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In the short passage I am writing, the starting point is that one character is being held at gunpoint, and the end point is that she now holds the gun, having disarmed the opponent.

The idea is that this sequence happens very rapidly. She is an expert at it, and makes no mistakes. The reader does not know that though, so I need to show it.

I have rewritten this passage multiple times and I am still dissatisfied with the result:

  • getting into the head of the character slows everything down: it seems to detract from the spike of surprise due to the sudden action in favor of a slower buildup of psychological tension. I do not need psychological tension in this passage. There is psychological tension in the paragraphs leading to it, and this passage should just burst it like a bubble.

  • I tried a description of the action. She quickly grabs the gun, and simultaneously hits the wrist; before the other can react she twists the barrel, and steps back... and it sounds choppy like a laundry list of what-to-dos advices from the youtube videos I have been watching.

  • I also tried skipping it altogether. She is held at gunpoint in one sentence. She is grinning with the gun in her hand in the next. This would work if I had showed it once, but this being the first time happening, I need to show something.

  • I finally tried being more abstract with metaphors and similitudes relying on the ideas of speed and force. Her hand hit like thunder, and she whirled the gun away from the other's fingers. It was a wet rock slipping under the greater will of the sea. And while it may be appropriate for martial art fiction, it is breaking the style and setting of my thriller.

Question: I imagine that this issue is more general to quick combat scenes, which resolve in less than a few seconds. How to get a pacing that surprises the reader and renders the swiftness of the action?

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    Can you go to limited 3rd POV of the person being disarmed? That person's reaction is close to what you want the reader to experience. – wetcircuit Jun 13 at 13:24

10 Answers 10

10

I'm going to try and take the answer from "a CVn":

Have you considered doing something like skipping, then describing?

... and take it a bit further.

Jane was calm, arms up, as John held her at gunpoint. Steadying herself, she assessed him.

Everything about his posture, his demeanour, his very air, spoke volumes to her: He was going to pull the trigger. Her time for playing the mouse was up.

By the time John realised he wasn't holding the gun any more, his arm had been knocked to the side and his wrist felt like it was broken. Looking back at Jane, she was a step away from him, gun already levelled at his chest.

It was John's turn to put his arms up.

I'm not a good writer, so I'm aware this needs quite a bit of revising (e.g before looking back at Jane, a quick exclamation of pain from John may help the scene, up to you to decide. Or perhaps the final sentence could be changed to something more along the lines of, "Confused, surprised, and with a right arm that felt like it was on fire, it was John's turn to put his hands up"), but I hope the point is clear. Showing is always better than telling - even if showing in this instance is not showing all the details because it happened so fast.

You'll note though, that even with not explaining everything explicitly, this section still gives a pretty good idea of what happened - she'd simultaneously wrenched the gun from his hand by hitting (or otherwise hurting) his wrist and knocking his arm away. Just as quickly, she'd stepped away, so he couldn't just do it back to her. Even without spelling out exactly what had happened, it's clear she is very skilled.

If your aim is to show that this happened skilfully and extremely quickly, perhaps consider a variant of this.

  • The last two paragraphs of your examples is what worked for me the best in the end. You and aCVn are right that skipping increases the pace massively. You had me at showing also at a very fast pace what happened to the attacker. – NofP Jun 16 at 9:06
  • @NofP I'm glad I was able to help. Good luck with the rest of your writing. – RPBCL Jun 16 at 12:40
  • FWIW, I think your existing paragraph is better than your proposed additions. Less is more. – Weckar E. Jun 17 at 19:12
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+150

Have you considered doing something like skipping, then describing?

Something like (but do consider this first draft quality):

The man kept the gun pointed at her. Jane had trained for years, and knew exactly what to do. Moving swiftly and confidently, she wrestled the gun from his hand. The man had been completely unprepared for her hitting his wrist, and it had given her just the fraction of a second she needed to grab the barrel and twist the gun out of his hand and into her own. She held the gun firmly and pointed it at her opponent. "Roles reversed", she thought to herself.

This gets the initial change in situation across quickly, before the reader learns in more detail how it happened. Not entirely unlike how a well-trained individual might actually approach something like that, as a largely automatic action.

