Tuesday, November 07, 2017

How to Write Thrilling Action Scenes

By Vincent H. O’Neil

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: You'd think action scenes would be easier to write--you just describe what the characters are doing, right? But it's not that simple, and great action scenes can be a challenge for some writers. Please help me welcome Vincent O'Neil to the lecture hall today, to share some tips on writing action scenes that readers will stay up all night reading.

Vincent H. O’Neil is the Malice Award-winning author of the Frank Cole mysteries, the theater-themed mystery Death Troupe, and the Interlands horror novels. Writing as Henry V. O’Neil, he recently completed his five-novel military science fiction Sim War series with HarperCollins.

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Take it away Vincent...

Good action scenes can make the readers feel like participants instead of spectators. Action sequences aren’t just a list of movements describing what’s happening—they’re an opportunity to pull the readers in and make them feel like they’re right in the middle of the event. There are lots of techniques for doing this, so I’d like to present just a few that I’ve employed over the years. Whether you decide to use, modify, or reject these suggestions when writing your own action sequences, as always there’s only one requirement. Do it well.

Make it Different

Action scenes shouldn’t read like the other parts of your story. There’s almost always something at stake, so the passage should convey a sensation of suspense, dread, or excitement over the possible outcomes. These sequences also have a faster tempo, which means they’re transpiring in a way that doesn’t lend itself to deep analysis or explanation. That’s all right, though, because in the middle of a desperate fight, a sporting event, or a natural disaster there’s a lot that the characters aren’t going to notice.

While it’s still important to provide enough information to keep the audience from getting confused, don’t be afraid to skip the detailed description that you’d probably include in a non-action scene. When your characters are running for their lives, there’s plenty of time later on for them to figure out exactly what happened—provided, of course, that they got away.

Put the Readers Right in the Middle of It

Action sequences provide a marvelous opportunity to make the audience feel something. Stressful circumstances often generate extreme emotions and heightened senses, so try to elicit those responses from your readers. A good way to plan this out is to identify the sensations and reactions of the characters involved in the situation, and then try to describe them to yourself. If you’re uncertain about what the characters might be feeling, try and remember a similar experience of your own. Think about how you felt, how you reacted (or didn’t) and how the whole thing was different from a non-stressful event.

Use those sensations to connect with the audience. Instead of stating that a character is afraid, offer their physical reactions (such as thudding heartbeat, dry mouth, sudden fatigue) and mental responses (tunnel vision, sense that time has sped up or slowed down, or perhaps an out-of-body feeling) to awaken similar sensations in the readers. This is standard fight-or-flight stuff, and most of your audience will relate to it from their own histories.

Make It Realistic

Everyone reacts differently in emergencies,and our responses at the start of a stressful event can be different from our actions at the end. Some people freeze at the outset, regain their balance sometime later, and perform admirably from that point onward. Others leap into action right at the start, and carry that through until the danger has passed. Still others remain calm and methodical, no matter what happens. And then there are the entertaining-but-dangerous individuals who fly into a frenzy in the hope of scaring the trouble away, or as a means of avoiding acknowledgment of their own terror.

Your characters’ responses will say a lot about them, but don’t be afraid to have them behave in a fashion that’s unexpected. Brave people can experience burnout if they’re challenged too many times without a chance for real recovery. Normally dependable individuals can fail to rise to the occasion for any number of reasons—and every now and then the coward saves the day. Action scenes are great opportunities to add depth to your characters and twists to your plot. It’s a physical law that actions cause reactions, but when human beings are involved, some of those reactions can be very surprising.

Plot It Out

The real world is a messy place, and it gets downright chaotic at high speed. People running toward or from danger trip over their own feet. Characters throwing punches misjudge the distance, lose their balance, and get pounded as a result. In big fights, all sorts of things start appearing in unusual places: objects flying through the air, broken items (and sometimes bodies) underfoot, and friends popping up in front of enemies.

Action scenes aren’t limited to violence, of course. Sporting events, natural disasters, and cascading accidents are just a few of the many situations where your characters will be making split-second decisions and moving at high rates of speed.

As the storyteller, you need to know what’s happening to every character all the way through an action sequence—but you aren’t required to share all of that information with the audience. This is all part of putting the readers in the middle of the excitement. Most of your characters will only see what’s directly in front of them (or what they perceive to be in front of them) and very few of them will be able to describe the action in full after the fact. You’re the only one who has to comprehend this thing from start to finish.

Writing It

By now you’ve identified the sensations and emotions involved in your action sequence, and you know what actually happens from beginning to end. But how to write it?

