Tuesday, September 15, 2015

BANG! POW! BOOM! (writing action like an end boss)

By James R. Tuck, @JamesTuckwriter

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: When I was a wee young writer way too long ago, I remember using pewter figures from my Dungeons & Dragons set to stage a fight scene. I planned it out, had my figs move and wrote that scene in meticulous detail as I ran through it in "real life." Do I need to say it was a terrible scene? Had I only had James Tuck's advice back then, my scene would have been so much better. Luckily for everyone today, he's here to keep us from making the same fight scene mistakes I made.

James was born and raised in Georgia and grew up drawing and reading a steady helping of Robert E. Howard stories, Golden Age comics, and books he was far too young to be reading. Combined with a very Southern involvement in church and watching horror movies, this became the bedrock of his creativity. He became a tattoo artist, and now writes dark fantasy. He's the author of the Deacon Chalk: Occult Bounty Hunter series, a variety of short stories and novellas set in the same world (and some outside of it), and the editor of the Thunder on the Battlefield anthologies. His newest series (co-written with Debbie Viguie), is Robin Hood: Demon's Bane.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

Take it away James...

Action in genre is one of those things that can really leave your reader breathless and reeling, feeling like they've been in a fight and are punch drunk from your words smacking them in the nosebone – or it can be so confusing that they actually skip it or, worse, put the book down altogether.

I write a lot of action in my books. I have an eleven page fight scene in an upcoming release with three protagonists and four antagonists. (RED RIGHT HAND 4/2016 from Tor under the name Levi Black)

Do I recommend action scenes this long for normal books? Well that leads me to tip number one.

1. Keep it short.

Despite what I did in RRH most fight scenes should be kept short. In real life a fight between two people will last minutes at most, and seconds in the normal. You can search YouTube for streetfights and see, people may take a long time sizing each other up, but once the blows start it's usually over in a few seconds. (fair warning, some of these fights on YouTube become fairly violent and graphic, so proceed with caution.) So don't ramble in your fight scene. This not only applies to the length of the scene itself but also to the general sentence length. Short, choppy sentences have more impact in the mind of the reader, they jar and shock. Sometimes you can use just one word to convey a ton.

2. Use your words.

Onomatopoeia is your friend. Like the title to this article, seek out words that are sounds. They convey something that other words just don't impart. Words like smack, crack, bang, slap, and even crash trigger a different sense which draws your reader into the scene, transferring from the visual to the audible. The more senses you engage in your reader the more chemicals flood their brain and this is the effect we want. As those juices begin to soak into the sponge that is their brain it makes it harder for them to be pulled away from the experience of reading your story. You hook them on their own mind drugs and they want more and more and more. First one's free, after that you pay.

3. Get in there.

  • Visceral detail sells an action scene. Really focus on the minutia of what's happening and think about it from all angles. If someone takes a punch, zero in on strange details that will sell the experience. Calloused knuckles scrape the thin skin of my lower lip. 
  • The pain is hot and sudden, blasting up into my eyeballs. 
  • I feel the hot tear of a tooth slicing through the inside of my cheek. 
  • The dirty penny taste of my own mouthblood floods under my tongue all thin and tinny and I don't know if my teeth hurt from the punch or from the salt in it.

Or something like that.

4. Zig when you should zag.

Action scenes are sudden and jarring. Things happen fast and appear out of nowhere. Jerk around in the writing. Go from a sound to a sense to an insight on what the feeling is. If you run through a long sentence about the tug and pull of a bone being pulled from a socket and how the pressure builds and your protagonist can feel it being driven by a spike of pain and he knows, he knows, that as soon as the pressure bubble breaks the pain is going to slam into him, driving hard and sharp and hot into his heart; then follow it with a short sharp blow about the crisp celery snap of the cartilage splitting.

5. Get creative.

You aren't writing a fighting manual. Not a report on a sporting match. You are describing action. Get loose with your descriptors and feel free to make up words or misappropriate them. Again, you are messing with the readers brain chemistry. When you use a created word or make a visual that isn't what the brain expects it works to assimilate it and that means neurons fire and the chemical make up of the mind shifts. These are exciting for the brain. You have to keep things close enough to normal that the brain does have a touchstone, you can't be absurd or the brain disconnects from the scene, but a tweak, a nudge outside of normal keeps the brain engaged on a more complex level that it wants more of. Words like mouthblood and images like the crisp celery snap of cartilage splitting are both things the brain can conceive but are different enough to make it work that little bit harder than it normally does, and that is exactly what keeps the reader locked into your story.

Those are just a few tips. I hope this helps. In the comments feel free to drop a snippet (a snippet means no more than 5 lines!) from your own action scene or some of your favorite visceral words so that we can all steal them!

Until next time, take care of yourself, and each other.

About Robin Hood: Demon's Bane

Sherwood Forest is a place of magic, and Prince John and his allies are demons bent upon ruling Britain. The solstice draws close, and Prince John and the Sheriff hold Maid Marian, whose blood sacrifice will lock the prince’s hold on the kingdom and the crown. Unless Marian can reach Robin with a magic artifact coveted by the enemy and entrusted to her by the Cardinal, the ritual will occur. 

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. This is lovely. I know for myself, dragging things out can be a problem, so thanks for the reminder! Here are my five lines of action:

    Rowan screamed.
    I screamed too; screamed to drown out Rowan's cry, screamed to break the ghastly shrills of the monster. Screamed until its horrible vibrations were just a tangle of meaningless noise.
    The blind head lashed the air, it's jaws snapping at nothing. The mass of heaving flesh slammed into my chest.

  2. I don't currently have an action scene to drop in here, but I loved this blog. Will share! When I need action sequences, I would go to my son who is an A.F. dude (16 years), is familiar with all sorts of weapons, served in Iraq, etc. And if I need more action, I would probably consult with a karate black belt. I would not assume to try this on my own. I think the best action scenes in novels are brief, staccato, with short sentences. If a writer goes into too much detail (his right hand wound around.....) it's too cumbersome.

  3. These are great tips. (I like the zigzag advice especially.)Thanks!