Novel Boot Camp #9: Writing Action Scenes

2477626151_06a45ee557_oEverybody loves a good action scene! When fists go flying or cars blow up, it preys on our most primal feelings and fears. But a bad action scene is worse than no action scene at all. Whether it’s too detailed or too vague, badly written action  can cause readers to groan rather than grip the edge of their seats.

So how can we write amazing butt-kicking action sequences?

Don’t Micromanage the Reader’s Imagination

A play-by-play description of a fight is extremely boring and tedious to read. When writers try to control what the reader “sees” in their mind, the writing becomes too detailed, too specific, and too slow. Focus on the point of the scene. Avoid describing every jump, punch, and kick. If you find you’re often describing the position/location of various body prats, you’re probably trying too hard to control the reader’s imagination.

Short Choppy Sentences are key

Action is intense. There isn’t a lot of time for thought and things happen quickly and without warning. It’s very difficult to convey that sense of urgency when the sentences are long and flowing. Using short choppy sentences is a great way to convey the speed of the scene, especially if descriptions are kept to a minimum.

5083438563_08474da3aa_oMost Characters Suck at Fighting

While fiction doesn’t need to be realistic by any means, your character can’t just whip out some never-before-mentioned karate moves in the final chapter. The character’s ability level has to make sense with who they are, their experience with fighting, as well as their willingness to harm another person.

Most Characters Will Avoid Fighting

The vast majority of characters/people will avoid physically fighting if they can. Your average person isn’t going to feel comfortable stabbing or shooting someone unless they truly believe there is no other way they can safely exit the situation. So if your average character is slicing and dicing their way through scenes, it probably won’t ring true.

Action is Emotional

Just because your character is running for her life or fighting someone to the death doesn’t mean she suddenly stops having feelings. Action scenes still need to anchor the reader to the character by focusing on emotions. Otherwise the scene becomes nothing more than narrated action choreography and that gets really dull really fast.

But Action is Not Too Emotional

While your character will still have feelings, she probably isn’t going to spend a lot of time thinking about those feelings while she’s getting blown up. Avoid getting bogged down in flashbacks or long explanations of the reasons behind the character’s feelings. Focus on the instinctual reactions (fear, anxiety, panic) without interpreting them.

Injury Must have Follow-Through

If you’re going to seriously injure your character, you can’t just ignore that injury for the rest of the novel. If you use a magic spell or potion or super medicine to heal an injury, it’s going to be obvious that you want the drama of the injury but you don’t want to follow through with the pain and agony it causes the character. Sometimes this is easily overlooked and other times it feels too contrived.

If your main character breaks a bone, he’s going to have a really hard time doing much of anything. If blood gushes all over the place, the character is not going to be able to get up and walk ten miles. Be reasonable with your injuries unless you’re going to factor in recuperation time.

Action Must Move the Plot Forward

Action should never be included just for the sake of an action scene. Whether the character gains a new skill, defeats an enemy previously blocking their path, or is able to enter a new location, the plot needs to be pushed forward because of the scene. If it isn’t really adding anything to the story except coolness, it needs to be cut.


Writing a great action scene is hard! Consider the tips above and take a look at some of the action scenes in your own novel. Focus on the following questions:

  • Does this scene move the plot forward in an important way?
  • Is my character acting in a way that is authentic to their personality?
  • Am I focusing too much or too little on emotions?
  • Am I trying too hard to control what the reader “sees” while reading the scene?
  • Are the consequences of the action (the injuries) reasonably handled?

14779520072_914171dbb7_oDiscussion Question (please discuss in the comments below):

Do you enjoy action scenes in novels? If not, why? If so, what makes for a great action scene?