No matter what the action is (a fight, a riot, a chase, or a ballgame, just to name a few) the tempo is accelerated—and the storytelling should be as well. Try shorter sentences and smaller words, to convey urgency and a compressed timeframe. Action verbs and onomatopoeia can also give the readers the feeling of actually being in the midst of the tumult. Describe the characters’ physical and mental reactions to each occurrence, and you’ll kill two birds with one stone—telling the story while making the experience real for the audience.

Viewpoint is important in action sequences, but because this is chaos you get to choose what those viewpoints are and how accurate they may be. A single character will only see and experience the events that occur right around him or her, while multiple viewpoints can help make the confusion easier to understand. Both options work well, for different reasons—the single viewpoint conveys uncertainty and inaccuracy, and helps to put the reader in that character’s shoes. However, the perspectives of several characters can do that as well while also helping to fill in more of the blanks.


Action scenes can really engage your readers, so take advantage of this opportunity. If you get tangled up in the planning or the writing, remember the intention is to create an experience for your audience and you’ll be able to straighten it all out. Make them feel the suspense or danger at the outset, by establishing that something important is at stake. Give them the physical and mental sensations that will help them connect their personal experiences with what’s happening in this made-up story. Make it real by adding chaotic occurrences, limited perspective, and incomplete information. Speed it up with shorter sentences and smaller words, and don’t be overly concerned about the details.

At the conclusion of a stressful event, the people dealing with the situation are often surprised to discover that the emergency is over or that the danger has passed. They got so caught up in the circumstances that they lost track of time and what everyone else was doing. If you can get your audience to experience something like that at the end of the sequence, you’ve written a good action scene.

Want More?

I’ll be teaching a workshop on this topic at the marvelous Sleuthfest writing convention, which takes place in beautiful Boca Raton March 1-4, 2018. Sleuthfest is great fun, and even though it’s primarily a mystery convention people who enjoy all genres attend. I hope to see you there.

About Glory Main: The Sim War: Book One

We are closer to the Sims than we think …

For decades, mankind has been locked in a war with an alien enemy that resembles the human race so closely they are known as the Sims. Both sides battle for control of habitable planets across the galaxies—often at any cost.

Lieutenant Jander Mortas is fresh out of officer training and new to the war zone but eager to prove himself. There's just one problem: disaster strikes while he's traveling to his first assignment. He wakes to find himself marooned on a planet that appears deserted, with the only other survivors: a psychoanalyst, a conscientious objector, and a bitter veteran of a brutal slave-scout detachment. As the group struggles to reach safety on a nearby base, Glory Main, they discover a Sim colony—which could mean their salvation, or their demise.

Thrown together, they must fight the harsh elements, an ever-present enemy, and possibly each other.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound |


  1. Thanks so much for inviting me, Janice! I hope everyone enjoys my post, and that they'll browse the other great offerings here Fiction University.

  2. Loved it. I have two novels with action scenes. This comes at a great time for me. Thanks to the both of you.

    Question for you. Should I show every step of the middle school fight? Just the important steps?Right now, I have it laid out showing every blow and the reaction from the protag and the bully.

    1. Hi Robyn! Thanks for commenting, and for reading my post.

      I don't pretend to have all the answers, and I'm careful not to tell other writers how to do things. With that said, I will try to answer the question.

      I think it's fantastic that you already have all of the actions and reactions of this fight sequence, because it means you know the whole fight all the way through.

      As I mentioned above, the "action-reaction" technique can give the readers the sense of being in the fight while also telling them what's happening. So there's nothing wrong with leaving it the way it is.

      I think the question to ask is: Does this scene feel like a fight? If it does, then there's no need to explore taking things out. If it doesn't, perhaps cutting it down a little might help.

      If you have time, you might try re-writing the scene with some of the action-reaction removed and see if you feel it works better. The only drawback to that approach is that changing one segment can throw off the tenor and tone of the rest of the story, so if you do make the change it's important to read the segments before and after the edited scene to make sure it still flows.

      You as the writer will know which one works.

      I hope that was helpful.


  3. This is a great post to add to my resource file for the newbies I edit. Close quarters action is always tough to write, keeping the balance between what you show and what is assumed.

    I have a favorite example of internal dialogue during a fight, which I found in a first-time novel: "Wow! That hurt!" :O)

    Thanks so much for sharing Vincent, and Glory Main looks like a book my nephew will inhale.

    1. Thank you so much for reading my post, and I'm glad you liked it. It sounds like you're very familiar with writing these scenes already, so hopefully your "newbies" will find it helpful.


  4. This is very helpful for fleshing out a scene I’m working on right now. Thanks for the insights, Vincent, and for bringing the article to us, Janice!

    1. Thank you for reading it and coming by to comment, Deb! As always, it's just advice and I hope other writers like you will feel free to adjust it as you see fit.