Writing Action Scenes

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Imagine you’re stopping off at the supermarket on the way home from work. It’s later than you had intended and the sun is already down. You’re tired, irritated by a meeting you had earlier in the day, bits of which are replaying in your head as you start manhandling bags of groceries into the car. It’s raining and one of the paper bags you insist on getting as a vague gesture towards being environmentally responsible has started to tear at the bottom. You figure that if you’re quick you can get it inside before more damage is done, but a can of tuna rolls out of the bottom and under the car. Cursing you stoop to pick it up, and that’s when you realize.

There’s someone behind you. Someone who has moved quickly and quietly. Someone who means you harm.

You turn, rising, forming a defiant question that will mask your sudden panic, and that’s when you see his fist and the blade it is wrapped around…


OK. So for most of us, writing the rest of this scene will—mercifully—be an act of imagination rather than memory, and it’s a tricky thing to do. Partly, I think, the problem is with the medium itself, words on a page being—perhaps—better suited to reflection than the furious chaos of physical fighting, the danger and exhilaration of which comes across so much better in a visual medium like film. It can be done in fiction, of course, but how do you pull it off?

Let me start with one of my usual calls for balance. On the one hand, we need to know what’s happening so we can picture it, but on the other we want to feel what it’s like to be in the fight, and those two impulses can be contradictory. Unless your protagonist is a very cool headed martial arts expert (and I’m assuming a limited 3rd person narrative here), describing every move of the struggle so that your reader can act them out is going to feel stiff and dull. As with larger plot points, the important thing is to remember that the meaning of the action is finally about its effect on the reader and its consequences for the characters, so that you don’t get mired in the mapping of its logistics. Real fights—even some verbal arguments if you’re angry enough—don’t feel choreographed. They feel irrational, a swirl of gut-level, thoughtlessness. If your character feels like his or her life is in danger, we need to sense that, and we won’t if it comes across as either a ballet or (and this picks up on other conversations we’ve had here recently) like the blow by blow account of a role playing game.

Different writers tackle this balance in different ways, of course, and it may depend on what you want from the sequence in terms of the larger narrative, but I would caution against too much reflection during the fight. As with any action sequence, you probably want to keep the specifics tight: short, breathless sentences, setting up (and balanced by) occasional longer and more reflective beats. The reading eye leaping quickly from sentence to sentence echoes the speed of the action and (hopefully) gets the adrenaline pumping, then you can move from the staccato to something with more detail or mood. Try this:

The knife flashes up at your face. You block wildly, stumbling, and his other fist swings in. It lands hard on jaw. Your head snaps back, and the night brightens. You taste blood against your teeth, and suddenly there is only panic and defiance and a wild, terrible fury. You lunge for his throat, forgetting the knife, your knee snapping up into his groin.

And so on. The first 4 sentences are short and physical, as is the last one. In the middle is something a bit longer, a bit more abstract, which provides a turn for the paragraph, a transitional moment in which the attacked becomes the attacker. The next longest sentences (the 2nd and the last) still feel short, because they’re made up of three almost separate phrases which each convey an action. The longer transitional sentence is not much longer (though the repeated “ands” force a fractional slowing of tempo, I think, which gives weight to “panic” “defiance” and then “fury” [itself loaded with two adjectives to give even greater specificity and weight]), because action has to feel almost like it’s happening in real time: that the number of seconds it takes to read the passage are about the same as how long the action takes to happen.

Action demands that you prioritize. What should be part of the character’s or narrator’s experience here? Should he/she (or “you”) be aware of the color and model of the car? Probably not. Adding that kind of detail at this point is likely to make the whole feel like an out of body experience, where the readers and those involved in the event are surveying the scene placidly, taking in the clothes of the people, the temperature of the night air and so forth. There may be good reason to include such information, but for most action sequences those things are going to feel digressive and irrelevant. When describing fighting well, the reader is most likely going to be thinking very simple things as the sequence taps into his or her own feelings of fear or exhilaration, and what will keep them reading is a focus on answering equally simple questions: will the protagonist survive and how? A secondary question might be ‘who is the attacker and why is this happening?’ but you barely want even that in the reader’s mind during the fight itself. As the struggle goes on, you want the reader’s response to be visceral, animal, rather than analytical.

The ‘show/don’t tell’ rule is especially applicable here. Each moment should feel immediate so beware those anti-suspense phrases which telegraph how things end up before you get there: “He didn’t think he had the energy but…” “The first two ax blows barely made an impression on the armor but…” “Only when he was down to his last bullet…” These are lazy phrases which effectively skip over time and ask the reader to pretend it was all gripping. Either make us experience each stroke, each shot, or leave them out.

Lastly, keep it short. Even in action-driven books the action is usually delivered in discrete episodes, because if the fighting (or whatever) starts to flag, the whole purpose of the scene has collapsed. If it starts to lag or otherwise loses its edge—even in the description of a big action event like a large scale battle—it has started to subvert its own purpose and needs cutting. Dialogue and exposition can occasionally get away with being a bit boring (particularly if their pay-off is elsewhere): action can’t. Action exists primarily for the thrill or horror they provide in the moment of reading. If you can’t feel your pulse starting to race as you read what you’ve written, it probably needs attention. Thoughts? Favorite authors for action sequences?

