Tuesday, January 09, 2018

How to Write Kick-Ass Action Scenes (Part 1)

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of the How They Do It Series (Contributing Author)

Do you struggle with writing fight or chase scenes? Do you avoid putting action in your stories because you aren't sure how to make the action tense, original, and interesting? Don't worry. It's easier than you think.

To write a hard-hitting action scene that makes your readers break out in a sweat, you’ll start by breaking it down into its component parts. You'll brainstorm ideas separately for each part, and then weave them all together at the end. I'll show you how. Just grab your notebook and follow along.

1. Start with the location.

Where does this scene take place? Indoors, outdoors, both? What do the surroundings look like, sound like, smell like? What sort of people could be present?

Before you even start to write the action, take a moment to mentally walk through the location. Imagine it's a movie set, before the actors arrive. You're actually there on set, walking around, experiencing it.

Write down a list of everything you can think of: sights, smells, textures, background noise. Don't worry about writing “real” description, just make a list. Get your impressions down on paper.

Pay particular attention to any objects or scenery that could be used in the action sequence. Are there any sharp or blunt objects that could be wielded as improvised weapons?

Are there any barriers that could prevent escape, such as a locked door or steep drop-off?

Is there any cover that could block visibility or create hiding spots, such as large objects, darkness, or fog?

Here's an example of location description from my funny urban fantasy novel A Kiss Before Doomsday:
Slowly, Dru and Opal stepped into the garage, looking around at the shelves crammed with spray cans of chemicals and jugs of automotive fluids. The chubby red cylinder of an air compressor. A half-rebuilt engine in the corner, red rags sticking out of its eight exposed cylinders. All of Greyson’s stuff was here. But Greyson wasn't.
Notice that I planted an object—an air compressor—in the middle of that description. Believe it or not, in the coming action scene, that object will become a weapon.

2. Write down characters and goals.

Who is the point-of-view character in this scene? What is the specific goal they want to achieve? Use a verb and a noun. For example: catch someone, kill someone, escape a person or place, etc. Keep it simple.

Next, who is the opposition character? And what do they want to accomplish, exactly? It needs to bring them into direct conflict with the POV character.

This doesn't need to be complicated. It just needs to be clear.

Here's another example from my book:
A withered skeletal figure wreathed in cobwebs lurched through the door. Its empty eye sockets turned toward them. Its bony jaw opened wide, letting out a bubbling screech as it raised its long arms and reached for them.

Dru and Opal traded frightened glances.

“Run!” Dru yelled, pushing Opal toward the door.
The characters and goals are clear. The creature wants to catch Dru and Opal, while they want to escape.

3. Brainstorm possible actions.

This is where you can let your imagination run wild. In your notebook, brainstorm a list of cool things that could happen in this scene. None of this is set in stone, so feel free to go gonzo. Don't worry about chronological order, character motivation, or other details. Just keep brainstorming and don't stop until you've written down at least 10 actions.

For example, could one person hide around the corner, waiting for the other one to come running? Could someone steal a car? Kicks someone else in the head? Blow something up? Accidentally (or intentionally) set something on fire?

Write down whatever inspires you. Feel free to shamelessly steal moves from your favorite action movies. It’s OK. Schwarzenegger is cool with that.

Here's the secret to brainstorming: you’ll eventually toss many of those ideas in the garbage can. But the ideas you throw away may inspire even better ideas that end up going into your book.

If you jot down at least 10 actions—or more—then you can cherry-pick your favorites when you actually sit down to write the scene.

In this scene from A Kiss Before Doomsday, my action brainstorming list looked something like this:
  • Hit the creature with an axe.
  • Set the garage on fire.
  • Spray the creature with holy water.
  • Try to use a magical crystal.
  • Run for your lives!
  • Creature shoots sticky webbing at them.
  • Find a bag full of gray powder that can immobilize the creature.

The first two items on this list ended up getting tossed out. The rest of the items wound up appearing in the chapter, and the last item was the real clincher. I decided the heroines would find a bag full of gray powder that could immobilize the creature—but they had to find some way to get the dust onto the creature without getting killed in the process.

Next up: the Advantage, the Switcheroo, and the Win.

If you follow these steps, you will develop plenty of great ideas to write your next action scene.

