How To Write A Great Action Scene

How To Write A Great Action Scene

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Whether you’re writing a thriller or a romance, a good action scene can be a powerful tool for building tension. But, as with most writing techniques, action scenes aren’t cut and dry. There are effective ways to craft a scene, and ineffective ways. When we think about action scenes, we often think of the most cinematic, explosive scenes — the ones where a helicopter is being shot down, or a car is careening out of control on a bridge. But what about a quieter moment where a character needs to open a door? Neither of these scenes are impossible to write, but they do present different challenges. To help you visualize how to write a great action scene, here are some pointers.

Keep your stage clear

One of the best pieces of writing and storytelling advice we can offer is to keep the stage and action clear. Remember that action scenes are chaotic by nature, which means the reader can lose track of the action. So, each action beat needs to be clear, including where characters are relative to each other, the stage of the fight/argument, the environment, and the equipment. Action scenes also require more reader understanding of body language, facial expressions, sensations, and emotions to flesh out beyond the physical aspects of the conflict. Remember, when you describe action scenes, you’re not describing movie scenes where the camera pans back to reveal a man grieving the death of his wife or toddler. The stage, environment, and action itself are the only way you should describe most actions in a manuscript. The physical actions themselves should mostly flow off the page, meaning the reader can visualize the actions of your characters themselves.

The stage is derived both from context and action, and is one of the most challenging aspects writers must consider when they create a scene. Unless there are multiple locations, each with their own relevance to the conflict/revelation you are building, your stage is derived from the characters just as the action is and it’s important to make it clear to the reader. In screenplays, the stage is defined by action i.e. “Macbeth enters the throne room,” and illustrated by shot description from the point of view of the camera i.e. “A long ornate hallway” painted black or with tall walls that open up to reveal the open space of the throne room.

Get physical

Setting a scene is always important, and often underrated. A static setting can ensure that the action of the scene remains rooted in a physical location that both your characters and the reader can remember, and three-dimensional writing can make these moments even more immersive. Think about how you feel at home, and how you move throughout the house. Where do you feel safest, and where do you feel exposed? Would your characters act the same way? Anticipatory moments are also critical to a good action scene. Leave your character hanging in suspense, and give the reader enough time to jump ahead of both the character and the story to visual what’s going to happen if the protagonist doesn’t act. This creates a tension that will pay off for the reader long after the scene concludes.

Master the basic skill of keeping your harmonies and tones straight during scenes. Although you want this realism to be consistent and driven by your story, you also don’t want your details to become predictable. One method many novels use relies on the trends writers fall into — the bodies an author brushes against, the shoes kicked off before a sentence begins, the repetitive motifs a character repeats. If this all sounds too calculated to fit your vision, remember that you have other options. Exploring language, or syntactical choices in a novel can add fresh layers of flavor to your characters and settings — it can evoke a tone that previously didn’t exist. Experiment with the tiniest details that move your subject forward, or bond him to the environment around him.

Think visually and thematically

Before you start to write, you need to have a plan. One way to do this is to begin describing the scene in your head as visually and imaginatively as possible. What do you see? Is there a singular image you see in your mind’s eye? What colors? What time of day? What mood do these details evoke? Once you know the visual and thematic details, craft your depiction as you write — if you have to pause to consider how to write this scene, you’re likely to lose your focus. Add these details in the time it takes to write them — no more, and preferably less. This won’t work for all scenes in every novel, but if an action sequence is the dramatic crux or climax, visualize it.

How do things sound? Sometimes it’s worth composing a quick audition visual mini-essay of the scene in your head to articulate what you’d like to see, in addition to what you hear. This allows you to better visualize similar moments in your movie. For authors this is typing as ‘mugging’ for the camera! Add enough detail to make the action visual and visceral. This can feel a bit like drawing, except you can let the scene play out in your head!

