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