East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Spreadsheets and action


I already discussed action sequences and combat and whatnot in a previous post. but we got talking, with my friend Claire, and I described how I use a spreadsheet to plan my scenes.
So why not share it, too?

Now, to me choreographing an action scene in a story is a fine balance of three processes

  • I have to imagine the sequence, run it in my mind like a movie
  • I must know exactly who does what and when, in what order etc.
  • I must find the right words to show it all on the page

The ninja - playing dirty since the Edo period.

The ninja – playing dirty since the Edo period.

Running the scene in my mind is something I do walking – I take a walk and I get my brain in gear.
I start with a basic premise (“Felice Sabatini is attacked by three ninja”), and then I start running the movie in my brain.
I want action, fast furious and fun, escalating from small scale to big and bold (and unlikely, but entertaining.)
I want at least three set pieces, one to set off the action (Sabatini jumps through a window!), one to give us a brief moment of WTF?! (Ninja #2 vanishes in a cloud of smoke leaving behind… a bullet-riddled log?!), and a final tense, punchy scene (fast, nasty close combat, on a moving vehicle, running down a staircase – and the enemy’s blade is poisoned!)
So I do various runs of the scene, mounting it in my brain the way I’d like to see it on screen – watching lots of action movies as a teenager helps.
They called it brainless escapism, I called it research.

At this point, with big action scenes I use my experience as a roleplaying game master, and I get me a spreadsheet.
In RPGs, you see, fights are broken down in turns and rounds, and initiative is determined to decide who’s on first; or, as in the old Feng Shui RPG, we think in sequences and shots, which is exactly what I need… sequences and shots (in filmic sense – sequences of frmes, and shots through the camera).
To keep track of the sequences and shots, I use a spreadsheet (LibreOffice Calc, in this case): time is the vertical axis, each cell in the column a “moment” or a shot.
On the horizontal axis I have the characters, one column each, plus two more columns, one for Extras and one for Events.
At this point I start filling in the cells with each character action, just as I envisioned in my mind, moment by moment.
How long’s a moment?
We’ll get to that.

As I fill in the various actions of the different characters, three things emerge
a . empty slots on the main character‘s timeline – those moments in which the point-of-view character is doing nothing. Gotta find them something for him to do.
b . out of sight actions – those things the point-of-view character cannot see or does not care about
c . empty slots in the background action (the actions of Extras or the various Events) that offer opportunities for extra mayhem.

I also check the bits that sound lame, and slot them for an improvement.

The end result looks like this

Screenshot from 2014-10-05 15:51:01

Felice Sabatini vs the ninja: in red, shots that NEED to be filled; in blue, what’s happening out of sight; in green, shots that might be filled to make things more spectacular, let’s cal these “opportunity shots”; in yellow, we can do better than this/cut this.

When the whole action is planned out this way (let’s say it takes half an hour on a moderately complicated scene like the one above), I can get me a cup of tea and then start writing down the lot.

Ideally, each cell contains an action or event I can describe in a single phrase, say ten words tops. Each moment, or shot, is the sum of the phrases describing everything that happens in that moment.
Ideally, the point-of-view character is doing something, is facing a single adversary, and notices something happening in the background. One of the three is the character’s main concern, and gets front stage in the sequence of events.

Feel tired after long chase, big guy with sword, people milling around

Feel tired after long chase, big guy with sword, people milling around

I write down the whole sequence, then make me a second cup of tea and then I straighten the scene up.
I try and use shorter, more clipped phrases as the action gets faster. Active verbs, simple words.
A spreadsheet sequence like the one above gives me about 1000/1500 words of action scene.
Nice and smooth.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I gave a lot of numbers in this post; numbers are debatable – writing is not an exact science.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

7 thoughts on “Spreadsheets and action

  1. I draw quick maps and sometimes even place miniatures on it to stage the fight. It helps me remembering where everybody is.


    • I thought about maps and miniatures but I write in a very small space, and then it would distract me too much – I’ll spend my time playing with miniatures instead of writing.
      I do use a painter’s dummy to simulate hand-to-hand moves, though… 🙂


  2. Very scientific a rigorous process.
    I admire you! I couldn’t fill half the lines you pointed in you spreadsheet.
    I’m hopeless with fighting scenes…


    • I’m hopeless too – that’s why I’m always looking for ways to simplify my job.
      I should just change genre – start writing cozies.
      No combats, no chases, no running around with sharp implements, just the detective pulling all the suspects together in a drawing room and explaining what happened. Piece of cake 😉


  3. That’s a really interesting approach, I think I’ll give it a try and see what happens. who knows 😉


  4. Pingback: Spreadsheets and series writing | Karavansara

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