One word that readers use a lot to describe my books is “cinematic.” I take this as a good thing, since it usually means that the books are easy for them to visualize, which means they’re really in there, with the characters, immersed in my world.
One technique I use to achieve this came to the fore this past weekend. I mentioned before that I was starting an “action” section of the novel, and in this case I mean “action” in the usual sense: a set piece with lots of moving parts.
Whenever I have such a scene, whether it’s a fight, a chase, or a battle, I always find it helpful to map out the action. I’m a very visual person—I can process information faster through a picture than I can via a block of text—so sketching out my scene on paper is a great help. I am not good at drawing, so we’re not talking masterpieces here. We’re talking about line drawings, sketches that block out the basic elements (see example). But even this rudimentary type of drawing is enough to do a couple of important things.
You see, action sequences have to be clear to the reader. There’s nothing more frustrating to me as a reader than having to keep too many details in my head during an action sequence. Likewise, I don’t want my reader to stop in the middle of an action sequence and go, “Hunh? I thought he was coming up the stairs.” I want the reader to move effortlessly through the prose; if I provide the map, the reader will provide most of the detail (more, in fact, than I’d ever want to put on the page).
So, first, by mapping the action out, I make sure I don’t blow it. I want my scene to be logical, consistent, and easy to comprehend. That means that, if I see too many arrows and circles on my map, I’m overcomplicating the scene. If I can’t follow it on paper, there’s no way in hell the reader can follow it in text. Mapping it out also has the benefit of showing me where I’ve made errors or introduced stupid moves that no one would really do. I may go through several iterations of a map, drawing and redrawing it, before I get something that is simple enough and yet plausible enough to work.
Second, once the map is done, it’s an invaluable reference to keep on hand while I’m actually writing the scene. Remember, I’m a basher, not a swooper, so I won’t be getting this whole scene down in one sitting. Even if I was a swooper, though, I would think this would be a useful tool.
Writing readable action is essential to almost any novel. Whether people are storming around the house arguing or shooting lasers in deep space, it has to be clear and consistent. This might mean I have to make something simpler in my novel than it would be in real life, but that’s the balancing act we have to perform. An attentive, imaginative reader will do a lot of work for me, but I have to give them enough detail—and consistent detail—to keep them fully immersed in the tale.