Action scenes are deceptively easy to write. For the imaginative mind, an action scene is simply detailing the actions of characters trying to run from danger, or fight it. However, it can easily turn into a confusing, illogical mess of a scene. One that frustrates the reader, rather than excites them.
These are 10 tips that still help me write action scenes today. Read on!
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1. Emphasize Pain and Exhaustion
Action movies, typically, make fighting look easy and stylish. It’s all about delivering a punch in a cool, dynamic way to show powerful impact. What they don’t show is the amount of physical effort it requires an average person to exert in a longer fight. Not everybody has the stamina of a demi-god, so there needs to be evidence of the character’s mortality.
Have you ever tried throwing so many punches into a boxing bag in a ten-minute space? It takes a lot of energy to throw a meaningful barrage of fists and that’s against something that doesn’t fight back.
Action scenes are made more investing by the constant reminder that failure is painful, even deadly. Taking a punch hurts, throwing a bad punch hurts. Running, jumping and dodging in such stressful situations will leave your protagonist gasping for air and looking for shelter to catch their breath. Eventually, the adrenaline wears off and their body really feels the burn!
For the longer fights, try to emphasize your protagonist’s mortality. Have them feel pain when they get hit, and make their punches hit softer and slower over time. Fear and adrenaline put the whole body on alert, which is fatiguing in its own way.
As a side note, in your efforts to show their mortality, don’t make them so physically pathetic that every reader cringes at their lack of fighting prowess.
2. Keep One-on-One Encounters Short and Gritty
I’m not a fighter, never been in a fight. Yet, I note the similarities in the stories of people who have been in fights. One of those similarities is that one-on-one encounters are short. The expectations of the participants to get up when they get knocked down are rarely met.
In a battle of fists, it usually takes a handful of punches at best between average fighters before one of them bites the dust.
If you couple this with the first tip, it makes sense. There is a focus on each other and people are so fragile that they won’t keep a good fight up for long, especially in a life-or-death fight. The two characters will use any method, usually, to ensure they walk away and their opponent doesn’t.
A good way to gauge whether a fight has gone on for too long is to read through it, but a great way is to have someone else read it. Another perspective will certainly help you decide if the fight needs to be cut down a paragraph or two!
3. Large Battles Are Confusing Blurs
Large-scale conflicts are one of my favorite action scenes to read, but not my favorite action scenes to write. Whereas smaller conflicts are easier to manage, larger conflicts, such as two armies fighting each other, become a chaotic situation to picture, let alone write. If you get too specific with individual fights, it feels like the rest of the conflict is paused.
That is why the ideal method for writing these scenes is to describe them as they are; confusing blurs.
Large battles include a clatter of noise, be it gunfire or clashing of swords. The ground thunders with the weight of many trampling feet or war machines. When caught in the middle of such a battle, danger can come from any direction, but when presented with a threat, a person must give their focus to that fight or risk giving the opponent an edge.
Your character will be shocked by the assault on their senses and so should your reader. When writing these scenes, be sure to emphasize this chaos, this ‘blur’ effect. Constantly throw in elements that catch the character, and the reader, by surprise. It could be a bomb dropping nearby, knocking them to their feet. A whistle of bullets close to their head forcing them to duck down. An enemy flanking them, catching them by surprise. An arrow lodging in their shield, inches from their heart!
Don’t pause a large battle to keep the focus on a smaller one, at least not for too long.
4. It doesn't hurt to use references
Unless you are an expert in how fights are fought, an action scene choreographer, or someone with fighting experience, it can be difficult to write the actions the characters make. You don’t want the fight to come off unnatural, you also don’t want it to be unbelievable.
That is where references come in, making this probably the most fun writing tip!
You can find references in videos or writing. Looking at one of your favorite authors to see how they write fight scenes will give you a good idea, but you can also look to the internet and TV. Whether you are watching a UFC fight, action stars in a movie or martial artist vloggers, you will find a wealth of potential fight scenes to recreate in your story.
If the choreography is well-done, and the fight scene fits the characters you are using, you need only translate what you see onto paper. Suddenly, you have a professional fight scene ready for the reader and you had fun looking at all the talented fighters and martial artists out there!
5. Slow cat-and-mouse chase scenes are better than fast ones
Cat-and-mouse chase scenes are when one or more characters are pursued by a threat they have no hope of winning against in a fight. The ‘mouse’ characters flee and hide, looking for an escape rather than an opportunity to strike, as the chances of that are slim to none. Many people realize this, which is why in some situations a person will favor ‘flight’ in such a ‘fight-or-flight’ moment.
These kinds of chase scenes are most common in thriller-esque scenes or stories. An average person is being pursued by a killer or a monster, so they hide when they can and run when they are in the antagonist’s line of sight. These scenes are made more realistic and terrifying by the writing style being slower, not faster.
Dread is built up slowly, but when it builds up it is a powerful feeling. The words and structure you use can easily turn a cat-and-mouse chase scene into a more bombastic chase scene where it feels like the antagonist doesn’t really have the upper hand, that they are struggling to catch the protagonist. It reads more like a competitive game of tag rather than a hunt between predator and prey.
So, have your character/s evade the antagonist, hide, have a few close calls and slip away if they are so lucky. Talk about the thoughts going through the characters' minds, focus on the silence, the darker areas, and the idea that the antagonist might know exactly where they are hiding. By doing this, you will create a more impactful chase scene.
