2012, 7:37 am
  7. OMG, Bcke, I DO Love that picture. You should put it on all your book covers!!!

    Just wanted to say that after the infamous dragon with a handgun incident, Adam was kind enough to give me some fabulous info for my WIP. He is generous with his time, and has a great sense of humor…for a military stiff. If he tells you to send him a line, go ahead and do it, you will have fun talking to him and will be very pleased with his advice!

    Gia

    Posted by Gia Dawn | May 2, 2012, 9:09 am
  8. Gia – I’m definitely going to buy your dragon book when it comes out. I have to see how you dealt with the weapons issue! Maybe we should start calling you the Dragon Lady…?

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | May 2, 2012, 9:35 am
  9. Lord Almighty! Adam, I do believe my brain has just exploded!

    Like Robin, I tend to write straight contemporary romance or paranormal. That being said, I have a girl fight (okay, a succubus/nymph fight…) in a current novella. I know it’s “off,” but I have no idea why. Plus, I know I need to change the scene venue.

    I do have a couple of other scenarios I’m looking for info on and I might have to shamelessly beg for your help.

    1. I have a hero who is former army (either in Special Forces Weapons or Engineering, I haven’t decided yet). He’s out, but his background is going to impact him, and I’m not sure how to subtly put that on the page. I do have a cover and duck in a scene where someone knocks on a window with something that’s not a weapon, but the hero doesn’t know what it is when he hears it.

    2. I have a character I’m developing who is a civilian woman, probably in her 50s or 60s. She’s going to be something of a gun aficionado, and possibly a bit trigger-happy. I haven’t even begun to research how to handle her. Any suggestions?

    And Adam, I think you should be a regular here at RU. Wish I could’ve attended that workshop.

    And Becke, LOVE the picture, girl!

    Thanks a ton,
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | May 2, 2012, 9:49 am
  10. Kelsey – I want to read those books. I LOVE the idea of the trigger happy civilian woman in her 50s! (Geez, if I go to a target range, as I’ve been considering, that could be me one day!

    (Or it could have before I hit the big six-0. One of my friends dubbed me “the gun-toting granny.” I might have complained about that sobriquet last year, but now I couldn’t be happier with reminder that I’m going to be a grandmother soon!)

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | May 2, 2012, 10:06 am
  11. I went a little parentheses-happy there. It’s that kind of morning!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | May 2, 2012, 10:07 am
  12. Adam – Do you have anything to add to the Q&A? Hopefully I didn’t leave out anything critical in my questions.

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | May 2, 2012, 1:31 pm
    • Well, it was bound to happen – Kelsey – I meant to respond to Becke’s comment about adding to the Q&A – so… with respect to THAT comment:

      Ummmm….no? Happy to field questions…but, honestly, this is really the tip of the iceberg.

      We could do an entire workshop on just this point…(I have all sorts of plans for one…)

      Posted by Adam Firestone | May 2, 2012, 1:51 pm
  13. I think Adam should offer his workshop at one of the big conferences. I’d definitely go again!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | May 2, 2012, 1:55 pm
  14. Hi Adam!

    If a character who has never fired a gun was aiming a handgun at the bad guy, let’s say at a fifteen foot distance, should they aim it at their chest? I was wondering if the gun would kick up and send the trajectory of the bullet higher. Hope this makes sense.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | May 2, 2012, 3:44 pm
    • The issue isn’t so much recoil as knowing how to use the sights. Many novice shooters fail to get an adequate sight picture, focusing only on the front sight, and thus often shooting high.

      Alternately, many jerk the trigger, causing the shot to impact low and to the right.

      If you like, contact me offline, and we’ll sketch out a way to make it work for you.

      All the best,

      Adam

      Posted by Adam Firestone | May 2, 2012, 4:10 pm
  15. Adam – Thanks so much for spending time with us today and for responding to our questions.

    If anyone has further questions for Adam, please scroll up through the comments for his personal email. Thank you!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | May 2, 2012, 6:56 pm
  16. Great post! Such a cool interview. I had never really put so much thought into the temporal aspect of action scenes, but now that you’ve opened my eyes to it it seems so obvious and important! I only dabble in writing myself, so I don’t know how much I’ll be applying this knowledge, but already I can think of half a dozen books with action scenes that used these ideas. Very cool! Thanks for the share!

    Posted by Daniel Meloy | May 4, 2012, 9:06 am

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