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    I know you said to regard as first draft quality, so in that spirit... 'wrest' would be a far better verb than 'wrestle' in this context meaning 'forcibly pull (something) from a person's grasp' as opposed to 'take part in a fight,... that involves grappling with one's opponent and trying to throw or force them to the ground.' – Spagirl Jun 14 at 12:19
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    I agree with skipping then describing, but I would make it even faster. "The man kept the gun pointed at her, right up to the moment she took it away. Jane had trained for years so had known exactly what to do, wrestling the gun from his hand swiftly and confidently" etc This gives the "bam" effect of letting her take it instantly, but then explains the sequence in more detail afterwards. – Dragonel Jun 14 at 20:54
  • This answer is an excellent starting point. RPBCL added a very good idea for extending your suggestion with an equally fast showing of the results on the attacker, which helps keeping a quick pace. I already upvoted your answer, I wish I could upvote it twice. – NofP Jun 16 at 9:10
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    @NofP Well, if you feel really strongly towards one, you can start a bounty on a question and award it to an answer. (There's even a specific bounty reason for an answer being worthy of an extra bounty.) I'm fine either way; I'm just glad that you found it helpful. – a CVn Jun 16 at 18:53
  • @NofP, I think you also have to award the bounty. Not sure how this works but currently it says that the bounty is open. You have created it specifically in order to award it to this answer, right? – PoorYorick Jun 17 at 17:52
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As @Wetcircuit suggest, try shifting the focus to the gunman

Now, I have no idea how you write your story, but here's an attempt at setting up the scene:

Staring straight into the barrel, her heartbeat was the only thing she could hear, as all of her senses sharpened, to show her that this was one of the moments. Those moments where everything came down to how she handled her self. As usual, time seemed to slow down.

Her heart beat in her chest.

As she stood, frozen in place, her eyes moved slowly from the barrel of the gun to the eyes of the gunman. Her heart beat again. She tilted her head slightly, shifting her focus to the gunman's mouth, just behind the barrel. His smirk faded as his lips slipped apart.

Her heart beat again, knowing that whatever he was gonna say, was a sign that she was running out of time.

He blinked, and no words came out. Instead, he stood, eyes and mouth wide open, slowly raising his hands in the air, as he realized he was now looking down the barrel of his own gun.

The smirk and the gun had changed hands. He had no idea who what he had gone up against. He never stood a chance.

This is an attempt to let the reader experience what happens in the scene, without detailing the specific actions or thoughts of the main character...

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    I especially like your use of her heartbeat as a metronome, ticking off the beats of time. – cmm Jun 14 at 19:39
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    +1 The heartbeat as time pacer work wonders when building up the tension. Great suggestion for longer action/tension scenes! – NofP Jun 16 at 9:14
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I like your last example. Just keep the speedy action and remove the final sentence that seems out of place for your setting. If your character knows what she's doing, the action she performs will be subconscious; even she won't think about it much, and the prose reflects that.

Her hand hit like thunder, whirling the gun away from the man's fingers and into her own.
He didn't know guns. She did. Simple as that.
Jane grinned.

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    +1. Small suggestion: "He didn't know Krav Maga. She did. Simple as that." Because I think being a gun-nut and disarming people are two different sets of skills. ;) – PoorYorick Jun 14 at 12:05
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    @PoorYorick, your point about different sets of skills seems good, but Krav Maga is way to specific. It reads as exoticism, and it over-corrects: just because he hasn't trained in Krav Maga doesn't mean he hasn't trained in hand-to-hand fighting. – ShapeOfMatter Jun 14 at 13:04
  • The second line has some flavor to it. It may still not fit in the thriller setting I am writing now, but it sounds good nonetheless. – NofP Jun 16 at 9:12
  • @ShapeOfMatter, this is really not important at all, buuut Krav Maga is actually quite well-known. It's the kind of technique a special agent would know, and it is quite popular for self-defense as well. So I don't think it's exoticism, it's just slightly more precise than saying "hand-to-hand fighting", because it namedrops a widely-used technique that is specifically aimed towards disarming opponents with pistols or guns. – PoorYorick Jun 16 at 19:32
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getting into the head of the character slows everything down: it seems to detract from the spike of surprise due to the sudden action in favor of a slower buildup of psychological tension. I do not need psychological tension in this passage. There is psychological tension in the paragraphs leading to it, and this passage should just burst it like a bubble.