Use sound

Great action scenes are powered by the senses. They engage the audience with blinding light and deafening sounds, using visual, auditory, and/or kinesthetic effects. If your action sequence is based on a very particular sense, look for ways to highlight that sense throughout the scene, as you write and rewrite it. For example, if you’re writing an intimate moment between two lovers, but you want the focus to be on the smell of a garden in the summertime, make sure that the scene is set in the summer, or that it’s night, when the flowers will be blooming at their fullest. If you can’t devote an entire sensory-packed scene to your action sequence, don’t be afraid to call attention to the one sense you’re relying on, by making it a physical part of the scene.

Although visual and auditory effects may get top billing in a media rights sale, don’t forget to consider kinesthetic action sequences, specifically those that require intense physical maneuvers. What does your hero have to do to have a top ten recorded speed on the sport’s scale, or to establish his status as the greatest NASCAR driver of all time? What’s the secret move the hero will use to win the game, or get her team back on track? What’s the level of martial arts or gymnastics that’s required to fulfill the vision you have for the climactic fight scene? Do your best to make sure your character’s physical feats are credible — no matter how much fun they may be for writers and readers to suspend disbelief for. This way, you can motivate your reader with sheer cinematic awe and sic within him an intense sense of narrative urgency, ever fearful that any single step could lead to the hero’s untimely death.

Don’t be a prisoner of your research

You don’t want to be a prisoner of your research. Once you’ve done the legwork, you want to do your writing. With this goal in mind, put together a master bibliography of everything you read on your chosen topic. File it away. Reference it only when you’re formatting and checking facts during book publication, but don’t let it guide your creative process. Then, dive right in. When writing an action scene, content is key. A compelling plot requires believable, exciting one-on-one confrontations and action-driven clashes among multiple characters. Suspense builds through increasingly intense scenes that start with sole combatants and then build to incorporate multiple characters. Action scenes lay bare the personalities of the fighting forces, raising the stakes even higher for the protagonists.

Capturing, or better yet, painting a picture of events engage the reader immediately. Readers will appreciate a little extra time to prepare for what’s coming and the use of unmistakable inflection and slang will keep the scenes authentically ‘worldly’. Skilled writers know the importance of jumping straight in and using small sentences to reveal the beginning of action. Concise, well-placed phrases will be enough to immerse the reader. If it’s your first attempt at writing an action scene then it might help to outline the contents of your action scene, keep an eye on topic sentences if you’re writing in block capitals you’ll be able to see how the story flows as it progresses and don’t be afraid to start writing with incomplete ideas, you can always go back and retrieve your opening.

Lead with movement, not action

What we think of as action is actually a shift of position from one place to another. And even moving from place to place is action — it requires movement of the body walking, or, using language, the body of the sentence moving the words from place to place to place. So what’s action? Think of action as the motion that occurs in sentences as well as in the muscles of the eyes scanning those sentences. From as close to the beginning of the sentence as you can, give your sentence something to do, and do it as fast as you possibly can.

As a general rule, you should write your action as fast as you possibly can. If someone is going to be walking five miles, don’t walk them up to three miles and then spend a page writing about how exhausted they are before you walk them the last two. Don’t feel the need to tell us exactly what the muscles are doing to make the character walk fast/slow. Don’t go into the why’s or how’s of the character walking/fighting/etc. Though you have a thousand and one ways of conveying not nouns, but verbs, copywriters spend their days testing phrases that will move body and soul to action. As an action starts, your main task as a writer is to make sure that there are enough words to get the body from point A to point B.

Keep you reader in the dark, until they need to know

Hitting the reader over the head with information is boring. Jumping straight to the action is boring. Giving all the characters a thorough medical exam will bore your reader to tears. Don’t use onomatopoeia, and don’t clog your descriptions with unnecessary data. Then how do you avoid any of these pitfalls? Give, give, and give the reader just enough information to paint a vivid picture using their imagination — but not so much that you bore them. That is not as easy as it sounds. To begin with, prep your reader’s senses. Establish the genre of your action scene. What emotions might the characters or reader be feeling? Fear? Excitement? Dread? Anger? Where are your characters – a busy restaurant? A state funeral? At war? Leave some details blank, not only to add to the mystery, but so the reader’s imagination can add to your writing. Using this process as a guideline can help you turn that blank page with all its possibilities into something great.

