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Thursday, November 18

Making it Happen: Tips on Writing Action Scenes

Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I like action in my entertainment. Books, movies, TV shows, even games. I enjoy a great story to go with it, but I want to see people in peril more than I want to see them examining their lives in a safe environment. I like the external forces that cause the true nature of a person to bubble to the surface. I want to see what people do. As you might guess, I write a lot of action scenes in my books.

At this point, action comes pretty easily to me, but that wasn't always the case. My early work was way too descriptive in how my fight scenes played out -- every detail explained, special names created for styles and whatnot. It took longer to read the action that it did to actually perform the action.

Action can be tough because it's easy to focus too much on the action and not enough on the character in peril. So long descriptions sneak in and what the character does takes center stage. What the character thinks and feels often gets shoved into the background.

And that's bad. Because those emotions are what make or break an action scene.

Get in Their Heads

I try not to let too many straight descriptive paragraphs go by without hearing from my POV character in some way. A line of dialog, some internalization, something that puts the reader back inside the POV's head. Readers care about the characters. They want to know how the characters feel about what's happening to them. They want to know what those characters are going to do next. Without that connection, the action is just details on a page.

From a purely structural standpoint, it also helps break up the text so you can better control the pacing. Description slows down the narrative. Dialog speeds up the narrative. Long chunks of text encourages skimming by the reader, especially if it's an exciting action sequence and they're eager to see how it turns out. But when readers skim, they stop on the dialog (spoken or internalized), because that's usually where characters make decisions. So breaking up the scene visually helps keep the reader reading and not jumping to the next set of dialog lines.

Make it Personal

Stakes are critical to an action scene. If the reader doesn't care, there will be no excitement. Think about those summer blockbuster action flicks where there was a ton of action, but you just kinda sat there and waited for it to be over, even though it was cool to see. Was there ever any fear that things wouldn't turn out fine for the hero? Was the outcome ever in doubt? You don't want to do the literary equivalent. Making sure your stakes are high and personal to your protag will help prevent that.

Stakes also help make whatever the problem is larger than life, because it matters to your protagonist. The opening of The Shifter works because readers care about Nya getting her breakfast. But all she's doing is trying to steal a few eggs. It's not earth-shattering, the world won't end, it won't even matter to anyone else but Nya. But that's the key. To her, it's a huge deal. It has major repercussions. And if readers like her, they'll care about how this problem turns out.

Add a Surprise or Revelation

Not every scene is going to lend itself to this, but the thing that keeps readers reading is the desire to know what happens next. If your action scene is one of those where the outcome really isn't in question, but it's a vital scene to the plot (and these are pretty common), add something to it so the reader gets information they weren't expecting. Share a secret, show a talent the character hadn't yet revealed, discover something that affects the plot. Give them an informational reward for watching your action scene. Discovering there are treasures in those scenes will also encourage them to read every word, because they'll never know what vital  clue might be found.

Pace Yourself

Pacing is almost as critical to action scenes as stakes. The goal is to get the reader caught up in the action, heart beating, breath racing, turning the pages as fast as possible. Short sentences add speed. They create excitement. Long sentences slow things down and lessen the excitement. Action scenes are typically not where you're going to go into long descriptive passages or deep thoughts. (unless you're purposefully giving the reader a breather)

Narrative flow matters more here than probably anywhere else, because if you write something that trips up the reader, you pull them out of the story. You want your text to flow as smoothly as possible so it sucks in the reader and whisks then along like a leaf on the wind. So watch out for choppy sentences, which are common when you write action and are trying to keep this fast-paced. Keep an eye on your sentence structures and the rhythm of your words. Keep them varied, keep them moving.Read the scene out loud. There's no better way to catch bad narrative flow then to hear it spoken.

A good scene is all about events unfolding that the reader wants to see a resolution to. If you treat every scene like an action scene, there's a good chance you'll keep a tight hold on your reader and they won't be able to get away.


  1. Excellent advice! I don't really know if I write good action scenes or not. Nobody's complained, but . . . *shrug* This post is filled with great ideas, though. It makes sense and I can see it being effective. Next time I'm writing instead of revising*, I hope I remember where to find this. :)

    *I'm feeling that hunger to be working on something new in a big way right now.

