ARTICLE: On frying pans, fires, & boiling water

What have these to do with writing?

Nowt!  But they’ve everything to do with action.  They’re the essential ingredients of any action scene in any well-written book.  Take a showdown between a private-eye and a couple of baddies.  in a badly written book, there’d be a sudden blare of gunshots, then a page later, the P.I. would either have the villains trussed-up or be lying in a pool of his own blood.

In a well-written book, things would be very different.

First our private-eye would find himself in the initial frying-pan.  A mysterious phone call. “Come to Wally’s warehouse, midnight. I know who killed Mr. Fallguy.  Be there!” He goes!! The warehouse appears deserted.  But then: gunshots! He’s in the frying pan.

But he doesn’t stay there long.  A quick dash for cover and he’s safe behind one of the many islands of crates that seem to inhabit such places.  Out of the frying pan.  More shots.  Return fire.  He snakes through the crates – towards the sources of the gunshots.  Everything is quiet.  Suddenly, he sees the back of the gunmen.  He smiles, and aims his gun to pin him down…


The sound of a gun-click behind him.  He turns round.  Nothing!  “Up, here, sucker!”  He looks up; he’s pinned down.  By an impressive looking villain holding an even more impressive gun.  He looks back at the first villain.  Now he’s got him pinned down too.  The flames grow even higher.

But, in the best tradition of mystery-thriller villains everywhere, he can’t resist a quick gloat.  “Ya think you’re so clever, don’t you? But who’s on the wrong end of the guns, eh?”  He lets them ramble on a bit while he glances round for a way out.  They begin to explain half the plot to him, getting increasingly confident in the process.  Suddenly, he sees his escape route.  A mains lever!  Taking advantage of a confidence-induced lapse in their concentration, he leaps towards the lever, throws it!

Darkness.  The flames ebb.

Confusion!  Shouts!  He uses the wall to guide him to the only way out.  Hears them scrambling over, and through, the crates.  Towards the exit!  The heat still burns his neck.

Makes it!  Squeezes through the door.  hears a car, or three, rumbling towards him.  Looks.  Shortish, low.  Police cars?  His partner coming to rescue him?  Water?!  Wishes he still had his gun.  Hasn’t.  The villains are breathing down his neck.  He puts on a spurt of speed towards the cars.  They pull up.  Doors open.  Darkly clad men get out.  Cops?  Holding guns.  not police issue; the water is boiling hot!

Whether you want to call it Terrible Trouble, Awful Aggro, or Horrible Happenings, the above sequence is at the heart of all action scenes.  What happens next?  Perhaps the cops do turn up to rescue him.  And his client rewards him in her own slinky way.  Or maybe he has to find his own way out of the boiling water.  To that cool pool of pure spring water.

Only to find it’s….H2SO4*?

*Sulphuric acid.


Copyright John Steele, 1990, 2011
This article was published in the small press magazine, Writers’ Own Magazine, No. 33, in Spring 1990 (ISSN 0267-1360). No payment, but did receive a complimentary copy, and I have a vague memory that someone commented on it, or another article of mine, in a later issue.

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