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30 comments to Writing Action Scenes

  • This post couldn’t *be* more timely. I’m writing my first hand-to-hand combat scenes ever in my WIP. I have a couple of added twists, in that my human is fighting vampires with some superhuman abilities. I found it incredibly helpful to consult with people who practice martial arts in real life, to get some concrete information about different styles of combat that I could adapt to my work. I look forward to reading comments on this post!

  • Thanks, Mindy. Glad the timing of this helps. I posted a while back about weapons and fighting techniques that might also speak to some of what you are wrestling with. That’s here.

  • Sometimes I realize I’ve written an action scene that just won’t work. One fighter needs two left hands to do what I’ve said he’s doing, or the way I have them turn leaves them fighting each other back to back. When that happens, I call my husband and son to come into the room and block out the scene, just to make sure it makes physical sense. Once I even had my husband jump off the roof of our Blazer so I could see him land and roll. I can’t tell you how much it helps. I know not everyone has people willing to do this sort of thing, so I’m lucky.

    I’m also lucky no one has been damaged yet. 😀

  • Great point, Misty. I do the same. Walking through the steps of a fight (esp with some deluded but helpful participant) is invaluable for visualizing exactly how things work. This goes for all physical activity in books: not just combat. While writing a scene in my last thriller where a guy was up on the ledge of a tower and trying to inch round the building, I laid out 2x4s around the walls of my house and worked my way round, pretending I was fifty feet up in the air!

  • AJ, this is a great post!

    I always find myself scratching my head when it comes to action scenes in my stories. I go back and feel something is missing, but I haven’t been able to figure out just what it is. These are great references to go by and now that I’ve read it, I plan to keep them in mind!

    Thanks so much! Oh, and I do like a myriad of different action scenes from many different authors, that’s a toughy to pick from 😀

  • Great post A.J.! I now need to revisit the action sequences in my novel. I also love the idea of blocking the action sequences first so I can see how they would play out.

    One question and a request:

    The question: In terms of spacing for an adventure novel, how often should an action sequence come up? I’ve read novels before that were so action packed they were exhausting and annoying and then I’ve read other novels that seemed like they could use a little more action. Is there a “rule of thumb” for how much action one should see?

    The humble request: You’ve written very well here about action in things like fights, but what about action on a much larger scale? I would love to read something about writing action scenes that involve multiple fighters, or writing battle sequences.

    Thanks in advance!

    P.S. I’ve always thought Jasper Fforde wrote excellent action sequences in his novels.

  • AJ, I think the very most important part of your post (great post, BTW!!!) was >> In the middle is something a bit longer, a bit more abstract, which provides a turn for the paragraph, a transitional moment in which the attacked becomes the attacker.

    The reflective moments (while short and not coherent) in battle are the ones that stick with the participants and the readers. I was once attacked in a parking lot, and I most remember the need to throw up on him and the sight of my pocketbook swinging as I tried to hit him with it. And the sound of my voice, breathless and high-pitched. Not the blows, or the running or the getting away. (Yes, I got away with ony bruises and a total loss of my self-confidence.)

    And yet, if I were to write that scene, I’d write it with all the action, only a moment of nauseous reflection where the character would turn from defense to flight.
    After, the character would remember none of the action, but all of the fear, as I did.

    While I don’t recommend being attacked in a parking lot, personalizing experiences is a great way to get the feel of action. That small, incoherent, reflective moment that means, “I am not going to get away,” or “I am going to get hurt,” or “He isn’t going to stop,” or “I am going to have to kill him,” while not spelled out, is intensly important.

    Great post! I also loved the meter of the words and the poetic way you laid it out. Niiiice!

  • Hinny, thanks. Glad you found it useful. As usual, of coruse, this is only my take and I strongly advise the usual strategy: when you read something (in this case, an action scene) that really WORKS, study it. Figure out how it moves, and try to break it down in ways you can emulate.

    Faith, I had no idea this post might open old wounds! Sorry. But I’m glad it spoke to soemthing of your experience as both an attackee and a writer.

  • I’m usually pretty good with action. I think my strongest suits are action, dialogue and characterization. I can do a good plot, but once I start writing an action scene, it just flows. I think it helps that I’m actually seeing the scene as a full color movie in my head and I just have to describe with words what I’m seeing. I do the combo of short and longish sentences. I have noticed that when there’s a lull in the action, checking the battlefield, sensors, etc, the sentences expand accordingly. It’s like giving the eyes a breather before slamming back into the combat. I don’t tend to use fragments for action. It works for some writers, but it’s not my writing style and it feels odd and jarring for me to write them. However, I did once write a short story I’m going to be rewriting soon that had a lot of fragments in it to show how fragmented and disjointed the character’s mind is.

