What Jackie Chan can teach us about writing action

Following up my post on what writers can learn from Akira Kurosawa, I’m going to do another blog post on writing- this time based on the nine rules that Tony Zhou outlines in the video below about how Jackie Chan masters action comedy. Naturally, it will be easier to follow if you’ve watched the video, so check it out first.

Jackie Chan – How to Do Action Comedy from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

Action is primarily a visual creature, and is a natural fit for film, but can you do it well in prose? I would say yes, but let’s see if Tony’s 9 Jackie Chan “rules” can be applied to prose writing.

Jackie Chan’s 9 Principles of Action Comedy (as noted by Tony Zhou)

1. Start with a DISADVANTAGE

This one is pretty obvious. If your goal is to build tension, then having your character at a disadvantage in a scene in a must, whether they’re supposed to fight or just trying to run away. The more of a disadvantage you can put them at, the better, although I should note that Jackie primarily makes action-comedies. There is a reason Batman doesn’t most start fights at a disadvantage- because he’s a kick-butt reader surrogate and is supposed to make the reader feel powerful. If you take that away from the reader, they’re not going to like it much. (Although even Batman does occasionally start fights at a disadvantage for variety and dramatic purposes.)

 

2. Use the ENVIRONMENT

Tony is actually combining two points here in the video under one.

The first point he brings up is that Jackie uses the environment in his fights, which makes them more real and unique in a sense. If you can offer your reader something they haven’t seen before in a fight, like a character fighting with a ladder, then that can show that you’ve actually taken the time to think through this fight scene and make it interesting for the reader. If you emphasize the environment properly, it gives the reader a sense of place and can be used to help set up shots.

Speaking of which, the second point is really to set up your shots! If you want to have an action scene, then give the reader a sense of the terrain before and during the action sequence. Don’t be afraid to foreshadow or even lead a little with your descriptions like Jackie does in his movies. In the example they give, Jackie does a shot of a stuntman being knocked down a spiral staircase before he himself uses it shortly for his own actions- and there’s no reason you can’t do this kind of thing too! Use people, objects and even descriptions to lead the reader through the action, and make it easier for them to follow.

 

3. Be CLEAR in your shots

This is a trickier one for writers than you might think.

Normally, writers increase the pace of action scenes by using short, clear sentences and paragraphs to increase the pace of the action and story. They also focus on the very key elements of the events happening to keep from letting description bog down the action as it’s happening. However, to be truly clear about what’s happening you need to describe the action, and you need to do it in a way that paints a clear picture in the reader’s mind so they can follow it without being confused.

So you have to find a balance:

  • Too much description = slow reading and pacing.
  • Too little description = reader confusion.

This is one of the things that makes writing action so difficult- finding that sweet spot that conveys a clear image of the events for the reader to experience and enjoy while at the same time not bogging them down with too much, or disorienting them with too little detail.

 

4. Action & Reaction in the SAME frame

Not sure if this one can apply to writing. The only think I can think of goes back to #3, about being clear in your shots and #2b about letting the reader know where the action is going before it does. If any of you have other thoughts on how this one could be applied, please leave it in the comments.

 

5. Do as many TAKES as necessary

For writers, this is really about how much time you want to spend on your action scenes and effort you want to put into detailing them out. Especially in the modern self-publishing world where getting books out fast is often linked with financial success, it can be hard to spending days, weeks (or months) planning an action scene or sequence, but there are times when quality really is linked with time spent.

Again, like most things with writing, it comes down to balance.

You need to know what you’re capable of, and how much time you’re willing to spend, and then use that time accordingly. If you think you’ll benefit from storyboarding out a whole action scene first and you have the time, then why not? (It might also make a great extra for loyal readers, or to get people to join your mailing list.) But, if you’ve got two weeks to finish this book or the rent doesn’t get paid next month, then you’ll probably want to just do what you can and move on.