  2. Thank you for the great advice here. There are a lot of great points that writers should pay attention to. I know I will.

  3. Thank you for the advice. I have an action scene I've been afraid to write and this post has been helpful.

  4. Joe: I so know that "oo, new book" feeling :) I love my series, but after three years, I'm ready to be mean to new characters.

    DJA: Most welcome!

    Mary: Don't be afraid, just dive on in. Worst case the scene is bleh, and that's no big deal. You'll at least know how it plays out and that makes it easier to fix. :) And you may write a great scene and surprise yourself!

  5. As always, Janice, your posts are so helpful. Angie (adktd2bks) has always made suggestions for me in my work and she very often preempted her advice/crit with "I was reading on Janice's blog..." She's the one who turned me on to your site and to this day, you are my go to blog if I have any questions in the craft of writing. Thank you so much!

  6. Hello, Janice. How lucky for me that I was searching for a post on just this topic. The fact that you're a woman is icing on the cake. Thanks very much for some great tips.

  7. Thanks, I needed this blog! I wrote my first real "action" scene and it felt like I was in a movie, and that made me think I was writing it correct. It was a car chase/shooting scene which I had never done and writing it felt great. I described every movement, but at the same time, there was action and dialogue throughout.

  8. Melanie: Thanks so much. I'm glad it's been so useful.

    Gale: Most welcome. I have an uncanny habit of writing things folks need right when they need them :)

    Kim: That's great! Sounds like you're on the right track.

  9. I remember hearing about your first book shortly before it was published. It's really exciting to see you have grown into somewhat of a writing expert. I was "lurking" when you and your agent were on YALITCHAT.

    I just discovered your blog and I'm glad I did. This post is such an affirming one for me as I complete final revisions on the work I'll be querying soon.

    Based on what you've said, I seem to be on the right track, but this is a field in which one can always learn and grow. Thanks for the excellent advice. I look forward to being a regular visitor here.

  10. Welcome to the blog, June! Good to have you. I agree that you can always grow as a writer. I still attend conference and read other writing blogs and look for ways to strengthen my work. Even writing this blog reminds me about the things I should be doing. I really like that about writing. There's always something new to discover.

  11. I've been using your advice to not fear adverbs in the first draft. My NaNo story uses adverbs and adjectives with a very liberal hand. I blatantly tell just about everything, because right now I'm telling myself everything I need to know to get the shape blocked out without bogging down in phrasing. Then I can go back later and figure out what needs to be shown and where for the best effect for the reader. It's really helped my progress.

  12. So true- if you don't care about the character, why should you care what happens in what's supposed to be an exciting scene.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  13. im a young writer [talking about 12] and i hope the tips you have talked about help...
    I have been having problems with action/fighting chapters if you can can you look at it and give my pointers?
    [others are welcome too]


    [its more of a action fighting story]

  14. Jaleh: That's great :)

    Terry: I see this a lot in movies. Lots of action, excitement, stuff going on, but I can't remember which character is which or what their names. I leave the movie and say "I just didn't care."

    Justin: You're off to a good start. I think you could really tighten up your action scenes if you used fewer dialog tags (the "he said" parts) parts. I noticed that almost every line of dialog uses them. As long as it's clear who is speaking, you don't need them. They just slow down the scene. Cutting out a lot of those will make the action scene read smoother because you'll be in the middle of the action and dialog and not reading the explanations of those.

  15. I am going to spend all day here... great lessons, great explanations so I can put it to use. What a blessing this site is—all I can say is thank you.

  16. Jeff: Pull up a chair and poke around :) There's a lot here, which is why I'm always looking for ways to make it more accessible.

  17. Excellent tips. Thank you for writing them.

  18. Excellent tips. Thank you for writing them.

  19. Northierthanthau, most welcome!

  20. This post is a life-saver! While reading, I realized one of my action scenes really has very little bearing on the overall plot. Now I need to figure out how I can rework it to have more impact. Right now it's little more than action for the sake of action. Thanks for your help!

  21. Good advice :) *points to self* HUNGER GAMES STORY IS HAPPENING RIT NOW SO THIS ADVICE IS GOOD! Thank you!