Posted On June 18, 2014 by Print This Post

How to Choreograph Direct Action Scenes by Adam Firestone

Weapons expert and literary consultant Adam Firestone became a regular RU columnist shortly after presenting an all-day writers’ workshop hosted by the Ohio Valley RWA chapter.  In this interview, flashing back to 2012, we asked Adam 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 2012, 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 Nkatha Gitonga, a Harvard sociology student from Kenya, discusses the fear of writing in her debut appearance at RU.



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. In addition to his blogs for RU and articles for other publications, Adam is in demand as a speaker.

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3 Responses to “How to Choreograph Direct Action Scenes by Adam Firestone”

  1. Apologies for the repeat post. Adam was swamped this week but he’ll be back again soon with another original post. Are there any topics you’d like to have Adam address? For instance, are you having problems getting your hero and/or heroine out of a tight corner? Do you need to know what weapons would have been used in a particular era? Do you need to get your hero and/or heroine across the country, or across the ocean, while keeping themselves armed against attack?

    Adam works with authors one-on-one, but he is often able to respond to questions here.

    Thanks for joining us!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | June 18, 2014, 9:47 am
  2. Very useful & thought-provoking post, thanks for the repeat as I’m fairly new to RU.

    Apologies if it was discussed last time, but in the Alice/Bert example I’d make her set the dog on him. Then she has both hands free & he’s distracted…

    Posted by Sandra Lindsey | June 19, 2014, 1:01 am
  3. Truly helpful and interesting. I have trouble with timelines even with an outline to help.

    Posted by Connie Terpack | August 4, 2014, 5:49 pm

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