Action scenes.

A is for Action, as in writing action scenes. Fights, stunts, anything that has your characters moving, struggling, in fear for their lives. Writing for some genres can do without the action scenes, but they can add a lot to fantasy, science fiction, and thriller genres, and of course, for adventure writing it’s just unavoidable. Action and adventure just naturally go together, don’t they?

I’ve had a bit of a knack for writing action scenes for a long time now, and found it a bit surprising when I first heard other writers saying that they had a hard time with them. They say that when you can do something well naturally, it’s a bit hard to dissect it and figure out just HOW to do it in a way that you can teach to someone else, but I think that I’ve come up with some useful tips for writing action scenes. By the way, a lot of these are phrased for fight sequences, because that’s the way a lot of them seem to go in my stories, but you can probably apply the same ideas to death-defying rescues or horrible accidents or what have you, with a little tweaking.

  1. Start from motivation. Figure out what each character wants in the scene. Does the hero just want to stay alive, is he dead-set on getting the amulet back, or does he want more than anything, to beat the shit out of the bad guy? Is the bad guy out to kill your hero, or is he play-acting to further some deep scheme of his own, or creating a diversion so that his henchmen can trash the hero’s house? Figuring out what’s motivating the actors in the scene, and how they tend to react in tense situations, will inform all of the action.
  2. Sort out the space, where the characters are, where they go. If you have trouble visualizing this mentally, then sketching it out in a graphics file or on paper can help.
  3. If you’re not sure where the scene is headed, you can take a moment to just go, ‘well, if I was this character, what might I do next?’ But don’t do this for too long, bearing in mind point #6 below.
  4. Keep the scene moving. You don’t want to get bogged down for many paragraphs just describing the intricacy of the fencing moves that are going on, or whatever. It’s better to keep an action scene short and sweet than let it drag out too long, if you’re not sure what the right length is.
  5. Don’t be afraid to include descriptive sentences. In his writing panel at Polaris, James Alan Gardner put out a rule of thumb that he said he’d heard at the Clarion workshop, which was to allow two sentences of description for every one sentence of action. I think that that might be a bit much, but I wouldn’t really complain about it.
  6. Get to the big moment. This is the corollary to tip #4, above – no matter how interesting the action is, eventually the reader wants to see it come to a great climax – the showdown between the hero and the villain, the life or death second in a car accident, and so on.
  7. And then, you can handle the conclusion in much the same way as a dialog scene – you wind the stakes down from the climax, and leave a little hook to engage the reader’s interest in whatever scene comes next.

To illustrate my point, I’m going to share a bit from one of my Roswell fanfiction stories – this is based on the ‘Roswell’ tv show, so hopefully all of the crazy alien powers stuff won’t be too much of a shock. I’ll annotate it a little with the relevant points.

“We can’t afford to spend the time worrying about it.” He sighed. “It’ll be fine.”

And it was right then that a bolt of energy whizzed through the air outside the van, heading right for them. Max threw out his hand to erect a shield completely by instinct. “Dammit!” Rath muttered. “What the heck’s going on?”

“I… I don’t know,” Max muttered, diving for the van door and cautiously taking a look out.[2]

“If that’s Kivar and his entire hand-picked squad,” Rath muttered, but Max ssshed him. He *knew* what it meant if that was the entire squad. They couldn’t overcome a force like that with just the two of them, and… and what would happen if Max led them back to the others waiting at the still-immobile motor home? There were way too many possibilities for someone to get hurt. Suddenly [1]brave to the point of foolishness, [3]Max threw himself out of the van,[2] looking in the direction that the attack had come. He could somehow tell that Rath was opening one of the van windows a crack and looking for his own moment – yeah, that would hopefully work. Max would draw fire, and Rath could lower the boom. Assuming it was only one shooter.

It seemed to be. Partially hidden by a fancy sports car parked on the other side of the street from the gas station, a dark-haired man, possibly thirty-something[5], pointed and shot another burst red-orange power straight at Max. Just as it approached, Max’s shield winked out – apparently he couldn’t maintain it and concentrate on where he was going. Rather than try to re-establish it in time to save himself, [3]Max focused on the charge and managed to safely deflect it above him, crashing into some kind of old shed on the edge of the gas station lot[5], collapsing it. Great.

The skin with the porsche, (Max thought it was a Porsche,) swore something that was garbled into unintelligibility by the wind, (or had started out in an alien language that Max didn’t know,) and focused again. [4]Suddenly Max knew that he was about to face a rock crusher – some sort of attack that he couldn’t deflect, and quite possibly, if there was one, something that he couldn’t even shield against. A particle blast or something like that. He had one trick left up his sleeve, and that was it. If it didn’t work, he was toast. He waited while the shooter took his aim – and dodged to the side.[6] Something created a horrible pain in his leg, and then… and then he was lying amidst some gravel and loose straw[5], and there were sounds that he didn’t quite follow. He tried to turn to see what had happened to the shooter, but… but he couldn’t orient himself, and his calf didn’t feel at all right. Then… “Oh, god, Max?? Are… are you all right?”

“My… my leg’s hurt, and… and I’m still in a lot of pain,” he managed to mutter. “Did Rath get him?”

“Oh, yeah.” After a moment, Rath and Kyle came – carried Max into the van, though he complained a bit, not very effectively since he wasn’t at all sure about trying to limp over the distance himself, that he had dived across with such abandon just a minute or two earlier. They stretched him out over the back seat, where he could smell the cans of gasoline, and hope that they weren’t leaking. [7]“What… what happened to the guy?”

Now that I’m posting this scene, I can see several places where it could use polishing, but a friend from the Roswell fandom specifically mentioned to me that it was an action sequence she really liked, and I liked writing it too.

Do you like reading action scenes? What do you think makes an action scene that you’d like to read? If you’re a writer – do you think that you’re good at writing action scenes, or bad?Do you have fun writing them?

8 Responses to Action scenes.

  1. alberta ross says:

    very informative post – Its a subject I am struggling with at the moment having come to a part of my series wher I have a couple of small scale skirmishes – will study this further – thanks


  2. Great post, you have covered some areas I have been wavering on, this helps clarify the sequences I am now attempting. Thank you. Oh- and thanks for stopping by on the A-Z My Australia theme will continue right throughout the challenge, we’re a weird mob, but lovable!


  3. A very thought out post. The sketching it out idea works. I do this with other books (picture books) I write, so why not with my novels. (When I’m having trouble visualizing.) Thanks for the A to Z stop over at my place. This is great fun and a wonderful challenge. πŸ™‚


  4. baygirl32 says:

    what a well thought out post! can’t see what you do for the rest of the alphabet


  5. Donna Hole says:

    Well done; you do have a teacher in you πŸ™‚

    Yes, I like action scenes. And I like them to move. I’ve read some that seem to take forever to get to the climax. I hate skimming, but if a scene keeps repeating the same moves, I’m likely to skip the action and move straight to the next dialogue. then of course, I’ve missed something important and either have to go back and read the whole too long scene, or put the book down.

    There are some spots that could use polishing in this scene, but I agree it is well written. Just enough description for setting and tone, some internalizations for mood and clarity, and forward progression. The conflict was intense, but not drawn out.

    You do have a knack for action scenes πŸ™‚



  6. I find action scenes kinda hard to write. I think I make them too short…


  7. […] One of my biggest writing strengths? Well, I think that I’m really good at doing interesting fight scenes! I shared some secrets for those on day one of the A-Z challenge: A is for Action. […]


  8. Great post and a subject I’ve been trying to find resources on, so this is perfect.

    I’m here from your interview on JC’s blog. You had a good interview over there πŸ™‚


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