We tend to think of action scenes as the kind we see in movies – fast paced, furious, violent and with lots happening etc, but in reality, action scenes can encompass many things in fiction, and are not always so fast and furious – they can be single character scenes providing action, or slower paced scenes between two characters which still contain action, for instance sexual scenes.
Action scenes don’t necessarily equal violence and chases.
Action scenes occur when there is a significant shift in the narrative – an argument or disagreement between characters for instance, or a character discovers a secret, or something is revealed. Perhaps a food fight breaks out, or you might have a character competing in a race. Perhaps your characters have fled an aircraft with parachutes. And action can take place without your characters even moving.
Many new writers assume they have to have lots of action scenes in order to maintain the reader’s interest and keep up a fast pace, but this isn’t always the case.
The key to writing good action scenes lies in the way they actually relate to the narrative. In other words, action scenes should form naturally through the story and because of preceding events within the story. This is because action is directly related to reaction. Characters act and react to other characters and situations.
Never force action when it isn’t necessary – the result will be artificial and stilted.
Writing Action scenes
They should happen because of the story, not because the writer thinks the reader wants them. More importantly, they should also allow readers to feel as though they are part of the events unfolding in the story.
Many action scenes rely on description to support dialogue, and vice versa, so any key action scene should always ‘show, not tell’.
The pace can vary the narrative from slow to fast, to slow again etc. This helps to vary the tension in the scenes in order to match the action. Creating atmosphere also helps action scenes because you are making the character act under pressure, you’re making them make quick decisions, backing them into corners and not letting them have it all their own way.
Handling Action Scenes
Writing action scenes is not always easy. Some action scenes are written so badly that they prove difficult to read because they are so clumsy. They inadvertently slow the momentum of the story, or they make the narrative stutter.
Think how the scene should play out in real time. Action means immediacy. If you have to convey a sense of panic or swift action – like a chase scene for instance – then the narrative doesn’t require detailed and long-winded descriptions of every movement. Instead be brief and to the point.
To get an idea, try performing some actions that your character would do, and how they might react. Quick actions require short, staccato words and brief descriptions, for example:
Dan grabbed Sam’s collar, pushed him hard against the door.
Sam swung his arm and caught Dan in the jaw, rocked him. As the big man stumbled back, Sam rammed a tight fist into Dan’s torso…
On the other hand, action scenes that rely on sensory details use longer words and a little more description. For example:
Dan raced down the corridor - heard footsteps behind him, loud across the cold floor, but he dared not look back. He grabbed the doorknob, slammed against the door, hoping to God it would open…
The observant would have noticed something about these two examples.
They make use of verbs. Action loves verbs; they’re the best words to use because they give your action scenes impetus.
Another thing to remember is to keep some realism and don’t make your characters into macho superheroes who perform incredible feats of strength and agility just at the right moment. Most main characters are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, so don’t have them perform beyond their capabilities. The result can be ridiculous.
If in doubt, as a writer, put yourself in your character’s shoes – could you do the kind of things that your character does?
During my research for a novel, I undertook karate lessons to understand it and feel what it was like to practise it. The character had to perform it proficiently; therefore I had to understand the movements and actions in order to realistically convey them.
How Many Action Scenes?
Be careful with the amount of action scenes you create. Too many will kill the story, whereas too few might not adequately support it. Combine the action scenes with slower, reflective to allow the reader to relax a little and contemplate the events before gearing up for the next action scene.
Remember that action scenes should be a natural result of the character’s actions and reactions to situations – the character’s ultimate goal should drive the story forward and thereby setting up proceeding scenes as it gathers pace. Each subsequent scene should be more dramatic than the preceding one, thus building up the pressure and tension until the conclusion.
The most dramatic and biggest scene should come at the end of the story – the denouement, the end game, the battle royale, so to speak. Always save the best ‘til last.
Resist the urge to be self-indulgent with action scenes. Instead think carefully how you want to write them. Think in real-time, think realism, think immediacy, but most of all, make sure your action scenes evolve naturally.
Next week: Constructing scenes