How do you successfully convey a whole flurry of action on the written page? I mean, it's not like we can watch it happen on a big screen? Or can we...? Imagination plays a major role in all fiction writing. Tickle it the right way, and it will carry you along page after page of adventures. Tickle it the wrong way, and you might get slapped. There’s nothing worse that being engrossed in a story and—what the heck is that?—something doesn’t make sense, something sounds just off, and it pulls you out of the adventure.
There are many reasons why this might happen: awkward word choice or phrasing, unbelievable circumstances, or even an unfortunate typo which went overlooked in the editing process. In action scenes, the reader might be jerked out of the story if he stumbles across a passage of description in the middle of a fight. Or maybe he feels there is something off with the fight itself; maybe your villain’s nonchalant triple back flip and perfect landing onto the seat of his purring Harley while lighting a cigar has made him lose credibility in the scene. Whatever the problem, whenever the writing pulls the reader out of the story, you risk not being able to draw him back in.
Because of the importance of the action sequence, it’s best to have an idea of the basics. This is why I’ve put together a compilation of tips from various online resources. So let’s start at the beginning.
First off, before beginning the actual writing, you must go through the preparation for the scene. What’s that? You wanted to kick some alien butt? Get out there and shoot some cannons? Slice some throats? Well, that will have to wait because, as Philip Palmer beautifully explains in his article, How to Write Action SF:
“[…] action scenes are of course not the same as scenes of violence. Violence is just killing; action is killing + THINKING. A dumb hero who kills is not a hero at all, he (or she) is just a murdering psychopath.”
So you, as the creator of action, have to think a little before you write. As Linda Adams states in her article, Thriller: Writing the Action Scene, the key is to plan the scene in advance. Make sure the characters are prepared for what will happen. This doesn’t mean that the characters must always be ready for an ambush, but that they should know the skills you want them to use in combat.
For example, if you want your heroine to show off some mean karate moves, make sure she learned karate first! If the talent suddenly materializes in the middle of combat, you risk having your scene sound contrived and, well, not credible. (Deus ex machina, anyone?)
Another important part of preparation is to make the most out of the character’s existing skills. If gracing your characters with sudden hidden talents is contrived, it is equally bad—or possibly worse—to build up a character with many abilities, and not have him use them in an action scene. You can see an example of this in Linda Adams’ article (link provided below).
Philip Palmer points out that establishing a protagonist with an attitude is also an essential part of action writing. Whether he’s the all-around good guy, the lovable troublemaker, or the bear-chested space commander, the hero must have an attitude, and his actions must be consequential to who he is.
And what about the bad guy? Regarding the villain, Linda Adams reminds us to keep the stakes believable. A villain who murders hundreds, blows up buildings and goes after the hero many times cannot simply be doing it because of the money. There must be stakes to go in proportion to the damage being done.
Once we have the background for the heroes and the villains, we must build up the story to the action scene per se. But it doesn’t all stop there. We might like movies where one bomb goes off after another, bridges collapse, and that’s pretty much the plot (I myself am a fan of the Terminator saga). But in writing things don’t work that way. Every scene must have a goal, and action scenes are no exception.
So what will the outcome of your action scene be? What is its purpose? How does it add to the continuity of the novel or story?
Once all these matters have carefully planned out, we can begin to write the scene.
2) Punching and kicking and shooting—oh my!
So you sit down… and stare at the screen. You write a sentence, go back, erase it. Is it supposed to be this hard? Maybe, but then there’s only one thing left to do: practice!
A helpful website to go to for information on what steps to follow in writing action is About.com. What I love about this site is that at the bottom of each article we can find links to further reading and related topics. The article by Ginny Wiehardt, Writing Action Scenes, offers sound tidbits of knowledge on what to do when putting together a successful action scene. Let’s take a look at the first three tips they offer us:
1) Perform the action (if possible)
2) Pick up the pace
3) Keep dialogue short
Performing the action for fight scenes—whenever reasonably possible—will give you a better feel on how the characters might interact in their fight. You might discover that when you perform a certain movement, your foot ends up here, not there, or your hair, which happens to be the exact same length as the hero’s, falls into your eyes obscuring your vision—you might want to tie it back.
Once you have an idea of the choreography you want to carry out, it is very important to try to transmit a sense of speed on the page. You can achieve this by writing in shorter, choppier sentences, by cropping dialog to a minimum, and by shortening or obliterating descriptions.
Rayne Hall writes, in the article Fast-Paced Fight Scenes, that “[t]he length of your sentences creates the pace of your scene. In a fight scene, sentences need to be short, especially when the action speeds up.”
Hall then goes a little further, and comments on the importance of using the right words in action scenes:
“Short words create a fast, sharp rhythm, so use the shortest available word for the job. Words with single syllables are best. Two syllables are ok, three syllables are so-so, and anything longer doesn't belong in a fight scene.”
So the key is to keep it sweet, short and simple, to avoid weighing down the page with longwinded words or descriptions which, honestly, would be better off somewhere else.
The article Writing Action, by S. B. “Kinko” Hulsey, offers a good example of how we can speed up action. We start out with a rather clunky scene. The sentences range in the 15-word field, there are various descriptions plopped throughout, and the action just doesn’t do it. Luckily, Hulsey works through the text, dumping descriptive, selecting more appropriate words, shortening sentences and paragraphs, and tweaking the overall structure of the scene. The end result is quite different from the clunky, slow paragraph we started out with.
3) But it just won’t come out!
As I mentioned above, Hulsey goes through an entire revision process in order to achieve a successful action scene. Sometimes, however, it’s better to get the action down in any way you can, and then worry about revision later.
How many hours have you spent in front of a computer screen, beads of sweat forming on your forehead, because those darn perfect words just won’t come out? As Pace J Miller puts it in his article Writing Action Sequences:
"A common problem with action scenes is the struggle to find the right verb to describe a particular action. My advice: stuff it."
This is sound advice, no matter how you look at it. Get the action down, complete the scene—you’ll have time to revise and consult the thesaurus later. Just type down the scene now that it’s tingling your fingertips. Inspiration might be gone in a few minutes, so why waste it by trying to come up with the perfect words? Perfection takes time, so “stuff it” and keep working.
And while I'm on the topic of the perfect action verbs, here is a very interesting blog entry from Hillary Homzie, Action Verbs for Fighting Scenes. Don't miss the photographs of the classroom whiteboard! There's material for inspiration right there.
In conclusion, writing action is not an easy task, but it can be done. Preparation, structure and revision are the key to happy writing. There are many more sources on writing action available on the net, and I have listed the ones used in this article, as well as a few more, below.
All in all, I hope this introduction has helped you understand the basics of a good action scene, and the preparation required to successfully pull one off!
Thriller: Writing the Action Scene – Linda Adams
Writing Action Scenes – Ginny Wiehardt on About.com
Fast-Paced Fight Scenes – Rayne Hall
Writing Action – S. B. “Kinko” Hulsey
Writing Action Sequences – Pace J Miller
Action Verbs for Fighting Scenes – Hillary Homzie
Action Sequences – Jed Hartman
Pacing Dialogue and Action Scenes – Holly Lisle
Write Tip: 10 tips for writing good action scenes – Bryan Thomas Schmidt