Oftentimes, what you choose not to include is just as important as what you elect to include. For example, if your action scene has a break-neck pace, save your dramatic pauses for a line like, “That is one serious spider,” or “Hey! Why is he pointing that gun at me?” because even in the middle of a running gun battle, human nature is going to take over. The reader will slow down to take a close look at the creepy spider – or stop completely if there’s a gun pointed at them. Leave the unnecessary description for when your action scene winds down. No matter how intense or fast the pace, slow it down for just some of your details – the sharp angles of a gun, the too-bright light, or a unique physical attachment that your character has. Be sure to provide context and challenge it. This cookie-cutter action imagery falls flat if it sounds like something that’s been done a thousand times before, so get creative, try new things, and be bold. You could even say, “He jumped over the grand piano this time.” Another fact to keep in mind is to juxtapose rational and emotional thinking to help the reader become invested. Subject them to intense or confusing experiences that jolt the senses, and make them feel intrusive emotions. In a fight scene, it raises the stakes and pushes your character through extreme circumstances. There are endless ways to get creative with your action scenes, but some of them only come from writing, writing, writing until your fingers bleed and going through several drafts!

Build momentum

The first thing to consider when pacing an action scene is its overall structure. It’s a common trope employed in movies, comics, and even books to introduce an antagonist as strong and empowered as the hero of the story. Whether he’s physically or also psychologically and emotionally stronger, he’s the central obstacle the hero has to get around because he has the initial advantage. He’s in control, and therefore he has the momentum, and filmmakers often intentionally slow down action scenes to emphasize it. You can employ the same strategy when drafting your own work. Provide a background and a history about the antagonist — preferably not about his day job or whether his best friend still texts him — knowing that readers will be aware spineless and unknown antagonists are as powerful as an action scene.

Typically, heroes in action stories are reluctant or unsure about their role. This leads to awkward, offbeat, and clumsy action scenes where they are less experienced than the antagonist and are shown to be fumbling through the arena they have been placed in, to give the reader a feeling of unease. Applying the same principle, after opening your action scene with the antagonist in control, set a series of setbacks, like a mechanic in an impound yard dismantling the hero’s engine. These setbacks to the protagonist will ensure the action keeps moving, as it’s often necessary for the hero to outwit or exhaust the antagonist.

Manage the rhythm of the pace

When you’re writing an action scene, it’s important to think in terms of rhythm. Before you even pick up your pencil to write, the rhythm of the pace should be built into the structure of your scene. A constant, rising tension keeps the reader hooked, but simple yet effective scene transitions and a few poignant sentences, or phrases are enough to elevate your action scene above the rabble and make it truly memorable.

Early successes or smaller victories can give a boost in motivation, whereas a temporary defeat or moment of doubt can restore some drama. The core of life tends to be ordinary, and at the heart of a good action scene, the scene should be, too. Meanwhile, the bursts of action should be enduring and frequent. If your reader, or player, knows what they’re going to get every time, that’s no different than reading a dull history textbook or listening to a lecture in school. Leave plenty of room for exceptions and scenarios in which something goes wrong, then give your scene a punctuating blow.

Use a driving motivation

You also want to make sure that the plot is apparent in all action scenes. Minor skirmishes don’t have to be motivated by narrative points, but major battles should always be rooted in something of significance to the larger conflict of the book. In The Revenant, for example, not only are the terrifying bear attack scenes framed by an equally terrifying abandoned-son-encounters-dead-father plot, they’re also highlighted by a larger theme of vengeance and deeply personal reasons for action. This motivation drives the protagonist to survive, fight valiantly, and push himself beyond the boundaries of even the wildest cliffhanger.

