Let’s start with the basics. What exactly is an action scene, and how do you make it work? I think the best way to talk about action scenes, is to have a short example. This is a bit of a short example, more a fragment than a scene really, but this serves well enough to explain some concepts:
“Damian!” Graham called. Damian gestured to the four guards, then strolled away toward the castle.
“You killed my wife, you bastard,” Graham shouted. “Face me!”
The first guard tried to skewer him. Graham danced aside. A second jab followed. He flicked the blade aside with his own. Jab. Graham ducked past the guard’s blade and buried his blade in the man’s stomach. Three guards remained between him and his quarry.
He grinned darkly and raised his blade.
The action scene
An action scene is a scene where a character uses explosive physical action to overcome an obstacle that stands between them and their goal.
The character that the scene is about wants something, otherwise there isn’t a scene. Whether it’s throwing a ring into a volcano, finding their true love, or simply surviving doesn’t matter. The character has obstacles to overcome to achieve their goal. Sometimes dialog will do it, or slow and deliberate action, or character growth. Sometimes, it comes down to action.
In the scene above, it quickly becomes clear that Graham wants to avenge his wife, who was killed by Damian. To do that, he has to get past four guards.
There are other ways to define an action scene, of course, and in the end it only matters insofar that the writer has to know a scene is an action scene when they write it, and the reader has to see it as such when reading.
So, how do you make an action scene work?
First off, you can’t talk about action scenes without talking about movies. A lot of movies are built around action scenes. There are both similarities and differences between action scenes in stories and in movies. Keep in mind though, a book is not a movie.
That sounds simple, but a lot of writers see an action scene in a movie, then mimic this by writing a scene where a lot of stuff happens in rapid succession. That will not work. Actually, that is not what happens in movies either. Movies do a lot of the things books do – if they’re good movies anyway – only they do it differently.
Let’s have a look at the elements you should be aware of.
The first element concerns something that is an important part of both movies and books: the stakes.
Action scenes without context are pretty meaningless. Say you zap into a movie; you see a bus driving toward a traffic jam. Not that exciting. If you knew the movie was Speed, and that there was a bomb on the bus that would explode if the bus slowed to below 50Mph, you might feel differently.
An action scene only works if there is something at stake. In the case of Speed, it’s the passenger’s lives. In the case of Graham in the example above, it’s vengeance against the man who killed his wife. Not only do we need stakes, but the story needs to ensure that the readers/viewers care about the character and the stakes. Losing your life or losing your partner are things you can identify with. If in the scene above, Graham were fighting four guards to rob Damian because he wants to buy a second mansion, suddenly he’s a lot less sympathetic.
Bottom line, stakes need to be there, preferably for all parties involved, and they need to be set up properly beforehand so we identify with them.
The second element of action scenes that is important is the style. In movies this is about how it looks. In writing it’s the way it’s written. Keep this in mind: something does not feel like an action scene because of what happens, but because of how it was written. This is one of the major differences between books and movies.
Write active sentences. So, not ‘Graham was stabbed by the guard’, but ‘The guard stabbed Graham’.
Use clipped writing, but not exclusively. You still need to vary sentence length, but in general sentences should be shorter, and contain no exposition. Look at this section of the example again to see:
The first guard tried to skewer him. Graham danced aside. A second jab followed. He flicked the blade aside with his own. Jab.
Look what happens when we start adding fluff:
The first guard tried to skewer him with his sword. Graham danced aside, his boots hardly hitting the pavement as he whirled. He felt a twinge in his toe – he really should buy some shoes that fit. The guard jabbed at him again. He flicked the blade aside with his own. Screeches of metal on metal filled the air. He turned the blade in his hand as he moved his feet across the cobblestones. A bird flew overhead and squawked. The guard jabbed his sword at him a third time.
This is a bit of an exaggeration, but you can see how more exposition doesn’t improve the scene, but ruins it.
Having said the above about leaving out exposition, you should work on a third element in your action scenes: characterisation. People sometimes think characterisation is just about the dialog and the internal monologue of characters, but that’s not true. Action scenes can also tell you a lot about a character.
Movies do this as well, but it’s often a quick visual, such as James Bond adjusting his bow tie after a fight.The principle is the same: the characterisation is interwoven with the action, but the way to approach this in writing is different. In writing you achieve this by word choice, the character’s emotions, and their thoughts.
From the example: ‘Graham danced aside’. This says something about Graham. He could have ducked aside, stepped aside, or something else. But he dances, which says something about how he fights and his physique. There are more examples, see if you can spot them.
The point is, the way you describe the action, and what it does to the character, tells the reader a lot about that character.
There’s a lot more to action scenes than just writing down what happens. Three things to keep in mind when writing them: stakes, style, and character.