6. Opportunity trumps experience 9/10 times
Speaking of those moments when an opportunity arrives, it’s probably best that the characters take that opportunity. No matter how dangerous or experienced an antagonist is, if the character has an opportunity to deal a blow, 9/10 times it will succeed and be devastating.
Nobody is perfect, be they a good guy or a bad guy. When they let their guard down, they allow the opponent to strike. In these cases, the victim has only themselves to blame. Of course, sometimes these opportunities nobody can predict; a deus ex machina moment that gives the character an upper hand.
While this might seem like a get-out-of-jail-free card, these moments appear rarely in almost every story, which is probably a good thing. In one-on-ones, the hero reaches that just-out-of-reach weapon to save themselves. In larger battles, as I said earlier, the unpredictable happens often enough because there are so many elements at play.
While it may not seem logical on paper, it is realistic for the losing sides to occasionally get the upper hand over a greater side. Something to remember should you write your character into a situation that looks too difficult for them to get out of. With a bit of luck, anything is possible!
7. Track Your Elements or Reduce their number
Speaking of these unpredictable elements, let’s talk about the amount of information you include in your scene.
While the most chaotic scenes can only be described by their chaos, should there be elements that are crucial to the action scene, they need to be well-tracked. If you struggle to keep track of the elements in your scene, the reader will struggle.
These elements include important objects, the number of participants, even the weather should the fight take place in a temperamental environment. The more you include, the more interesting a fight becomes. Yet, too many elements and you have a confusing mess you need to take really good care of.
That’s where the second solution comes in; reducing your elements.
Instead of managing that large battle, see if you can separate your key characters so you only have to focus on them. Instead of having a bunch of weapons and objects to keep track of, put them in a more barren room or open area. Action scenes will continue to be exciting even if they don't include so many cool aspects.
The point of this tip is to make sure that your scenes are more manageable. If it is to be a battle with so much going on, but you still want to focus on key points, you will have a tough time writing that scene. When it gets to be too much, that’s when it is better to simplify.
8. Know your audience, know your action scene
Now, let’s discuss specific types of action scenes for your audience. If you ask a variety of authors to write an action scene and give them only the essential information, they will set the scene and write it in vastly different ways.
A fantasy writer might create an epic clash of swords and magic on a grand battlefield. A thriller story writer will create a sequence that leans more on fear, wild attacks and perhaps violence. An adventure writer will create something in-between, where the fight is in an exceptional circumstance, but it is still a fight between two people, so it’s realistically executed.
Understanding the kind of story you are writing and the audience means understanding the kind of action scene that best fits your novel. Of course, it helps if you are your audience. From your experience reading, you know exactly what kind of action scenes you like to read. However, it doesn’t hurt to do a little research should the scene be a little unfamiliar.
9. Test readability with friends or family members
This is a pretty self-explanatory tip, but one that is difficult for many writers to make use of. Writers are typically shy, making the concept of sharing one’s writing difficult to imagine. Yet, it is essential for confirming which of your writing methods are effective in getting the point across and which are dragging the story down, if any.
By having others read your work, you can confirm if the passage is not only readable, but if the reader can imagine what you want them to imagine. Can they see the actions you detailed playing out the same sort of way it does in your head? Or do the actions come off as confusing, or do they interpret them differently than what you want?
And, as with all second opinions, you can use the input to improve certain areas of your novel, or omit areas that don’t sit well. (If you agree with their opinions, of course.)
I always hold the opinions of those close to me in high regard, even when they are bitter pills to swallow!
10. Use appropriate words and structure for the feeling you want
The final tip is boring, but an effective one. Look at your words and structure. A more enjoyable action scene will have impactful words and a shorter structure to emphasize the rush and intensity of the scene.
We typically use short sentences to help with the speed and intensity. Longer sentences have fewer breaks, making a scene feel slower, sometimes slower than it should be. When you are in a tense situation, you tend to use shorter sentences when talking as you have to dedicate more thought to your movements and breathing. You cut a lot of the unnecessary out of the conversation, choosing to get the crucial points across.
You must do the same with your writing.
As for appropriate words, that can come down to the narration or the dialogue. In an action scene, you won’t use softer words and euphemisms as you want to have an impact, or show realism. When it comes to descriptions, you will be direct, trying to convey the information not only with the right word, but the word that sounds the best. The connotation of the word becomes just as important as the denotation.
Dialogue should be treated much the same. Depending on the action scene, your character might use curses or emotional speech. Not everybody is an action hero with a quick one-liner, so you can add realism by removing the grace from the dialogue.
These are the simple methods that help us write better action scenes and if there is any method you remember after reading this blog post, let it be Tip 10.
Action scenes tend to be my go-to scene when I need to surprise the reader. Predictability isn’t great in any genre, but I find that I would rather throw a surprising action scene at my reader than address an uninteresting point in my story. As long as it is logical, I can get away with it and keep interest up (Mine and the reader’s).
Of course, having more than a few action scenes means I need to know how to write them. It took a long time to find the formula that works for me, but it was more thanks to the advice of other writers than practice. Advice and practice are a powerful combination, as the advice helps you find the key areas to focus your attention on, making all practice go by a little faster.
I would like to hear what action scene advice you would give beginner writers! What troubles did you face when writing your action scenes and what did you do to resolve the problem? Let me know in the comments.
I hope you enjoyed this blog post and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!