Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How to Punch Up Your Action Scenes

By Alex Limberg, @RidethePen

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: I'm a huge fan of action, both in movies and in novels. I love when things are happening fast and you don't know where it might go or what might happen next. But crafting a solid action scene takes skill, and a breakneck pace isn't always the best route to take. Alex Limberg visits the lecture hall today to share some tips on writing great action scenes.

Alex is the author of Ride the Pen, a creative writing blog dissecting famous writers (works, not bodies); his blog offers detailed writing prompts. Make the dynamics of your plot, description, character and dialogue terrific with his free e-book (download here) about “44 Key Questions” to test your story. Alex has worked as a copywriter in a Hamburg advertising agency and with camera and lighting in the movie business. He lives in Austria and has previously lived in Los Angeles and Madrid.

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Take it away Alex...

When we hear “action scene,” we mostly think of movies. And if your story contains a fast-paced action scene, you will probably want your reader to play it out in his head just like a movie: High speed, quick cuts, graphic images, lots of tension. Here are some techniques to give your reader a fast, exciting, high-octane experience:

1. Motion vs. Emotion

Great action scenes consist of two elements that interlock like precisely designed gear wheels: Motion is the tickling surface that provides the kick, like spices on a dish. It’s the breathtaking real-time stuff; punches are thrown, knives are pulled, jumps are dared. We love it, because something is happening, and it’s happening explosively fast.

In contrast, emotion is the core of the matter, the fuel for the audience’s feelings. It’s the real underlying reason why action grabs us, its psychological motivation. Just seeing anybody knocking a chair over anybody’s head might hold your interest for a second, but knowing Joe knocked a chair over Desmond’s head because Desmond slept with his wife, makes you really feel the action in your gut and root for the characters.

You should tap into both, motion and emotion; one to make your scene quick and tingling and the other one to get your audience all caught up in the scene. Because that’s not always an easy thing to do, above this post you can find a free goodie to check your story’s dynamics (it uses test questions).

2. Create pace with motion vs. emotion

The trick is to make motion and emotion blend in well with each other. When they take turns, it’s also a question of rhythm. While motion should happen really fast to keep your reader at the edge of her seat, emotion will take a bit longer to dive into. That’s great, because a change of rhythm is always helpful for your story; for your overall plot as well as for a single scene. Variation keeps things interesting.

So speed up your scene with a physical description of the fight, the blood, the explosions and whatever fun you have going on there. Then, when you describe emotions, use that part to slow the scene down. When you slow down by getting into your character’s head and describing his thoughts and feelings, you provide the “emotional fuel” for the scene, while at the same time varying its rhythm – two birds killed with one stone.

Every scene has its very specific pace, and fast-fast-fast gets old soon. Fast-slow-fast is much more effective, because any characteristic stands out more strongly next to a completely contrary characteristic. A dark spot always looks much darker when placed next to a light spot.
For example: “Mary reached out for the gun on the table. She knew terrible things would happen if Richard could lay his hand on it first. Her mind couldn’t help but paint graphic images of blood and despair. Then her hand was on the gun, his hand on hers, a stinging pain as she gasped for air, the bone of her wrist cracking, the gun flying through the air. ‘It has landed in the corner,’ she could observe herself thinking. ‘It hurts so bad, but I have to be the first one there.’”
Slow-fast-slow, as simple as that.

Don’t take this rule too strictly though. You can write your scene as you need to – just be aware of the rhythm you create!

3. Amp up the speed with language

But how exactly do you make your language and descriptions “quick”?

Glad you asked. A very effective way is to shorten your clauses and words as much as possible: Use brief and simple phrases, short words, a spurt of syllables. The quicker the reader can skim through this, the quicker it will play in his mind.

Also, use as few periods as possible. Periods always make the reader experience “mini-stops,” thus slowing down the reading experience. Just a staccato burst of short, graphic verbs and nouns is the most effective way to pick up speed. Compare these two passages:
“He cut forward with his knife and saw its blade flashing in the bright sunlight. As he heard the guy screaming, he realized that he had cut through his shirt. Now he found himself staring into his face, which was showing its bare teeth. The guy attacked again.”

“His knife cut forward, blade flashing in the sunlight, the guy screamed, his shirt cut open, with bared teeth he attacked again.”
Would you say the second one feels much more dynamic?

4. Use a sudden detail for slow motion

Here is another way to wind down pace, this time while heightening suspense: Employ a sudden, graphic detail that symbolizes the tension in the air. Pick one that demonstrates the fear, the power, the risk. For example, think of a pearl of sweat on an eyelid that does (or doesn’t even) blink, or of a reflection in the blade of a knife. It can be as simple as describing the shiny, hard, red round of a boxing glove.

This is a very cinematic technique, and what you are writing is essentially a close-up. You are zooming in, freezing time for a second and concentrating on the thought or feeling the detail evokes in us. If you use this trick very sparsely, it can be extremely effective. Simultaneously, you are delaying what will happen and therefore heightening the tension.

5. Use action words

Certain types of words are more powerful and dynamic than others and will create a more intense “action-experience.”

Think about it: It’s pretty obvious that verbs of movement are more dynamic. Push, shove, run, grab, duck, blow, scratch, kick, paddle suggest a lot more action than stand, sit, think, look, be, wait. So when you want to speed up your scene, use as many words of active movement as possible. Use static verbs when you want to slow down.

When it comes to nouns, things you can touch are very effective. Any palpable word suggests way more action than an abstract, theoretical one. After all, which phrase lets you feel the action more, “Vincent was afraid of the huge threat to his life” or “Vincent was afraid the giant bumper would squash his head like a pea”?

So there you have some essential tricks to make your story more action-packed than a Schwarzenegger movie crossed with a Bruce Willis flick.

But how about you? Do you have any additional action tricks? Let us know in the comments about your secret tricks to take your reader’s breath away!


  1. Thanks for this post. GOing to keep it open as I write an action scene today!

  2. I agree, when you want to speed up the action, you use shorter words - and shorter sentences. It can read a bit strange to the writer, because we have to hammer it out, but the reader flies through it.

    Most new writers make the action this then this then this -- and the sentence runs on forever. The longer sentences, even if broken up with comas, can make more for the mind to digest - slowing down your reader when you want the speeding up. Even in those examples above, the length of the sentences is still relatively short.

  3. Yes, a shorter period of reading time means a shorter period of "experience time."

  4. Excellent post. I will be posting the link to my blog. Thanks!

  5. Excellent post. I'll share the link on Facebook for my writer friends.

    1. That's great, Mary! Please share away.