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Meet 2018 Golden Heart Finalist Megan Starks!

 

HOUSE OF ASH AND BRIMSTONE has been nominated for Best Paranormal Romance, and today we’re welcoming its author, Persister, 2018 Golden Heart Finalist Megan Starks, who is sharing ways to make sure your fight scene is worth reading.  After conversing with Megan this week, I can imagine her acting out her heroine’s moves.  It’s an awesome blog, but before we jump in here is a little about Megan and her work.

 

 

 

 

Megan Starks is a video game writer with a knack for creating memorable villains. She lives in Southern California with her husband and their kitty-cat, Sushi, and enjoys swimming, snowboarding, froyo, all things cute, and sunshine. Her book, House of Ash and Brimstone, is a 2018 Golden Heart Finalist and was showcased in Pitch Wars 2017. Her short fiction has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, The Battered Suitcase, Glossolalia, and Eight Cuts, among other journals.

For more info on Megan’s books and games visit www.fictivate.com or follow her on twitter @fictivate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOUSE OF ASH AND BRIMSTONE features an urban fantasy world in which soul-bound dragons exist, shapeshifting demon guards who are bred and trained to sacrifice everything—including their own lives—to serve their masters.

As a young soul-bound, Shade falls into forbidden love with Gisele, the child princess he’s sworn to serve. But he is soon heartbroken when he believes he’s witnessed Gisele’s murder in a plot to eliminate her ascent to the throne. Wishing only to follow her into death, instead he’s bound to Gisele’s supposed murderer, her brother Rhogan, and is forced for years to serve Rhogan’s cruel and immoral ends. When Shade discovers that his princess is still alive—that she’s been living, hidden in the human world, for the past decade—nothing can keep him from her side.

There’s just one problem—an abandoned child who’s grown into a tough-as-nails paranormal bounty hunter, Gisele has no memories of her past, including him, and Shade has signed a demon contract that prevents him from telling her the truth. Worse, she can’t stand him, despite the white-hot attraction that arcs between them. But when a monster straight from the deepest reaches of Hell makes repeated threats on Gisele’s life—and Shade’s allegiance is called into question—the princess-turned-bounty-hunter is forced to confront her true identity. To save herself and free her soul-bound, she must venture back into the twisted heart of the demon court where she nearly lost her life so many years ago.

 

 

Writing Fight Scenes in Romance

 

Reading blog posts about how not to win the terrible sex scene award got me thinking about a similar but often less explored territory. Because just like a great sex scene, fight scenes require a bit of coordination and good old-fashioned practice (er, on the page that is).

So you want to write an action scene.

Or maybe you don’t. But if not or if you’re on the fence about it, I would encourage you to consider it because they’re fun — both to write and to read! Who doesn’t like car chases, explosions, shoot outs, hand to hand combat, and ticking time bombs? There’s a reason action sequences are a staple of blockbuster movies and many genres of commercial fiction. They get the heart pumping. They raise the conflict and tension in a scene and make you worry for the characters involved. And of course, they allow the audience to root for the main character, to hope they survive, and that they win against the opposition. Whether you’re writing about an assassin on the run, an MMA fighter in the cage, a navy SEAL on a mission, a famous soccer player who loses his cool on the field, a mafia enforcer, a detective chasing down a perp — whoever your main characters are, adding a fast-paced action scene can really spice up your novel in the same way that a good sex scene brings out the steam.

But how do we wrangle an unwieldy or flat action scene into something explosive?

 

I’ll list the steps I use below when I’m drafting and revising a new action scene. But first, real quick, let me give you an assurance (hopefully) on why I feel I have a little something to offer on the topic. My first two chapters (that’s right, holy moly maybe a tad too long at almost 5k?) of my novel are essentially one long fight scene. I introduce readers to my female protagonist by having her bungle a heist and get tossed into a mud-pit to fight for her life against a monstrous and fantastical beast. Yikes! What was I thinking? Well… it was crazy fun to write for starters. And I think it worked out in the end. I’ve have multiple agents and editors tell me that my opening chapters are some of the most fun and exciting they’ve read as a start to a novel. It’s also earned me several contest finals and wins including the Golden Heart, Pitch Wars, Fire & Ice, the Sheila, and more! One agent who left editorial comments on my manuscript in a “rest” chapter (to pace out the action, readers do need a break now and then!) told me, “Let’s get to it, I’m here for the fight scenes!” Oh, and the Manuscript Shredder wrote a blog post on “Opening Action: Getting It Right” based on my first chapter. http://themanuscriptshredder.com/opening-action-how-to-make-it-work/ J

 

Now for the quick and dirty of writing a great fight scene —

 

Step 1: Picture It

 

For this step, I like to take a page from animators. When the Naruto anime needed to draw out a good fight scene, the staff sometimes used reference from real martial arts fights.

