Friday, December 15, 2017

4 Tips on Writing Action Scenes

action scenes
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I like action in my entertainment. Books, movies, TV shows, even games. I also enjoy a great story to go with it, but 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 and discover why they did it. 

At this point in my career, writing 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--I explained every detail, I created special names for fighting styles and whatnot. It took longer to read the action that it did to actually perform the action.

Action can be tough to write because it's easy to focus too much on the action and not enough on the character in peril. So long descriptions of stage directions sneak in and what the character does takes center stage. We often ignore what the character thinks and feels during that burst of action.

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

For Compelling Action, Get in a Character's Head

It's almost counterintuitive, but showing the thoughts and feelings of an active character make for better action sequences. Readers care about the characters and need that emotional connection to create the tension a good action scene requires. They want to know how the characters feel about what's happening to them so they can understand the stakes. They want to know what those characters are going to do next so they can anticipate what might happen and be drawn into the story. Without that emotional connection, the action is just details on a page.

There's no set rule for how much emotion to put into an action scene, but I try not to let too many straight descriptive paragraphs go by without hearing from my point of view character in some way. I'll add a line of dialogue, some internalization, something that puts the reader back inside the point of view character's head and re-establishes that connection. 

From a purely structural standpoint, these emotional pauses also help break up the text to better control the pacing. Description slows down the narrative, while dialogue (even internal dialogue) 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 even when readers skim, they stop to read the dialogue (spoken or internalized), because that's usually where characters make decisions. So mixing up the scene helps keep the reader reading and not just jumping to the next set of dialogue lines.

(Here's more on mixing internal thought and action)

Let it Get Personal

Action happening to someone we know or care about is much more interesting that something happening to a stranger. 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 you've seen 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 watch. 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 with your own action scenes. Make sure your stakes personal to your protagonist.

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.

(Here's more on layering in the action to keep things tense)

Add a Surprise or Revelation

If the outcome of your action scene really isn't in question, there's no reason to read it. What matters isn't the action, but whatever happens at the end of it. But if the outcome isn't predictable, and there's a chance to learn some new information, readers start paying more attention.

Don't make it all about the action. Share a secret, show a talent the character hadn't yet revealed, have them discover something that affects the plot. Give readers an informational reward for watching your action scene. Once they discover treasures lurk within those scenes, they'll be eager to read every word, wondering what vital clue might be found.

(Here's more on adding revelations and surprises in your scenes)

Pace Yourself

Pacing is as critical to action scenes as stakes. Scenes that drag lose readers. The goal is to get the reader caught up in the action--get their heart beating, their breath racing, make them turn the pages as fast as possible. Consider how you write those scenes to maximize the tension and set the right pace.

Short sentences add speed. They create excitement and build tension. Long sentences slow things down and lessen the excitement, but they can work well to build suspense. Action scenes don't typically pause for long descriptive passages or deep thoughts, unless you're purposefully giving the reader a breather.

Also be wary of your narrative flow. Since action scenes typically focus on stage direction, readers need to be able to follow along to understand what's going on. Tripping them up with awkward phrasing can knock them right out of the story and confuse them. 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.

Watch out for choppy sentences or list-like passages that can jar readers and yank them away from the story. Keep an eye on your sentence structures and the rhythm of your words, and don't forget to vary them. Read the scene out loud if you have any concerns about how it flows. There's no better way to catch bad narrative flow.

(Here's more on controlling your pacing)

Action scenes are a staple in fiction, from small fights to end-of-the-world disasters. Make it about more than just a blow-by-blow of what happens, and you can create gripping and breathtaking scenes readers won't be able to put down.

What are some of your favorite action scenes from books, movies, or TV? 

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  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!