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Choreograph Your Characters: 6 Tips for Writing Action Scenes

I’m a dance teacher and choreographer-turned author. I’m retired from teaching in a studio setting, and writing is my primary focus now, but I satisfy my passion for dance by choreographing middle school and high school musical theater productions. My daughter recently observed, “Mom, your choreography has improved since you started writing.”

Writing and choreography have a lot in common. As a writer, I want my readers to be able to visualize the action in the story as clearly as if they were watching a film. As a choreographer, I want the movement to complement and reinforce what’s happening in the show.

Here are some ways I thought like a choreographer while crafting the action scenes in my YA dystopian series:

-Advance your story through movement. Just as you would describe a character who’s waking with a stretch, a yawn, or other lazy movement, you engage the reader and show heightened tension through rapid movement:

Careen Catecher was just a few steps from the front door of the history building when a wave of panicked students poured out, driving her back into the quad. Someone’s backpack knocked her coffee mug out of her hand. A guy she didn’t know grabbed her roughly by the elbow and spun her around without breaking stride, dragging her with him as he ran.

-Employ the character’s senses.
Actors and dancers pantomime the use of their senses. Describing the action in a scene with more than just what the character sees:

Tommy heard nothing but the steady rhythm of his feet as he ran around the high school track. His breathing was ragged, but he smiled as he backpedaled to a stop. He sagged against the chain-link fence, draped his arms across the top, and shook the sweat out of his hair, reveling in his pure exhaustion. The breeze smelled like fresh-cut grass.

-Avoid describing the action step-by-step. If I were to choreograph a song for an actor that acted out every word of the song, it would look ridiculous, and the actor would feel awkward and silly as she performed. Give your reader credit for knowing how people move to accomplish certain tasks, and don’t take them step-by-step through things like starting a car or putting away the groceries unless doing so reveals something important about the story.

Careen woke when the screen door banged shut. She waited until she heard Tommy start the shower before rolling out of bed. When she returned to his room ten minutes later, he was slowing pulling a t-shirt over his head, and she caught a glimpse of an assortment of bruises on his back, some purplish, others faded to shades of yellow and green.

It’s not necessary to go into details of either character’s morning routine. We can assume Careen and Tommy both brushed their teeth, but we don’t need to see it happening.

-Draw maps and diagrams to orient yourself in the space. I use my own invented shorthand for writing out the steps to my choreography, and supplement those notes with diagrams to show how the dancers progress through different positions and formations on the stage. Julie Campbell, author of the Trixie Belden mystery series, placed her cast of characters in a setting modeled after the Hudson River Valley village in which she grew up. Still, she drew maps showing the locations of various landmarks and the characters’ homes.

I once edited a short story in which the main characters found themselves involved in a shoot-out at a meth-lab trailer located out in the Alabama countryside. To help myself see the action as it unfolded, I drew a rough map of the trailer, the field, and the dirt road, and traced the characters’ paths, both on foot and in their truck.

-Use appropriate body language. In traditional story ballet, there is an established set of gestures and poses that help the audience understand the action. For example, a young woman who holds out her left hand, palm down, and gestures toward it with her other hand, is signaling her betrothal. This link from the Writers Write blog is really helpful. Body language is great—but use it sparingly. Otherwise, you could end up with a fidgety character!

Tommy left the house later than usual and swung into an old, familiar five-mile loop through his neighborhood. When he jogged around the last corner, he noticed an unfamiliar black car parked in front of his house. As he approached, four people stepped out to meet him. He slowed to a walk.

“Tommy, honey, we’ve been worried about you. We knocked and you didn’t answer the door. Are you okay?”

As Beth approached him, he took an involuntary step back. She was saying all the right things, but something about her—the vacant way she looked at him—wasn’t right. She laid a maternal hand on his forehead, as if he might have a fever. “Did you take your dose this morning?”

“Uh…yeah. I got my delivery. No worries.”

“But you haven’t taken it yet, have you?” The two men he didn’t know suddenly stepped forward, and Tommy found himself surrounded, trapped on his own front lawn.

“Why? What’s going on?”

“When there’s any problem with a delivery, we’re required to follow up. It’s our job to make sure you take your next dose and make sure there are no ill effects.” He flashed his badge. “Wes Carraway. Quadrant Marshals.”

Tommy sized up the two marshals. Carraway was practically a kid, only a few years older than he was. And he looked fit. Really fit.

Tommy scrubbed at his hair and feigned indifference, then brushed past Beth and sauntered toward the front porch. “Yeah, okay. Whatever. I’ll go inside and take it.” He had his hand on the doorknob when Carraway stepped up and blocked the doorway.

“We need to see you take it. Right now.”

The second marshal twisted Tommy’s arm behind his back and held his head. Carraway produced a bottle and dropper and deftly squeezed three drops into Tommy’s mouth.

Tommy jerked his head free, hoping at least a drop of the CSD would be lost in the sweat and spit that sprayed across the front of Carraway’s jacket.

Carraway pulled Tommy up by his sweatshirt and whispered urgently, “I know she’s here. What have you told her?”

They looked at each other, nose to nose, for a long, agonizing moment before Carraway released Tommy and dropped the bottle into the pocket of his sweatshirt. The two marshals strode away, and Tommy slumped against the door.

Field test your moves. I would never go to rehearsal without practicing the dances I’m planning to teach. I have detailed notes, plus a Plan B to modify the choreography if for some reason it doesn’t work the way I’d envisioned.

While I was writing Counteract, I asked my trainer to including boxing in our sessions. I accompanied my husband to the target range so I could learn to shoot, because I wanted to be able to make my choreography realistic. (See my post Oh, Shoot! for more on writing about firearms)

Tommy turned off the lights, listening with one ear for anyone milling about in the hall. He scrolled through the files in the folder, opened a few that looked promising, and skimmed the first few pages. He wanted the information they contained.

His last download was 75 percent complete when he heard voices. He moved into the shadows of a corner behind the door.

Someone entered the room and flipped on the lights. “Help us Dr. Jacobs! Save us, please!” the recorded voices pleaded.

The security guard was momentarily distracted by the plaintive voices, and Tommy took the opportunity to attack. He slammed the guard’s face against the wall until blood spurted from his nose, then spun him around, pummeling his face with a right hook, a left, and a brutal uppercut to the chin. A couple hard punches to the torso, and the guard slid to the floor in agonizing defeat.

Tommy towered over him, breathing hard, rattled by what he had just done instinctively, automatically.

It doesn’t hurt to field test your romantic scenes, either. Just sayin’.

How do you double-check your writing choreography?

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