 

I can barely draw stick figures so I’m no good at storyboarding (which would be really helpful I think if you do have artistic talent). But I do try to imagine each step of the way how it will play out in my head. And for that, I need to know realistically what it should look like. When I wanted to write a scene in which my female protagonist defended herself against a male aggressor, I started by watching some self-defense and MMA tutorial videos on YouTube. Based on her backstory, I determined her level of experience and training and then decided what sort of moves she might favor in addition due to her personality. Similarly, when I wasn’t sure the proper way to run while carrying a knife, I looked it up in a military training manual. Descriptions based on real life practicality go a long way in grounding your fight scene and engrossing the reader. After that, using your character’s unique personality to drive the action choices (do they run screaming, do they throw things, do they try to break fingers and noses, etc) will provide for a unique and unpredictable, exciting fight.

 

Step 2: Keep It Short(ish)

 

If there’s one complaint I’ve gotten on my fight scenes it’s that maaaybe they run a tiny bit too long. Know when to get in and get out. (Trying to practice what I preach.)

 

Don’t overly describe every movement. A good fight scene shouldn’t read like a technical manual. Tell me she popped him in the mouth. Not that she slowly cranked her arm back until her elbow was perpendicular to the ground, held steady half a foot from her body, then lips twisted in a grimace, she shot her hand forward until knuckles crunched against his nose causing blood to spurt hot against her skin.  

 

What should a fight scene be doing? *Note — not all of these need to be accomplished, any or some will suffice!

–          Increase the tension and conflict every step of the way. If you’ve plateaued your fight scene will suddenly feel stretched out and boring. (On the flip side: if your fight scene feels stretched out and boring ask yourself where the conflict stopped being raised. Go back to that spot and rewrite from there.)

–          Tell a micro-story. What’s the story of the scene? What does the fight add to the main character’s arc in addition to being a bit of flash on the page?

–          Lead toward disaster. Many good scenes lead toward chaos and complications for the main character (as a result of their decisions and actions, not coincidence).

–          Develop the character. What does the character learn or how do they change as a result of the action scene?

–          Put the character at not just physical but also EMOTIONAL risk in some way. What do they stand to lose in this scene? The best scenes layer external conflict with internal.

–          Have the characters touch in some way. Whether it’s a slap to the face or one character hauling the other up by the hand, readers love it when characters touch in a physical way especially as an outward indicator of internal standing to each other.

 

When you need to move the reader along, shorten your sentences. When you want to draw out their anticipation or make them hold their breath, lengthen them. Similarly, when the actual physical action speeds up (punch, punch, block, kick), shorten your sentences. If a moment stretches (she sucked in a breath as the car skidded along the railing, tipped over the edge, plummeted–heart in her throat before it caught with a jarring shudder and hung, etc) lengthen them. 

 

Step 3: Use Action Verbs

 

Things should be getting “wrenched, yanked, dragged, ripped, snapped” and so on to keep the pace moving quickly. Some sprinkling of “to be” (was, were, is, am, etc) is good for variety, just don’t over use it. Or try to use it when you want the moment to feel more introspective and slowed down. Tight action will speed up a scene while looking/noticing/feeling and describing something as its state of being will slow it down. Use this to control the pacing within the scene. For example, you could start the scene off with more “to be” verbiage and as it ramps up, transition more and more to using action verbs before ending with “to be” verbs again.

 

Step 4: Clarity is Key

 

Err on the side of clarity. If your reader can’t picture the scene exactly, they’ll get lost. Nine out of ten times I’d say it’s better to flat out state something “she slapped him” or “they are dancing in a club” etc vs. sprinkling word clues that a reader than has to use build a puzzle picture in their mind. After you clearly establish “they’re dancing in a club” then you give us the swiveling hips, the sweat, the beat vibrating the floor.

 

Step 5: Details, Details, Details. I love sensory descriptions!

 

Okay let’s revise that “keep it short” rule. The shortest possible sentence is not always the best. And I’m definitely not a minimalist style writer. We DO want to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. So yeah maybe we add back in that bit about blood spurting hot against her skin. Sounds, scents, feel, taste — all good in a fight scene.

 

Step 6: Include Internal Thoughts and Reactions from Your Character

 

What keeps someone reading? An emotional tie to your character. Including internal thoughts, emotions, and reactions from your character during the action sequence will keep readers hooked and avoid the scene reading too much like a straight up cinematic script. Is your character afraid, energized, feeling cocky, thinking about how what’s happening ties into their backstory, making self-deprecating jokes in their head? Sprinkle it liberally throughout! Just try to avoid larger chunks of exposition which can slow down the scene.

 

Step 7: Revise, Line Edit, and have some Critique Partners Weigh In

 

Did they enjoy it? Were they able to picture the action clearly? Did they feel like they were RIGHT THERE in the scene? Did they worry for or root for the character? Did it feel boring at any point? Etc. Sometimes the only way to know for sure is to read directly from the mouths of readers.

 

And that’s it!

 

Thanks for reading my post about writing kick-ass fight scenes. Do you think you’d ever be interested in adding an action sequence to your novel? If so, what kind? Maybe there’s a robbery or a car cash, a near drowning or a bar fight. If you have an excerpt from an action scene you’ve written, share it below! I’d love to give it a read.

