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I normally try to place myself in my character's shoes and I think to myself, "how would I react if I were in this situation?" Well one of my beta-readers commented on my work, and he said the chapter sounds like it was written in haste to go along with the panic and dire of the situation at hand. He said that's not a good thing.

How can I write a panicked/dire scene without it feeling like it was written in haste?

Any feedback is appreciated. Thanks in advance!

  • 1
    Hi Dawn. Are you asking about putting yourself in a character's shoes as you write? Or are you asking about how to write panic without making it feel like it was written in haste? Could you please edit to clarify? Thanks. – Cyn Jun 25 at 15:25
  • @Cyn Ok, it's been edited. – Dawn Kelli Jun 25 at 15:28
  • Did you want to edit the title too? – Cyn Jun 25 at 15:32
  • @CYn Ok, I edited the title as well. – Dawn Kelli Jun 25 at 15:34
  • Thanks! Now it's a solid question. – Cyn Jun 25 at 15:36
14

I've noticed something about many books and movies. Just as two characters are getting into a deep conversation, either sharing something important or showing emotion or leaning forward slowly to kiss, a random passerby will walk right between them. It totally throws them off and - you would think - breaks things up. But instead, it actually heightens the audience's anticipation. We can't wait until the interruption leaves so we can get back to what was about to happen.

This is part of pacing, and it's hard to get right, mostly because it's not always intuitive. Interrupting a tense scene can increase tension? Slowing down the sword fight can make it even more gripping?

Yes.

What readers need is variation. A section of panic and then a strangely quiet moment - the eye of the storm, as it were - before returning to the panic and ratcheting it up even higher.

Don't spam these moments. They need to happen naturally, just once or twice in the scene.

My recommendation is to pay special attention to tense, panicked, or dire situations in other books. You might be surprised to see that despite the heavy action, the author doesn't completely cut out all introspection. There has to be feeling even if there isn't conscious thought.

I recommend re-watching Inception. Literally the most gripping movie I've seen in theaters. Notice that Fischer, the rich son whose dream they enter, spends much of the dreamstate talking with his father. It's slow and emotional, and perfectly contrasts with the alpine chase scene and the shootouts.

Don't forget the emotional stakes during these scenes. That is often what makes a good action scene work, anyway.

UPDATE: Let me be clear: showing too much emotion and introspection during a scene will slow it to a crawl. That's not what you want. The trick is to use a balance of interruptions to the action: some will be thoughts and emotions, and some will be literal breaks in the action, like the characters barricading a door to buy themselves time. They can still hear the enemies pounding on the outside, and they can see the metal bending around the handle, but for a few brief moments they are safe enough to realize how much danger they're really in.

7

Panic and dire situations do not necessarily make time seem to flow faster.

People frequently talk about adrenaline making time seem to slow down, and it's not a bad idea to let your writing reflect that. I once got hit by a car in the crosswalk (Spoiler alert, it was going slowly, stopped almost as soon as it hit me, and I was not permanently injured). When I turned my head and noticed that the car was going to hit me, I had basically no time to react. As I am not a parkour master or a stunt man, I didn't have time to make a conscious decision to jump or roll or dodge or anything that might have softened the blow. Instead, I looked at the car, stood there like a deer in the headlights, and the split-second seemed to stretch out to infinity, my brain echoing with the thoughts, "I'm about to be hit by a car. There's nothing I can do to stop it," as it rolled towards me.

Continuing forward about ten minutes, I took a test for a college course (because my panic somehow rolled into 'I'm going to be late for my test' and I did not make good decisions) -- I distinctly remember reading through the first question on the exam about a dozen times, and every time I got to the multiple choice options, I got distracted by overwhelming thoughts like "OMIGOD, I JUST GOT HIT BY A CAR", "My leg hurts" or "A CAR, A FREAKING CAR!" (No, I did not get this particular question correct)

The point I'm trying to make is that, just because your character has very streamlined actions or intentions, does not mean that their brain is shut down and only thinking about what they're doing. It might be imperative that they go chop down a tree. If that's just a simple chore, go ahead and say they went out back, chopped down the tree, gathered some firewood, and brought it inside.

If, on the other hand, chopping down this tree is going to save the world, they're going to be thinking about the weight of the axe in their hand, how heavy their footsteps are as they cross the yard, what this is going to mean for the rest of humanity. They'll pick the best angle to swing at the tree, so they don't have to work up the nerve to do it a second time, and they'll pull back their shoulders and swing with all their faith and resolution. The axe will slice through the air, and the sound it makes as it cuts into the bark will resound through their head in chorus with the reverberations of Newton's Third Law in their arms.

tl;dr During moments of extreme importance, be sure to express the character's thoughts and emotions, even if decisions/actions are made quickly.