The most satisfying action scenes are those that don’t feel like action—they feel ripped from an action movie—but also don’t leave the reader panting in a shadowy corner, wondering what just happened on the page. Having these two different parts of the reader engaged is difficult, but it’s possible to pull off. One of the best ways to involve a reader emotionally within an action scene is to describe what other people are doing while the protagonist is duking it out. While this is an element of a lot of action movies and shows, it’s often left out from action scenes in books.

Make sure the stakes are high

With so much action on display, especially in cinematic movies, it’s easy for writers to get their characters racing around with little motivation. When your characters are running, shooting, and dodging, you have to constantly reinforce the importance of the stakes for the characters. If the action scene risks nothing of consequence, there’s little reason to watch it. As the author and moviegoer, it’s critical for you to understand the stakes of your scene. Ask yourself, “If this action scene ends poorly, what happens to the character?” and “if the protagonist fails, what does it mean for the hero’s goals?” In Hollywood, characters practically have little tattoos on their foreheads, reminding us of their secret motivations or goals, to make sure the viewer is never confused. Do the same in your writing by making sure that it’s perfectly clear what your protagonist wants. If your character wants a grenade, there’s a reason. If that character wants to clear a one-mile stretch of road, there’s a reason for that too.

Be sure that the conflict stems from your characters. You know that scene where the shadowy villain announces to the protagonist that they have to do something in the next 48 hours, else everything will be destroyed? Imagine you’re watching that movie. Do you want to see the protagonist succeed or fail at their task in the next 48 hours? If the failure would be kind of cool, if only because of the physical confrontations that would lead up to it, you aren’t gripping the reader. Instead, you might just make the moviegoers a little bored, because the stakes don’t really scare them that much. In a similar vein, even if every action sequence you write is amazing, if people fear that your protagonist will probably make it out no problem, your audience can still get bored.

Understand fear on an emotional level

Of all the emotions to convey through your characters, fear is by far the trickiest. Part of the reason is that fear isn’t just one emotion, but several horrifying inversions of it. Fear can mean being totally unprepared, feeling completely alone, and facing off against an enemy that’s unknown. Another reason it’s difficult to write is that it’s hard to feel scared without actually being scared. If you’re just imagining these situations and scenarios, you can be more analytical about how your characters deal with them. Rather than only writing the tactical aspects of battle, let your characters’ hearts pound as shots ring out. Instead of imagining how your characters will drive fast enough to escape an attack, write about the fear of not knowing how to drive a stick shift.

For many writers, the trick is just getting into enough life-threatening situations to do it on instinct. To practice, you can write a short action scene every day for a week, where you try to channel your feelings through your characters — especially ones like panic and confusion that aren’t easily written and quickly become dull when experienced second- and third-hand. As you’re writing, try recalling the last movie you saw where somebody was genuinely chased or shot at. Think about how it felt, how it kept you on your seat, and how little you actually saw. Think about the sounds, the positioning and framing on screen, and the story itself — where did the characters go wrong? What mistakes did they make in the moment, and how could you learn from them?

Trust in your instincts

Skilled action writers will tell you that creating truly action-packed chase and fight scenes comes with experience. The key is knowing your characters so well, that you can use their personalities to plug into the drama of a scene. It’s knowing how that character would react under the circumstances, and aim for that. That might mean that if your character is more extreme, you’ll have two speeding cars instead of one. If he’s more mild-mannered, he’ll try to appease his aggressor before resorting to violence. All good chase scenes take this character engagement seriously.

But the more push and pull you put your characters through, the more interesting the scene will become. And all of that preparation can easily be carried over when you revise your work! Revising your action scenes means that you’re taking your writing apart to improve it — and that includes taking a look at your layout. Pacing is an important characteristic in action scenes, particularly car chase scenes. When describing your action scenes, do not fall into the temptation of action for action’s sake. Do not include every single detail when you write, as it turns the reader off. Just stick to the most important features of the action. Also, at any point during the scene, do not break your writing rhythm by including some unnecessary words. These will also distract your reader, so kill those extra words and remember to focus on your description.