 

 

Excerpt from

HOUSE OF ASH AND BRIMSTONE


 

 

 

 

29 responses to “Meet 2018 Golden Heart Finalist Megan Starks!”

  1. Karen says:

    Good Morning Megan,

    I enjoyed your excerpt and visited http://www.fictivate.com hoping to learn more about you and your story. However, the pop-up window requesting your email does not close when you hit the x in the upper left corner. If you subscribe, the window still does not close. The blacked out background turns light grey. This was on an Ipad and a PC running Firefox. Sorry to be talking tech issues and not craft, but there was no way to contact you through your site. Hopefully its a quick fix. Loved your pointers on fight scenes. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

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    • Megan Starks says:

      Hi Karen,

      Thanks for letting me know. I’ll have to call mailchimp customer support I think as I’m not sure what the issue is — possibly my weebly theme is too old to support the pop-up properly. If the X button isn’t working, the escape key should properly close the window.

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  2. Hmm, yes. Keeping fight scenes from lingering into the too-long zone is def tricky. Awesome excerpt, Megan! I want to get my hands on your book so I’m hoping you’ll clue us Persisters in as soon as you have a pub date!! 😉

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  3. Jennifer Bray-Weber says:

    Wonderful excerpt, Megan! Urban fantasy is one of my favorite genres and House of Ash and Brimstone sounds amazing!

    Good luck in Denver!!!

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  4. Anna Bennett says:

    Oooh, love these tips–thanks, Megan! Gonna go back and revise the tavern brawl I wrote yesterday. 🙂

    Congrats on the GH final and have fun in Denver!

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  5. Tracy Brody says:

    Congratulations on your GH final, Megan. Wow, what a creative and interesting story!

    I’ve written a few scenes in my RS that required watching Youtube videos. What did writers do before Youtube? 😉

    Look forward to meeting in Denver where we’ll hug instead of fight. 🙂

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    • Megan Starks says:

      Thanks, Tracy! I was actually thinking of your military scenes when I was drafting this post, wondering how you go about writing yours! 🙂 Yes, we’re very lucky how easily and quickly we’re able to research. I can’t even imagine the alternative…

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      • Tracy Brody says:

        Mostly I have good sources. I call Jay if it involves flying a Black Hawk and Dale if it involves blowing things up, knocking down walls, kidnapping or rescues or weapons. And there are others. 😉

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  6. Jacie Floyd says:

    Congratulations on your final! And thanks for the fight scene tips. I’m always a little too squeamish to orovide as much detail spas is needed! Great post!

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    • Megan Starks says:

      Thanks, Jacie! I’ve read some great scenes with no blood or broken bones. Absolutely no worries if you’re not comfortable with it. If a main character is in danger, the scene can still be super exciting, even if no injuries are incurred! 🙂

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  7. Thank you for sharing such terrific pointers, Megan. I love your excerpt from House of Ash and Brimstone; so thrilling, so visceral! I can’t wait to read more!

    I’m so looking forward to chatting with you in Denver.😊

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    • Megan Starks says:

      Same, can’t wait to meet up! And I’d love to read Brass Queen to see how you handle your scenes. I’m always looking to pick up new techniques and compare with how other authors are executing their craft.

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  8. Congratulations on your final. Really enjoyed your excerpt and appreciate the fight scene tips. Have fun in Denver!

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  9. Rita Henuber says:

    WOW! Great excerpt and brilliant tips. Congrats on your final. 🙂

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  10. Great tips for fight scenes, Megan. And I loved your excerpt. I don’t read a lot of paranormal, but I’ll definitely keep this on my watch-for list. It already sucked me in.

    See you in Denver. Looking forward to meeting you.

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    • Megan Starks says:

      Thanks, Leslie. Super looking forward to meeting you as well! I love reading all subgenres of romance so am happy to do an exchange anytime. I’m always looking for new books to add to my TBR pile. <3

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  11. suzanne says:

    “Her mouth flooded with mud.” Such a gorgeous, rich, action sentence. I can feel the fight! But remind me not to pick a fight with you EVER! Keep kicking butt, Megan!

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    • Megan Starks says:

      Hah, thanks Suzanne! I am a gentle kitten in real life. O:) No really… I swear. I have always wanted to try out a martial arts or self-dense class. Seems like it would be a fun girls night activity. Maybe during a future TGN retreat. 🙂

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  12. WOW!! I can’t wait to read more. This is beyond all—fabulous and riveting. And one for my keeper shelf.

    Can’t wait to meet you in Denver!

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    • Megan Starks says:

      Ahhh, you’re making me blush like crazy!! THANK YOU <3 And same to you! Can't wait to meet at RWA. I've been marking the days off my calendar since the start of June. 🙂

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  13. What fabulous tips! Thank you, Megan! And congrats on your final. With that excerpt it’s no surprise you’re tearing up the contest circuit. I expect you won’t be eligible for the GH for long! Good luck in Denver!

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  14. Amy Patrick says:

    Fabulous post and excerpt!!

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