10 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp #9: Writing Action Scenes

  1. Chester Hendrix says:

    My novel deals with the military and a few action scenes were inevitable. In order to keep your sequence believable [and not lose the reader], it helps if you draw a small map so you can see where all the different groups and individuals are. This way, YOU know how the action flows and can then describe it to the reader without worrying if you’re confusing the reader. It also allows you to write with authority. Because YOU don’t get lost [why was Bob supporting your left, but now he takes out the enemy on your right? How did he even get there?], it helps the READER to not get lost. This applies to actions of squads, regiments or barroom brawls. And the simpler the map, the better [stick figures work great]. That way you don’t break Ellen’s rules.

    • Lori Parker says:

      That’s a terrific idea. I think you may have saved me at least one, if not more, rewrites of an action scene I’m working on. A map! There I was trying to keep it all in my tiny brain. LOL Thanks for the advice, Chester.

  2. Julie Griffith says:

    I love action scenes in novels, but I have noticed that some are tedious to read when they’re too detailed, so I agree with letting the reader “see” it themselves. Also, when they do too much thinking, like, “It reminded me of the playground fight I got into in first grade, where I punched Billy in the face after he made fun of my bowl haircut, blah blah, blah.” No one has that much time to reflect during a fight. The suggestion to write short, choppy sentences was very helpful. I’ll be using that tip.

  3. chickinwhite says:

    For me, good action scenes are the butter on my bread when I´m reading. It makes a story so very vivid and breathtaking, and some authors are exceptionally gifted when it comes to action scenes. They can take your breath away…
    Sadly, not everybody has a good sense to write such a thing.
    Your advices are true and helpful! Thanks!

    @chester hendrix: drawing a map is a very good idea! It already helped me…Thank you!

  4. Victoria Otazo says:

    I can’t remember a scene in the first Mission Impossible book that inspired the movie while reading it in college, but I recall it was my favorite at the time. That was because of the good action scenes. Its hard to come by books like that these days. Perhaps my senses have dulled. Action scenes conjure up tense emotions in that they put you in the world of the character. That’s why I like it.

  5. Lori Parker says:

    I don’t have many rock’em sock’em moments in my book but I do have a few chase scenes (on foot, bicycle or car) and one very narrow escape. Ellen is spot on when she cautions us to stay in the moment with those “fight or flight” instincts for our characters. When you’re running for your life, you don’t have time to wax poetic or dally with memories of the past. You’re running for your life! The only memory you want is whether old man Simms left his keys in the ignition when the two of you got out of the car.

    Damn, I love this Novel Boot Camp! Ellen Brock ROCKS! I sure hope everyone else is getting as much out of this as I am.


    • Loretta Holkmann-Reid says:

      I agree Lori. It’s great.

      I only wish my schedule allowed me to participate in all aspects of it.

      I am learning sooo much, having fun, and being challenged while doing it.

      YOU ROCK ELLEN!!!!


  6. Loretta Holkmann-Reid says:

    This is part of one of my action scenes in my novel. It is the best I have come up with as of yet to fit in with the plot.

    The action is driven by anger, fear and a woman suffering with multiple personality disorder. Host Andrina has been threatened by her ex-lover Greg, and her alter Piper takes over to get revenge.

    Here it goes

    Please comment.

    Piper with her helmet partially on and covering her face kicked Greg in his groin. It sent him hurling to the ground. He squealed and ended up in a fetal position on the ground. She continued to kick him in the side several times. To make it worse, she used the hard part of the combat boots she was wearing. Alternating screams of pain and groans could be heard.

    “I heard every taunting, threatening, nasty, disrespectful word you left on Andrina’s answering machine. You obviously don’t know how to treat a woman. What the hell she saw in you, I’ll never know. ”

    Piper then slashed his right arm and right leg with her large pocket knife. He screamed out again as the blood began to drip from his arm.

    “Shut up! Shut up before I slash the other arm you lousy punk.”

    “If you ever threaten Andrina again, the next time, I’ll kill you. “That’s not a threat, it’s a promise.”

    Thump! She kicked Greg one more time. “You bastard.” Heavy breathing could be heard coming from the ground. Piper jumped on her motorcycle and quickly left the alley.


    Loretta H. Reid

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