SMC: Writing Action Scenes

How are your action scenes? Too long? Not descriptive enough? Let this forum presented by AUTHOR give you the tips to take your action from flab to fab. Even if action is your strong suit, I think there’s great tips for all.

And now, the NOTES:

Tip #1 Do what you write
Figure out the logistics of your scene. Act it out as much as possible and see if there’s anything else you notice that might give texture to the scene for your readers. Or, if it’s not something you know a lot about, sit down with someone who does.

Tip #2 Use your verbs.
When it comes to action scenes, use very strong words, not passive. Ask yourself, does this verb foreshadow? Often great writers will take language that is in the climax and put it in Chapter One. That way when readers reach the climax on a subconscious level it all makes sense.

Tip #3 Avoid passive voice at all costs
Action needs to be very present and very accountable. Passive voice is abdicating responsibility. It shows a character being acted upon rather than acting, and action 100% needs your characters acting (even if they’re getting smashed to bits).

Tip #4 Use dialogue strategically.
In real life you don’t do much talking when you’re fighting, so leave out unnatural long speeches or dialogue that just wouldn’t work in an action scene. However, that doesn’t mean ex out all dialogue. When dialogue breaks up the action it’s a good thing. Dialogue can frame the action you’ve written. (Remember Empire Strikes Back? Of course you do! Anyway, think of Luke and Vader fighting. A lot of that scene they aren’t talking, but as Luke is being defeated Vader starts to insert lines that give us insight into Luke possibly losing his internal conflict as well.)


Remember, part of the battle is the psychological. The first one to lose their temper is often the loser. But don’t use fight scenes to put in exposition (aka backstory or infodumping). A fight scene should be all in the present and all intense.

Tip #5 Make sure every sentence moves the action forward.
This is not the place to dwell, wallow, or describe a sunset. Every sentence takes us closer to the climax of this action. Every sentence is a continuation of action. Only use details you’ve already introduced, don’t introduce new details because it will slow the scene down.

But remember, you don’t have to give the wikipedia explanation of everything. Sometimes writers feel like they have to prove they’re knowledgeable of something when all it usually ends up doing is showing that they’re trying to prove they are knowledgeable. Keep it simple and keep it moving.

Tip #6 Read Other Writers
One of the best ways to learn how to write great action is to read other author’s action scenes. Ask yourself, how do they “grab” me? Bad examples can teach you a lot as well. If the writing drags, can you see why? Emulate those you admire and workshop your writing (I think she means, have it beta read) to find strengths/weaknesses.

Tip #7 Give it Tension (Don’t make it easy)
Give your enemy a brain. Remember: if the action scene wasn’t planned by your protagonist, it was planned by the opposition.

The opposition must be formidable in some way. They must want something from the hero. What gives them an edge is they are willing to do things your hero can’t or won’t do.

The hero cares more and hence has more to lose. Everything your hero has on the field they want to keep. The opposition is perfectly willing to sacrifice whatever he/she needs in order to defeat the hero.

Tip #8 Foreshadow the Protagonist’s success or failure

(At this point we were running short on time, so she went way faster. I’ll try and summarize what I believe she meant by her headings.)

Use language and/or symbolism to indicate whether or not your protagonist will succeed. You can also use this to misdirect readers into thinking one thing will happen and show them it’s quite the opposite.

Tip #9 Keep it Tight (In Scene) But Let It Breathe
Set up the scene for action and then let the scene play. Understand the time/space where they figure out things. (She mentioned one author whose name I can’t remember, sorry, who had people read her action scenes while people behind her acted them out. She said it shouldn’t take longer to read the scene than it does for them to act it out. Daunting eh?)

Tip #10 Have Stakes (What does the winner get?)

Make sure whatever the winner gets that it’s really good and it’s really devastating to the opposition, be it the hero or the villain.

Tip #11 Keep Track of Time (keep it real time)
(Ah, here’s where she actually mentioned it. But it never hurts to read this twice). An action scene should not take longer to read than to physically do.

Tip #12 Keep it Primal (instinct not intellectual)

(Someone mentioned the fight scenes in RDJ’s Sherlock Holmes as the contrary example to this. But we fully believe that Sherlock would be doing the play-by-play in his mind of a fight, so it works for him. It likely wouldn’t work for most of our characters).

Let your characters react to action scenes based on instinct. Let them mess things up, misjudge things, get more angry when they realize they’re losing, etc.

*****

I really found this forum helpful and recently got feedback from a friend on a certain scene that wasn’t utilizing these tips. It’s been great timing for me to post it. 😉 I challenge you to look at your action scenes and see if there isn’t anything you can do to pep them up.

Did you find anything helpful? Do you feel more confident in writing action scenes? What do you do to research action scenes? Any of this advice you’re already utilizing?

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8 thoughts on “SMC: Writing Action Scenes

  1. I’ve always liked writing action scenes and I do a lot of what’s on the list. As for research, I look up various weapons to understand their size, weight, and use. Weapon and combat style research is very important, especially when working with melee fighting.

    One tip that I didn’t see on there that I’ve found some authors miss is: Remember injuries! I’ve read so many books where a character has a broken arm, but is still swinging away without pain or loss in skill. Broken ribs are another commonly forgotten ailment.

  2. I think it can be so hard to write action scenes well – it’s definitely something I spend a lot of time working on in my own writing. I love the idea of acting it all out and making sure it’s in real time, too. Thanks as always for the great posts! 🙂

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