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I have two versions of a pivotal scene in my novel (both already written).

My SP is a rather impulsive young woman who is learning to be a bit less of a hothead. She saves the MC by literally taking a bullet for him.

In version A, she intuits the situation and, suppressing all fear, reacts almost instinctively. It is one paragraph long.

In version B, she intuits the situation, suppresses all fear, realizes this is not who she is and decides to act. It is three paragraphs long.

The first would imply that the courage is more a part of her character than even she realized, but makes her action more of a response to stimuli than a deliberate act of valour.

The second gives her more credit for the courage, more growth as a person and more ownership of the valorous act itself.

My question is, given a combat situation, would the more detailed version seem less credible as time is literally of the essence? How best to shine a light on her valour without it seeming cavalier?

These circumstances are either ideal for an epiphany or would stifle such.

  • 3
    Leaning towards #1, but I don't understand "realizes this is not who she is…" – I'm not sure exactly what she is realizing, or the kind of character turn this represents. If it is very important it might need more space, if not so much of a "turning point" then she might see it more in hindsight. Without knowing how important the realization is, it's hard to determine whether to do it before or after…. – wetcircuit Apr 5 at 11:27
  • @wetcircuit When SP suppresses the fear, goes against training and chooses to take the bullet, she converts the fear into resolve and some anger as she refuses to be governed by fear. This is her first real fire-fight, her first true test of classic physical courage and she passes with flying colours. – Rasdashan Apr 5 at 13:18
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    I agree with wetcircuit and your own doubts(?), the level of detail should match the amount of time you want to convey. Just make her realize the extra stuff later if it matters. – Ville Niemi Apr 5 at 13:44
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Assuming she survives (or in some cases even if she doesn't depending on how the story is structured) don't forget that you can always do the short version (which I agree with the others would most likely work better for an action scene) but then weave the other details in retrospectively.

For example perhaps she's in hospital afterwards talking about that moment and the thoughts that flashed through her mind in that instant. Or you could be more subtle and weave in references to it in multiple later scenes.

Storytelling doesn't have to be as linear as some people make it.

  • 1
    +1 to this. There is value in brevity to describe moments of action, but there is always room to reflect before or after (depending on your story flow). If it's 3 paragraphs worth of effective story material, consider 1 paragraph now and 2 later. – nostalgk Apr 5 at 14:38
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Personally, I would go for the short version.

I may change my mind if I actually read them, as the longer version might be heartbreakingly poignant.

However, my opinion with the current information is based on:

  1. It's an action scene, so you shouldn't slow it down with contemplation

  2. This contemplation about who she is strikes me as a bit suspect anyway and at risk of telling the readers something they will (or should be able to) intuit / understand for themselves

On a different note

I'm a bit confused about one of the premises of your question, which may only reflect the question, but may reflect larger issues in your story.

You say she's learning to be less of a hothead, but then to demonstrate this she instinctively jumps in front of a bullet? Huh?

  • She was raised in Columbia during the height of the cartel wars. She became an angel of vengeance when her brother was killed, infiltrating a cartel to desstroy the other. When the MC was shot, she thought that one should have been killed rather than wounded. She can be a blood for blood kind of gal. The TP tells her she would not have done other than he had - taken the shot required to defuse the situation. Now she is in a situation where she has fought well, but can save her instructor if she puts her life at hazard. Giving it a moment’s thought, for her, can be progress. – Rasdashan Apr 5 at 13:08
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It would depend, I think, on what you were trying to accomplish with the scene. Is the main purpose of the scene to excite and thrill? Or is it to highlight the change a character has gone through? I think if your main goal is the former, just use the 1 paragraph version. If the latter, maybe the 3 paragraph version. If you want to make the action the main focus, I think you'd want to keep it really short and sweet and punchy. If you're willing to draw it out a bit and let the reader really see how the character has changed, I don't see much of a problem with 3 paragraphs. The ideal however, is a hybrid between the two, I think. Make a really punchy action scene, but also weave some sentences in there that highlight why this character is doing this/how she's changed.

