Action heroes are damn hard to kill, if books, movies, and television are any indication. According to Hollywood, protagonists are bulletproof, the laws of physics don’t apply, and cavemen flew airplanes. We lowly novelists aren’t much better. Believable action sequences and honest portrayal of their likely results increase the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief and enhances your credibility as a writer. Here are some tips when inserting and extracting your characters from the deliciously dicey situations you conjure in your imagination.
I’ve been around a few explosions. Whether you’re wounded, jump a little, or merely turn your head toward the sound is a matter of proximity, exposure, and expectation. Every situation is different. However, there is one thing that absolutely won’t happen.
You can’t outrun an explosion as it is happening. They come out of nowhere and by the time you realize what has happened, it is over. If you heard it, you’re in good shape. The expression “You don’t hear the one that gets you” is one of the few things writers get correct.
While on the subject of explosions, they are not an orange-red color. That coloring comes from burning accelerant. Explosions vary from black to shades of gray. And if you are caught in one, you won’t be pushing your way out of the rubble to continue the fight with some torn clothing and a two-inch scratch on your forehead. Sorry, Arnold.
This is a massive turnoff. I am not talking about the technicalities of a bullet really being just the projectile that exits the muzzle and the entire package actually being a cartridge. Or that fully automatic fire is generally only supposed to be used in three to five round bursts. Or that sustained full-auto fire is highly uncontrollable in most systems. If your protagonist is some bad-ass gunslinger, he should handle his weapon like one.
What annoys me far more is sloppy weapon handling. For example, fingers inside trigger guards, holding a pistol muzzle-up by his head, and firing from the hip. These sloppy habits make your protagonist less effect at hero-ing. They, also, make him dangerous to everyone except the bad guys. Your hero doesn’t even look cool doing this crap. He just looks like a fag.
Coming to a dead stop from any speed is a violent event. It sucks to be inside. You can look up the science to understand why a sixty-mile-per-hour crash exerts four times the force as a thirty-mile-per-hour crash on the body. Driving a car into a wall or cement barrier at anything more than a walking speed sucks, even with a seat belt on. They make your hips, shoulder, and neck hurt. Nobody pops out of wrecked car in any condition to do cross-stitch.
And don’t get me started on cars flipping over in the air. Even the sedate spin-rate of a roll-over simulator is disorientating by the time you’ve been turned ass over teakettle a couple of times, hung upside-down, and had to scramble out of the cabin. Here is my rule of thumb: The number of times your ass is higher than your head is equal to the number of times you fall down trying to regain your feet.
Jumping through glass
Glass is a weird substance. It’s remarkably tough and brittle, at the same time. A tremendous amount of science has going into producing glass that behaves in predictable ways for different applications. However, there is one constant with glass. Whether pebbles of safety glass or shards from a picture frame, the pieces that result from glass breaking will cut.
Breaking a car window is tougher than you would expect and leaves a mark. Usually, several of them. Driving through a store-front window with a golf cart is a terribly frightening experience. I would not recommend either. If you insist your character do something involving breaking glass with any part of his body, please don’t insult anyone’s intelligence by having him escape unscathed.
The math for car crashes and number of opponents is pretty much the same. Double the number of attackers and your problems quadruple. This is assuming a fair fight, which you should never, under any circumstances, engage in. A gun skews that equation in your favor, but neither is it a magic wand. Each of the attackers will likely want to gain control of it as much as you want to maintain control.
Short of your protagonist being the vampire gymnast zombie Green SeAL Para-MARSOC Special Operator lovechild of Jean Claude van Damme and Jessie Ventura from their time on the set of Predator, he won’t be besting a horde of henchmen.
Two committed attackers is generally enough to overwhelm one victim. Maybe it takes three, if your protagonist is well trained and expecting a fight. Once that number reaches four, your guy is going to come out on the losing end. Escape might be his best option.
Some of the inaccuracies above don’t apply, if your protagonist is a demigod or superhuman. He may very well be able to outrun an explosion. He may some high speed commando, even though those skills diminish over years of not practicing. If this is the case, feel free to disregard everything I’ve written and carry on with your bad-assed writer self.
On the other hand, maybe your protagonist is more of a normal guy caught up in extraordinary circumstances or events. As often as not, a novel’s plot hinges on some anonymous “Joe Everybody” being thrust into a world far outside his normal life. Either way, manipulating the laws of physics to extricate a character from a dire situation strains the ability to suspend disbelief with readers who know better.
It’s also lazy writing. Don’t be a lazy writer.