If it's muscle memory for her, there isn't much going on in her head. I'd advise to not get into her head because she may not even consciously be taking these individual actions anymore.

I tried a description of the action. She quickly grabs the gun, and simultaneously hits the wrist; before the other can react she twists the barrel, and steps back... and it sounds choppy like a laundry list of what-to-dos advices from the youtube videos I have been watching.

This isn't particularly choppy if you break it up more. The approach isn't flawed, but the implementation needs polishing.

While quickly grabbing the gun with her left hand, she simultaneously strikes the gunman's wrist with her right hand. Having loosened his grip, she twists the gun and forces him to release it. By the time he realizes what has happened, [she] is standing two feet away from him and he's staring down the barrel of the gun he was holding two seconds earlier.

Still not perfect, but it flows better and is not a bad way to handle this scene.

Also, because this is such a rigid sequence of events that is hardwired into her brain, you can actually get away with the underlying tone that this is a well-practiced routine. A great example here is the Sherlock Holmes fight scene where Sherlock skims the bullet points of the sequence of actions he's going to take.
If this skill was drilled into her (e.g. military boot camp), then it stands to reason that she lists off the individual instructions as she does them (if she even thinks about it at all, because it may have become subconscious musle memory by now).

I also tried skipping it altogether. She is held at gunpoint in one sentence. She is grinning with the gun in her hand in the next. This would work if I had showed it once, but this being the first time happening, I need to show something.

You don't need to show it once. You simply need to showcase that she has the ability. For example:

  • After the unelaborated gun switch, have her show off her military tattoo that clearly proves she must have the skill (e.g. Navy SEAL tattoo)
  • Have someone witness it and talk to her about it after, at which point she elaborates that her (military/cop) father drilled this into her as part of teaching her self-defense.
  • Have someone witness it and talk to her about it after, at which point she elaborates on her aptitude during police/miltary training.

You're right that you need some kind of proof that this skill isn't just lampshaded, but you don't necessarily need to do that by describing the actual movement.

I finally tried being more abstract with metaphors and similitudes relying on the ideas of speed and force. Her hand hit like thunder, and she whirled the gun away from the other's fingers. It was a wet rock slipping under the greater will of the sea. And while it may be appropriate for martial art fiction, it is breaking the style and setting of my thriller.

I'd stay away from this because it's not the focus of the story. This isn't the story of someone with exceptional upper arm strength, or someone who is mustering more strength than she's ever had before.

Thrillers tend to go for bleak realism over the more flashy description you're using here. Your description sounds more like a superhero action movie.

Question: I imagine that this issue is more general to quick combat scenes, which resolve in less than a few seconds. How to get a pacing that surprises the reader and renders the swiftness of the action?

More often than not, surprise is used when it surprises the characters too. In that case, narrating things from their point of view inherently entails experiencing the surprise.

E.g. when a swordsman is so skilled that they cut the opponent before they even realize, write about how the opponent stood there and then noticed that he had been cut. The reader automatically has to reverse engineer the situation (there's a cut wound, therefore he must have managed to wound his opponent) just like the surprised opponent has to.

Or as a second example, when talking about a surprise assassination, first reveal it by the target feeling a sharp pain in their back before you actually talk about the assassin standing behind the target's back.

You can take a lot of inspiration here from movies too. As long as you narrate it in the same order that the camera shots take place, the same surprise will happen.

  • You are right that I did not need to show the actual movement. That definitively improves the surprise factor. – NofP Jun 16 at 9:18
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When you train for years in anything like a martial art, it becomes "muscle memory:" you don't even think about it consciously, you just drop into the correct motions to execute the response-to-stimulus. I experienced this once when a drunk at a party very unexpectedly grabbed me by the throat: I had broken his grip and kicked out at his groin without even realizing I was doing it, because that is what I had been trained to do. Everyone thought this was hilarious (well, except the drunk), because I was a fairly innocuous-looking young woman at the time. Being innocuous may not fit in with your character's persona, but if it does, you could always have her respond to his startled inquiry by saying something like, "sorry, just reflex." So perhaps, "without thought, without hesitation, she rapidly and fluidly disarmed him, coming back to herself when she had the gun pointed at him from the two meter distance she had put between them." Then, if he gapes and asks, she says something about the reflex or training that allowed this to happen.