5

You write slow. It is fine to put yourself into the character and see how you would react, but take your time describing that. Get into the details.

This isn't a "real time" exercise, the length of the writing does not have to reflect the length of the action. The only time that is true is during dialogue, people know that sentences take a certain amount of time to say. They know it is seldom true that anybody talks in long paragraphs or soliloquys or speeches or sermons.

But that does not hold for action or exposition that has no dialogue. Thoughts are on the borderline, but it is fair to describe several wordless thoughts or impressions that go through somebody's mind, and even though that took six paragraphs, the reader will still get this all happened in a single second.

Consider when you describe a scene the character sees. You can spend a page on something they "saw" in three seconds of scanning a room. We still get it, they didn't stand in the doorway for a full minute as they walked in, the exposition about the setting is not a "real time" description.

The same goes for your panic attack. Don't rush the prose to match the rushed mood. Describe what is going on, thoroughly but as always without getting repetitive or irrelevant. Don't worry about "real time" or getting through it quick.

The author's job is to aid the reader's imagination, so they "see" an image of what is going on and what happened and the consequences of that.

4

Beta-readers are great for identifying areas in our writing like this. What you have been told is this section does not feel finished or polished. However, there is an implied prescription of what you need to do to fix it. That bit I would suggest disregarding.

My first step would be to review the passage and see where I need to edit and work on it. Maybe I did not give it the attention I needed. Maybe I did but I gave that one reader the wrong impression. Maybe I need to add more panic feelings to the scene?

Panic is a feeling deep within the gut. For me, the best way to make my reader share this is to lead in with a fast-paced scene and then slow right down.

A fast-paced scene, as I am sure others will tell you. Is easiest to compose with short sentences. I strive for a varied but generally short length. This makes readers read faster. Much faster. Sometimes they are as tense as your characters. Not always, but sometimes. Then, at a critical moment, I slow down and allow the reader time to feel that panic too.

The best way to describe it is to ask you to imagine playing a game. For some reason, there are higher sakes than usual. Perhaps you bet on winning. Maybe your pride is at stake. Whatever the reason, this game matters. After a flurry of rapid-fire moves, we suddenly enter the end-game. You notice that the other player has a material advantage. You, on the other hand, have a slight situational advantage. You see two possible outcomes. Counting the moves ahead you see that you can only lose slowly unless the other player makes a mistake. The alternative is a daring gambit.

You make the gambit move. If your opponent plays to form, you will crush them within a few moves. If they surprise you with a counter, then you have definitely lost. Only then do you see that you had another option. A sure-fire unblockable win. It is too late to take that option.

You look at your opponent. "Your move," you tell them.

Then you wait. The only sound is the ticking of the clock. Time passes. They consider their next move very carefully. You stare at the board. All you can see is the best move that you missed. You hope they will bite but you can do nothing but watch.

You try to appear relaxed lest you give away your feelings to your opponent. You force your hands to your lap - out of site under the table. You force your face to smile a little. No, not too much - they must not think you believe you have one. Now you cannot even work out what expression to make your face adopt. You try to look bored. You focus on your breathing, willing them to make the move you want them to make.

Finally, they move and it is your turn but your opponent has made a neutral move. Have they seen the trap? Are they testing you before they commit? Have they just failed to see the situation? Do you now follow through, or give up some material and try to regain the win another way?

That feeling you have from the end of your move to the start of your next. That is panic. If you can allow your reader to empathise with that feeling within your character, you can draw it out and make it one of the tensest and compelling parts of the story.

Like in the gameplay example, time seems to crawl along. You go through so many emotions and thoughts - doing nothing but waiting. My aim is to put my reader through that feeling by putting my character through it.

The same is true of action-packed scenes. Scenes where the character is acting from fear rather than reason. I follow a four-point cycle for those. It is triggered by something happening.

Something happens -> reaction (say, shock) -> reasoning (this is bad) -> anticipation (he is going to shoot me) -> reaction (panic)...

The reaction is, of course, something happening, so we can go right back into that cycle again. For panic, I try to keep reasoning tiny or simply implied because panic requires anticipation of negative outcome without calm reasoning. Better yet, this pattern allows me to bring on an out of character moment that feels entirely justified. The pacifist hitting someone, the good guy doing something slightly evil, etc..

Even though this is an action scene I am still trying to give my reader that same feeling as the tense endgame. Bursts of action followed by enough time where anticipation can do its best work.

Only you know what the scene is supposed to do. So only you can tune it to make it do that. My general advice is usually that any scene worth including is worth fully committing to. Sometimes we writers rush through a scene to get to the next bit. It is okay to do that as long as we go back and give that scene as much love as the others later on.

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