In the second half of this article, I'll show you how to weave all of those ideas together effortlessly. Even better, I'll show you the super-cool secret way to end any action scene with a memorable bang (it's called the Advantage, the Switcheroo, and the Win).

In the meantime, what elements of an action scene do you struggle with the most? Leave me a comment below or contact me at 

Laurence MacNaughton writes funny books about magic crystals, possessed muscle cars, and the end of the world. His books include It Happened One Doomsday, A Kiss Before Doomsday, and No Sleep Till Doomsday (July 2018). Find out how you can get a free ebook at

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads 


About A Kiss Before Doomsday (Dru Jasper, Book 2)

When an undead motorcycle gang attacks Denver's sorcerers, only one person can decipher the cryptic clues left behind: newly minted crystal sorceress Dru Jasper. A necromancer is using forbidden sorcery to fulfill the prophecy of the apocalypse and bring about the end of the world. To learn the truth, Dru must infiltrate the necromancer's hidden lair and stop the prophecy. But she needs to do it fast, before legions of the undead rise to consume the souls of everyone on earth…

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo


  1. Good system!

    I specialize in action scenes myself, and I like this emphasis on capturing how much is possible. So much of action is that sense that a hero (or just anyone desperate) will take in *everything.* All the options they realize they can't try give them that hemmed in feeling, and all the ones they try that don't work add to that desperation.

    One thing I'm teaching myself now is, it might be too easy to write scene after scene where the hero wins, or escapes clean. So at the start of planning I ask if there's a way the hero can be out of his league, or if the scene's key is some surprise he hasn't faced before, and if that can actually cost him something that he hasn't lost before. If a lot of the scenes are this way, there's more room for others to turn out to be a breakthrough on the hero's part and a real step forward.

    1. Thanks Ken. You'll be particularly interested in Part 2 of this article, where I'll explain the Advantage, the Switcheroo, and the Win. But in the meantime, remember that the best way to keep your readers turning pages is to keep raising the tension. So whether or not your protagonist wins a conflict, they should end up in bigger trouble at the end of the scene than they were at the beginning. Often, that means a “win” is actually worse for the character than losing. Have fun writing!

  2. I struggle most with car chases. I'd love to hear tips on that. Thanks for this post!

    1. I've written a few, and I'm working on one just this morning (mixed with a bit mind-control magic; in most stories it's the car that gets repossessed, not the driver).

      I think the key to a car chase is getting comfortable with recombining a few basic factors: how clumsy the cars are in stopping and turning, how much room (and concealment) lanes and traffic give them, and how turnoffs and lights let someone try to escape. And, how a pursuer trying to hide is different from one who can openly stay on his target, call in cops to surround him, or dare to shoot at and ram him right now.

      The basics of how one car can get away from another are pretty simple, but you can do a lot with which thing happens right after what. AND then you can get imaginative with how many Other Things complicate it anyway, both with the road and especially with the characters.

    2. Hi Jackie. I used to struggle with writing car chases. And then I realized that the key is to ignore the cars during the planning phase. Instead, think of it just like any other conflict: use it as an opportunity to showcase aspects of the characters. Those aspects can work for or against a character. So a character who is impulsive, for example, might make a move during a car chase without thinking through the consequences, and end up in trouble. Or, that impulsiveness might prompt them to take a brave action which leads to a win. As long as you are true to the characters (both the good guys and the bad guys), you'll end up with an interesting car chase.

      Another quick tip: brainstorm a list of possible obstacles, based on your setting. Pick your favorite three, and arrange them in escalating order of tension. Then show the reader how the chaser and the chase-ee individually get past those obstacles. After the third obstacle, end the chase -- for better or worse!

      Have fun writing!

  3. Great tips! With a little tweaking and creativity, these might also apply to love scenes.

    1. Good grief, that's exactly right! Both scenes might start out with characters in conflict because of specific motives, both scenes use the environment to set up what happens and build a mood around what might happen, and both build suspense through mixing the emotional and the physical. I've often heard that love scenes need the same dramatic buildup as other scenes, but action (well, fight) scenes really do match them well.

    2. You're right on the nose, Dominique. You can use these same steps to outline any scene, whether it's a conflict involving weapons or words. Just remember that a good scene requires conflict: one character wants one thing, and another character wants something different, and only one of them can win.

  4. I think the challenge with both is to balance the mechanics of body movements with the excitement of the scene