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    I will probably come back to your idea of muscle memory when I need to explain a second disarming later in the story. – NofP Jun 16 at 9:22
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If I were writing this scene, I would put emphasis on the moment, but not describe the specifics of what happened. Make it clear that she performed an action, but leave the details of the action ambiguous. This draws attention to the moment, without the pace of the scene getting bogged down in the specifics of the motion.

The man kept the gun leveled at her head, and repeated his warning. She smirked slightly, then her years of training kicked in.

She didn't think. She moved.

The entire sequence lasted mere seconds, but when it ended, she was holding the gun against the man's temple. As the would-be killer, still reeling and unsure of what exactly had happened, slowly raised his hands above his head, her smirk widened into a full grin. The poor man hadn't realized what he was up against.

4

Creating a Surprise in writing is hard. Creating the unexpected, though, is writings bread and butter.

If you want to show it, once, then apply misdirection to guide the audience into thinking something else is happening. To illustrate my point —- Sarah recoiled from the sight of the gun as Phil pointed it at her heart. Her eyes fluttered and her head went back, as her body collapsed towards the floor. Phil stepped back half a step and dropped his guard. It was just enough for Sarah to catch herself, and push the barrel aside as she rose back up ....

Admittedly, my example is lame and only works if people don't know the character.

Things to think about — people have a hard time reacting to two events at the same time. she can sidestep and spit her chewing gun in his eye, the instinctive reaction is to protect the eyes. Humphrey Bogart did this a lot in is movies as Sam Spade when he took someone's gun away — except it was a lit cigarette into the face.

  • Not quite so extreme, but I ended up priming the tension buildup with misdirections before the gun even appears. – NofP Jun 16 at 9:24
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Write quick, cut-off sentences. This is a literary technique to induce stress in the reader and to convey a fast-paced sequence of events. Consider something along the lines of:

She was at gun-point. The steel was cold. It kissed her, the mouth of the barrel. On the forehead. Ready to blow through it. A micro-explosion of a gunshot. Accompanied by her brains. She didn't want that. So, she acted. She was quick. Her hands colder than the steel. Quicker than the bullet. The gun was secured. Secured in her steel grip. He was at gun-point. His very own gun, kissing his forehead.

Now, this is pretty mild cutting. You could be a lot more dramatic (and technically ungrammatical) with something like this:

The steel was cold. Pressing into her head. The mouth kissing her. The barrel's mouth. The gun's barrel. The gunman's gun. He stood over her. She was on the ground. No shiver. No sweat. No fear. The gun was his. The control was hers. Her thighs flexed. She popped up. Hands moving quick. His hand was snapped. Fingers gone astray. Fingers no longer gripping a gun. The steel was cold, lying in her hand.

Might've gotten a bit carried away. Anyways, these two passages are a bit artsy and unorthodox, but they both follow a rule. No long, unraveling and complex sentences. They are concise, rarely containing a comma. In the last passage which took it the furthest had only ONE comma in it. Now, you might have some problems with this style of writing, which is completely understandable, but it is nonetheless, a way to quicken the pacing.

Another thing that goes well with the choppy sentences is repetition of words and formats, something quite present in the latter passage. Hopefully this helped you out a little.

  • This is indeed a generally valid good suggestion about the writing style for quick actions. It makes it feel that the pace is increasing. – NofP Jun 16 at 9:04
  • Thank you, hope you found it useful. Were you aware of it before reading my answer? – A. Kvåle Jun 16 at 15:52
0

I would start by research!

The best way to research is: Go to youtube and type in "disarming a gunman" or something to that effect.

example.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JiJodvco5GU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtAIqdhJU9k

There are many many ways to disarm a gunman. Many many different types of techniques.

Find the one that you had in mind, and then describe it.

Basically the problem is, you are trying to describe something you know little about. And you do not even have the correct vocabulary for it.

Research. I am sure you will find what you are looking for.

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