Friday, September 07, 2018

Five Crucial Tips for Convincing Action Scenes

By Harrison Demchick, @HDemchick

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Action scenes can be tough to write, since they're often a lot of description to describe a single act. Harrison Demchick visits the lecture hall today to share some tips on writing a convincing action scene. He's also offering a free compelling action checklist on his website, so be sure to check that out.

Take it away Harrison...

You’ve finally worked your way to the climax of your novel, and you’re thinking big. Lasers. Explosions. An avalanche in the middle of a hurricane. Basically the end result of a Marvel-sized movie budget flowing from the tips of your fast-typing fingers.

That’s great—but let’s slow down a little. Great action in fiction doesn’t come from size and scope alone. Effective action is crafted with care. As a book editor, I’ve worked on scenes as massive as a dozen or more superhuman teenagers battling it out with a litany of impossible powers, and scenes as small and well-considered as a heated argument in a confined space—and I’ve also seen all of these scenes fumble and fail for one reason or another.

So before you wander too deep in the weeds looking up the precise mechanics of every rocket launcher known to man (although that does show an impressive devotion to specific detail), it’s important to consider these five tips to help ensure that the scene you write is every bit as exciting as the movie you’re watching in your head.

1. Be Specific

In the movies, a great action scene doesn’t just happen because you have a hundred million-dollar budget. It also takes choreographers, stunt coordinators, and storyboard artists to think carefully through every moment of each scene. If you’re writing an action scene, these jobs are your job too.

That means you can’t just say that “they fight,” or that “Gina attacks her.” A fight or an attack can be basically anything. You can narrow these actions down with a punch or a kick, but we still don’t know where that punch or kick lands. If a character defends herself, how exactly does she do it? If a gunshot misses, how does it miss? Did the target move? Was the shot too high? Where does the bullet actually hit?

This may seem obvious. But I’ve seen many fight scenes struggle on exactly this basis. And action isn’t exciting if readers can’t actually see it.

2. Be Precise

Wait—isn’t being precise the same as being specific? Well, not exactly.

One of the most common issues I see in the depiction of action is the inclination to explain it. For example, an author might write the following action:
Kacem uses his outstretched hand to fire a concussive blast at Jayden, who reacts by ducking beneath it, causing the blast to pass harmlessly over his head.
That action is specific. We know what happens. But it could be expressed more precisely if written like this:
Kacem fires a concussive blast through his outstretched hand. Jayden ducks, the blast passing harmlessly over his head.
Instead of explaining that Kacem uses his outstretched hand to fire the concussive blast, we simply show it happening. And we also don’t need to explain that the act of Jayden ducking is a reaction—we already understand that in context, and the result of this action is clear in the blast passing harmlessly over his head.

Precise action, then, is expressing action not only specifically, but also efficiently. When your language instead explains the sequence of events, it’s basically a form of telling versus showing. It removes readers from the immediacy of the action and slows the scene.

Precision comes also from giving each beat of action its due. By dividing what was originally one sentence into two, we emphasize both Kacem’s blast and Jayden’s dodge in equal measure. I’ve seen action scenes filled with sentences that cover three, four, or even five individual beats of action—sometimes fast-moving action, and sometimes action that would cover considerable stretches of time. Such action reads as jumbled and rushed.

So it’s worth taking the time to slow and show. If you’re writing with precision, the action will still read every bit as fast-paced as you intend.

3. Emphasize Setting

An explosion is all well and good. But what exactly explodes, and where? Are there surrounding buildings to be destroyed, or a forest to be leveled? Does it light up the night sky or make the day impossibly bright?

Too often an action scene focuses so much on the action that it forgets where the action happens. Yet where the action happens is central to the way in which readers experience the scene. A punch, a blast, a dodge—these actions are so much more tangible if we know we’re in a damp cave or a tropical jungle or underneath an overpass. When a character falls to the ground, clarify the kind of ground. If the cold air makes your protagonist’s breathing ragged and painful, convey that too. Setting is an ongoing component of action.

It’s also a useful tool. In a cave a character can throw a rock. In a jungle they might make use of a branch or vine. Setting not only clarifies action by providing it a sense of place, but informs action as well.

4. Craft the Arc

It’s generally known that a well-crafted narrative begins with an inciting incident, which gives rise to a chain of cause and effect we call rising action. Rising action builds to a climax, followed by falling action and dénouement, or resolution.

But did you know the same is true of a fight scene?

A successful fight scene is a story in its own right. So consider where you want it to begin, and where you want it to end, and from there specifically what plot beats along the way take us from one to the next. Don’t make it too linear either. Your hero may win, but his victory is more compelling if we believe he might lose. It’s by crafting an arc, and ensuring that each moment is in some respect the effect of what precedes it and the cause of what follows, that you ensure your fight scene is a compelling scene and not just a hodgepodge of random action.

5. Don’t Forget About Character and Context

Finally, as you launch your rockets and wreck your ships or whatever else you have planned, take care not to lose sight of why this action is happening, and to whom it’s happening. If this is indeed the climax you’ve been building toward, chances are it’s the climax for your protagonist’s character arc as well. That means your protagonist should drive the action. She should overcome her flaw. She should be tested as a character.

Character and context are important even if this isn’t the climax. We’ve all seen blockbuster films filled with expensive action about which we care not at all. Why? We don’t understand the character or the stakes. It’s chaos without cause. No matter how specific, precise, and well-crafted your action, if it’s meaningless in the context of your story, readers will be bored.

So strive always not for action for the sake of action, but rather action with purpose. That more than anything is what truly brings these scenes to life.

Now here’s the twist: All of these principles we’ve discussed are true well beyond the scope of action sequences. Even action in the midst of a casual conversation should be specific. The writing of it should be crisp and precise. Every scene needs a setting. Most scenes and sequences have arcs, even if it’s a quiet scene in a sleepy town. And there’s almost never a moment where your character arc isn’t important.

So keep these tips in mind no matter what sort of action your story demands, and your writing will be more compelling than an ambiguous explosion could ever be.

What’s the most exciting action sequence you’ve ever seen? Let me know in the comments below!

Harrison Demchick came up as a book editor in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than seventy published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as women’s fiction, literary fiction, mystery, young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe.

Ape Canyon, is currently in post-production. He’s the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012), and his newest short story, “Magicland,” will appear in the October 2018 edition of Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism. He’s currently accepting new clients for book editing in fiction and memoir at the Writer’s Ally.

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Harrison is also an award-winning screenwriter.


  1. Thank you. Your examples were clear and very helpful. Precise action V. explaining is something I'll be checking as I revise.

  2. That was a very good post! I love action scenes, writing, reading and watching. Sometimes, I need to watch a movie a few times to catch it all, which is why I prefer to read them. But still, fast paced fun!

    1. I think there might be a lesson in that too: You don't need to show every single moment in the course of an action sequence. Like in a well-choreographed film, you can focus on a particular piece of the action, or jump back and forth between several, while other action continues to exist in the periphery. It's all about the specific scene and what you mean for it to convey.

      Thanks for reading, Mel!