Ultimately, the question you should be asking yourself is: "What do I want to convey to the reader in this particular scene?" Once you figure out the answer to that question, ask yourself, "Which version better accomplishes the goal I have set for myself?"

Hope that helps. Apologies for the somewhat rambly answer; I wrote this in like 5 minutes.

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Use of detail in your descriptions influences the reader's perception of time and urgency. Compare:

The gun is pointed at him. He doesn't see it.

No time. Jumped in front of the bullet.

I was on the ground and bleeding before I registered what I'd done.

vs

The gun is pointed at him. He doesn't see it.

What should I do? Could I take a bullet for him? Do I really care about him that much? Do we have a relationship, or is it all just in my head? Will he remember me?

Does he really care? Should I just let this happen? I think I'll do it. And maybe, if I live through this, things will change between us. Maybe I'll have an answer.

The second example is not terrible. But I'd be more persuaded, more edge-of-my-seat, in the case where she's already taken the bullet, and is trying to figure out why, than the case where she's thinking before it happens. On the other hand, if you want a suspended-in-time sensation, more details will contribute. It honestly depends on what effect you're trying to achieve.

  • 1
    Her thoughts are more battle oriented and the relationship is she is his student and she prizes him mostly as such. I get what you are saying though – Rasdashan Apr 5 at 13:50
2

In an action scene, short is better, and in a battle, people do not have time to reflect (unless they have magically fast thinking). IRL fight training, there is a strong emphasis on repetition to make your defensive moves "muscle memory" automatic, so you take care of that part subconsciously (as you eventually learn to do when riding a bike, driving a car, typing, even learning to walk). In Kung Fu; they call it your body "becoming" Kung Fu; so your body blocks or ducks a punch the instant you recognize one is thrown, your leg catches a kick the same way; because in practice you've blocked hundreds of kicks. When defense is automatic, your mind has time to think on offense, but again that is just think "punch" and the body throws the punch in good form. Just like I think the word "expert" and my hands type it without further mental attention by me.

In real fights for amateurs, adrenaline and emotion (anger or fear) severely impairs the frontal cortex, the seat of logical thinking. It takes much training to be able to actually think rationally in a fight.

So if you want your girl to have an epiphany, I'd suggest she have that either well before or well after the impulsive move to save somebody else.

For example, when asked by the person she saved why she did it, she can say,

"I have no idea, I just did it. But I was thinking yesterday, I don't want to be a coward anymore, it is ruining my life. So, maybe, that's not who I am anymore. I hope that's not who I am."

"Well, you picked a great time to change it up. Thank you."

Realistically, in a fight (without magical mentalities), only the most experienced and trained fighters have time to think, plan or strategize, and the instant between realizing a trigger is being pulled (which might be done with training) and getting into the path of the bullet is far too short for any kind of deep thinking.

This is one of the reasons we use short, choppy sentences in fight description, and avoid metaphors and allegories; they don't fit well.

Now that doesn't mean "detail" cannot be included, I have fight sequences that in real time might be two or three minutes long, but go on for pages. But it is in the style above; the narrator is describing move-by-move, quick thoughts and realizations about the fight, without much decoration. No deep thinking.

Brittney's right forearm had Angela in chokehold. As Angela tried to pry it loose, Brittney took a half step right to regain leverage. Angela could see Brittney's left foot.

She leaned into the choke to force Brittney to support her weight, and stomped hard on the bridge of the foot with her heel. Brittney yelped and loosened her grip immediately. Angela thought she might have broken a bone. Angela freed her right arm and grabbed Brittney's right pinky, yanking to fold it backward and break it.

Etc.

  • She is well trained but not completely so. She is more used to long distance kills, though has been in close quarters combat. This is her first fire-fight with bullets going both ways. She has yet to reach the stage where calm contemplation would be possible during the heat of battle, but is getting there. – Rasdashan Apr 5 at 23:17

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