Not every scene has to be violent

It’s easy to fall into this trap, and imagine that action scenes are the fight scenes that high-octane series often hinge on. Even if you’re writing epic fantasy, medieval roller derby, or a love story between pole-vaulters there are ways to create tension by writing about otherwise ‘non-violent’ situations! Look to books like Veronica Roth’s Allegiant and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Violent? Sure. Loyalty? Betrayal? Sobbing? All there. But the action scene that your readers will remember is the scene where Tris opens a parachute on the morning of her death jump, and sees her true name stenciled on the pack’s interior. That scene. The one with the dread and the fear and the oh-so-tense minutes-long freefall. That one. That’s how you write a great action scene.

Your characters don’t have to be wielding laser pistols and riding T-rexes to have an action scene. Look at your story and ask yourself if a scene like your characters having a dance competition or a debate or a nervous breakdown isn’t really an action scene beneath the surface. Action scenes don’t have to have a lot of action in them. Action scenes don’t have to be violent. They’re still action scenes if action is their prominent emotional force, even if no one gets hurt. Because if a reader is on the edge of their seat, if they’re panicking, if they’re anxious, and/or if the outcome is in doubt, that’s an action scene. That’s what will make it stand out and make it memorable. That’s what will make it connect with the reader and leave them satisfied. It’s the ability of your readers to build up emotional tension for those early points, and then reach a climax with the payoff that breaks the tension. That’s an action scene. That’s how you write one.

Incorporate characterization

When people think of action novels, they almost invariably picture chiseled heroes in spandex costumes. While born from the spirit of adventure and pageantry, action scenes are also where you can express your deeper themes and ideas. This doesn’t mean, however, that the action scenes should be banal. Think of them as a pressure valve or release. Action scenes provide moments of release from your deeper, more purposeful storylines. If every scene in your book is a potential action scene, take a moment to dilute their importance by sticking a bit of characterization in there. Make your protagonist worried, make them confused, make them fearful. Introduce them to a great piece of dialog that has nothing to do with the impending fight.  Writing a great action scene requires equal parts brevity and clarity. The trick is to build as much as you can without giving away the mystery. Create metaphors, allegories, and images that foreshadow the shape of your scene. Don’t telegraph precisely what’s going to happen, but paint a picture that subconsciously lets the reader know which way the scene is going. Show, don’t tell. Your opening logline is one of the best tools for this approach — as the logline is usually what readers and prospective agents refer back to. Even after chapters, if the logline remains compelling, you know you’ve got it.

Don’t lose the story

But a good action scene is more than action for the sake of action — an effective scene has a point. It should answer at least one question central to the plot. Why is the point of view character in this fight? How does a particular event move the plot forward? Does the protagonist learn something from it? An action scene should also have some sort of tension. Without tension, the listener loses interest and skips to the next song on the radio. Anticipation, conflict, doubt, defiance — all lead to tension. So does fear. If you can build tension with a clear cause, you’ll have characters and listeners on the edge of their seats. And you’ll be well on your way to a scene that makes a lasting impression.

When you begin the scene in an action piece, don’t open with the characters already actively engaging in a conflict. It might make a good intro to a video or game, but it’s no good for books. Open with a short introduction establishing the characters, context, and conflict. After the initial development, move into active scenes, so that the reader becomes familiar with the how and why of what’s happening. Even if the tension is high and the characters are actively engaging in a conflict, as the scene begins to reach its conclusion, use the final opportunity to refer back to the cause. Consider the Hark! New Revenge of the Ice Widow series by Sydney Landon — as the action heats up, Sydney reminds the audience that she’s hunting down people responsible for the hospital bombing that crippled her friend.

Like all stories, action scenes have themes. They’re a good place to analyze the motivations of the characters, and see what they’re made of. If you delve deep enough into your action scenes, you will find bits of character development peeking through the fast-paced, physically-challenging surface. Finally, and most importantly, action scenes require planning, especially if you intend to write a trilogy. Don’t overwhelm yourself with too much action. And remember, with a little planning and effort, you shouldn’t have trouble crafting your own action-packed story!

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