 

6. Let the audience feel the RHYTHM

This goes back to #3- let the audience understand what’s happening and they’ll be able to appreciate it more. Also, too many quick cuts (jumping from different points of view, or jumping between simultaneous action at different places) can prevent the reader from really appreciating what’s happening. Both POV jumping and jumping between scenes are effective tools for dramatic pacing in a book, but if you overuse them the reader can get confused or tired by it- so as with garlic and salt in cooking, use them in controlled moderation to avoid leaving a bad taste in the audience’s mouth.

 

7. In editing, TWO good hits = ONE great hit

This is a film editing trick, and I don’t think it can be applied to prose action writing. However, if anyone has some thoughts feel free to note them in the comments section below, I’d be interested to hear them.

 

8. PAIN is humanizing

This one is pretty self explanatory- we empathize with suffering, especially suffering we’ve experienced ourselves, and it brings us closer to the characters and makes them more human. Don’t be afraid to let your characters be hurt, even if it’s just superficial hurts it still reminds us that they’re people and made of flesh and blood like the audience.

Obviously, it also adds to the drama when characters are hurt, because it puts them at a disadvantage in the action and forces them to try even harder to get out of the hole they’re in. If your characters are macho tough-guys, then maybe you don’t want to show them being hurt too much, but if you want the audience to really feel for the character, showing them suffer is a great way to do it. Writer Chuck Palahniuk (of Fight Club fame) once advised that if you want to connect with the reader describe a character’s feet or their mouth, because both places are filled with nerve endings and give us intense sensations in real life.

 

9. Earn your FINISH

Story can be said to be about struggle. Nobody wants to watch a story about a guy who just walks through park and nothing happens, or someone doing something that isn’t hard or difficult for them to do in some way. While you don’t have to make it a series of ever-stronger bosses like a Jackie Chan movie, you should do your best to show that the character had to overcome something (mental, physical, emotional or social, or some combination thereof) to reach their goals and achieve victory.

Don’t be afraid to stack the odds against your characters, and let them have to do something outside of their comfort zone to win. Of course, if you overdo it, it can become ridiculous, so make sure your poor character does at least have a slim chance of winning in the reader’s minds.

 

Final Thoughts

I’ve always been fascinated by the art of writing action in prose form. I think it comes from growing up on comics and action films and then transitioning into literature, where unfortunately the ability to write action varies widely by writer. It’s not an easy skill, and it’s one I struggled with when I was writing my Little Gou short stories and novel, especially since that was literally an attempt to write kung-fu adventures! I don’t claim to have mastered it, and I think I learned a few new tricks watching this video and thinking through this article, but in any case it’s a skill any writer can benefit from developing- whether you’re writing kung fu in old China, car chases through Cairo, or gunfights under the Texas sun.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Please comment below!

Rob

Korean Drama- Three Days (Spoiler Free Review)

I just finished watching the Korean action-thriller drama Three Days, which I have to say I enjoyed quite a bit. It’s a Korean series in the vein of the American drama 24, about the Personal Security Service (PSS) of the Korean President, and how they’re caught in a struggle between the President of Korea and a shadowy cabal of powerful men who are trying to kill him. The PSS are charged with protecting the President, but is the man they’re giving their lives for really worth that protection?

If I have to describe the series, I’d describe it like driving down a twisty mountain road at night at high speed with only a flashlight to guide your way. It’s incredibly twisty, with danger flying at the main characters at every turn, the odds stacked against them, and everything that can go wrong pretty much does. A true thriller, and while it does have its weaker points, it pretty much manages to keep you guessing right up until near the end.

It’s by the same team that did the drama SIGN and the more recently drama Ghost, so if you’ve seen either of those, you know what to expect. I’d actually say Ghost was the better series, as it had a much better villain, but Three Days does deliver the action and the production values are more like a 16 hour long movie!

One minor quibble is that the title is Three Days, but actually the story takes place over nine days. It’s broken down into three arcs, with each of the arcs being three days long, but the title of the show is a real misnomer. I guess “Nine Days” didn’t sound as cool or dramatic.

Rob

Why are today’s action movies so bad? – The Week

Why are today’s action movies so bad? – The Week.

A video essay on why modern action movies suck. Do you think he’s right?

Chaos Cinema Part 1 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.

Chaos Cinema Part 2 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.