If you want to talk about action scenes, Homer’s Iliad is probably the place to start.
The action scenes in the Iliad are brutal even by today’s standards: two great armies going at it with swords, spears, and shields, gaining or losing ground depending on the whims of the gods, while Homer zooms in with his Skycam to provide grisly close-ups of individual casualties, shoving our faces in the carnage until we are as weary as the stalemated Greeks. We might think we live in an age of overly violent entertainment, but Game of Thrones has nothing on the Iliad.
Speaking of war stories, I’m reminded of another one of my favorite books: Watership Down, by Richard Adams. Watership Down is a story about a group of rabbits forced to leave their overcrowded colony and find a new home. Sure, it all sounds very charming and G-rated, just a typical children’s fable…until all the rabbits who stayed behind are suffocated by poison gas.
And that’s just the beginning—there are many more scenes where rabbits are maimed or killed on the way to their Promised Land. There are even rabbit Nazis—the fascistic Efrafans, led by the monstrous uber-bunny General Woundwart, whose climactic siege on Watership Down (a big grassy hill that is the refugees’ new homeland) is right up there with the Iliad for sheer brutality.
I have no doubt some people think Watership Down is too violent, that it would be better if it was more like Peter Rabbit or The Wind in the Willows–just a charming little romp with our animal friends. What such folks fail to realize is that just because it’s about rabbits doesn’t mean it has to be soft and fluffy. For action scenes to be truly thrilling, the stakes must literally be life and death; Richard Adams did not want to sugarcoat the harsh lives of wild rabbits. Watership Down is closer to Saving Private Ryan than to Winnie the Pooh. Take away the violence and you take away what makes it so great.
As a writer as well as a reader, I have a weakness for grim, lurid spectacle. Like in my first Xombies book, where the main character, Lulu Pangloss, has to escape from an armored car that was hit by a bomb, then plunged through the frozen surface of the sea, then sank amid hordes of giant carnivorous spider crabs.
Or my book Mad Skills, in which the computer-enhanced protagonist, Madeline Grant, has to perform brain surgery on herself in a motel bathtub.
Or my book Enormity, in which former 98-pound weakling Manny Lopes, who has been transformed by a “quantum accident” into a six-thousand-foot-tall, hundred-million-ton giant, must singlehandedly take on the entire North Korean military in order to prevent World War Three.
Or my most recent book, Terminal Island, wherein damaged war veteran Henry Cadmus has traced his missing mother to the mysterious “retirement village” of Shady Isle, only to find himself trapped in the condo complex with a pack of crazed attack dogs…and their even more vicious keepers.
Not that I think of my work as empty spectacle – the violent stuff is counterbalanced by character interplay and scene-setting, which hopefully builds reader tension to the point where a dose of insane mayhem is called for. That’s crucial, because without interesting characters and a good story, action is meaningless; it’s only after we get to know the players that action counts for anything. But that’s not to deny its importance. Exciting action scenes are icing on the cake; they are what readers will remember, and hopefully talk about.
Another good example of this is the novel Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Like the Iliad and Watership Down, it’s also a war story, but in the form of a satirical comedy with dialogue like Marx Brothers banter. Yet when it gets dark, it gets very dark.
There is a particular scene in Catch-22 that still freaks me out: A grandstanding pilot, McWatt, is buzzing sunbathers on a beach when suddenly he miscalculates, swooping too low, and the plane’s propeller hits a man standing on a raft—a man who was McWatt’s friend. Instantly, what was pure silliness becomes horrible tragedy.
Likewise, I would say the novel No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy, is a great example of how to strike the perfect balance between weirdly funny character moments and jarring bursts of action—what filmmakers call “action setpieces” (I think there is even a formula in Hollywood that every action movie has to have at least five such sequences, or the audience will feel cheated).
The villain in No Country for Old Men is a weirdo named Anton Chigurh, who prefaces his murders with existential head-trips, baffling his victims with bullshit before shooting them with a pneumatic cattle gun. These scenes have a flippant senselessness that is the antithesis of the savage heroics in the Iliad, yet they impart the same message of futility:
All action is for naught; Death always wins in the end.
Thanks for reading!