    By the by, anyone check out myouterspace.com yet? It’s a new community concept put together by William Shatner and some of his partners for writers, movie makers, actors, etc. If anyone else is on it, look me up.

  • This is always a great topic, so thanks, AJ, for bringing it up. Several times I’ve done con panels on fight scenes and one piece of advice I always mention is that writers should take a little time to learn about the reality of fighting. What I mean is that fighting we see in film and TV is usually unrealistic, but because that’s our main input on fighting, we’ve come to believe a fallacy. Best example that everybody can relate to — anybody kicked full-on in the groin is not going to get back up and start fighting or running or whatever — not for a long time. Another example that many don’t know — it’s very difficult to knock somebody unconscious with one punch to the head. Even when you know exactly where to hit. So in addition to pacing, word choice, etc, don’t forget a dose of reality.

    Now I’ve got a bunch of other thoughts in my head, so maybe this’ll be fodder for my post next week. Thanks! 😉

  • heteromeles

    Actually, I *like* writing action sequences: my two most productive days to date (6000 and 11000 words) included the battle scenes.

    Not that I’ll parade myself as an expert (I’m not, but I have a little martial arts training, and I have been jumped on the street), but a couple of hints.

    Plan it out in advance. In particular, if your POV character is on the defense, get inside the attacker’s head and plan out your attack so that it should succeed. If there’s no way your POV character is going to survive what you’re planning for him, then you may need to go back to before the fight sequence and make sure she’s got what she needs.

    Another thing is to break the rhythm. Surprise is a potent tool in fighting, and it makes for fun writing. Hit them from behind.

    It’s also good to consider who’s better. If you have Joe Studly Redbelt, your account of the fight might be: “Hi honey, I’m home! What, the jacket? Oh yeah, three gangbangers jumped me in the parking lot. No big deal. They didn’t even see my face.” If you are Joe Average Muggee, the same attack might be: “As he opened his car door, something hit his head, and he woke up in the hospital.” I’m not going to bother with the even match, because that’s a drawn-out fight that going to take about 500 words, including the chicken.

    The final thing is my fights were fairly short, now that I look at them. The thousands of words came from dealing with the aftermath, with people running away, putting out fires, and dealing with the wounded and the dead. Despite what I wrote above, I don’t particularly like violence, and in the context of the story, the aftermath was more important.

  • Joe, good (and tricky) questions. You’re right to say that different writers use different amounts of action and that some (like Jim Rollins, say) are relentless. I’d go so far as to suggest there are genres within genres, and your best rule of thumb is probably to ask yourself what kind of book you are trying to write and then study examples of that subset. My thrillers use action fairly sparingly (every 50 pages or so?) but I’m considered a bit sedate, especially next to the harder core thriller writers (esp. those set in military contexts, of course). I will respond to your request about larger action scenes but I need to think a bit about that first. It may even be material for an entire post. Can you wait 2 weeks? :)

  • Daniel. Good points about short/long sentence usage. I use fragments infrequently, but I do think they can help convey the incompletion of thought in high pressure situations. Wasn’t familiar with the Shatner site you mention. I’ll have to check it out. thanks.

    Stuart, yes, the trick is balancing what is realistic with what has the most dramatic value. I’ve worked with fight choreographers too and it can be jarring to learn that ‘real’ fighting (sword or otherwise) is often nothing like as theatrically potent as something that taps into our (movie-driven) sense of what fighting should be like!

    Heteromeles, good points. I especially like your closing remark. I don’t actually like real violence either, and I’m wary of over-glamorizing it in fiction. I think that’s something our culture does too much, and it has consequences in the real world. I find weapons fascinating, but I never forget what they are designed to do, so I treat them carefully and with suspicion, both in life and in my books. After the Virginia Tech shootings I wrote a polemic to one of the country’s larger mystery writer organization listserves about taking more seriously our representation of firearms. They told me it was too “political” a subject to distribute. As if literature isn’t always political!

  • AJ, no old wounds. Might have been had I not gotten away. It became a useful tool, in fact. In the AKA’s last book the character was attacked in a parking lot. It was fun to twist the old experience around in new ways.

    I’m very excited to see what you might say about bigger scenes in 2 weeks. I’ve always kept my action scenes down to small numbers because I’m honestly afraid to attempt something larger and more grandiose. Please plese please include an example like you did here. It was beautiful!

  • Thanks for your response. No problem waiting. I like forward to your future posts on this!

  • Sorry, that was supposed to be “look” forward to your future posts of this.

  • AJ, nice timing for me as well since I’m just about to write a skirmish in my book. Elizabeth Bear posted something on her blog about the size of the fight and the duration it should take. One of the things we see all to often in TV and movies are the long, drawn-out scenes where two swordsmen parry and riposte for ten minutes before the hero miraculously finds a way to win. In reality, most combats are over in seconds, in story we can draw it out a bit for some drama, but too much can be a hindrance.

    Your sentence suggestions are great. I think I picked up some advice like that from “Conflict, Action, and Suspense” by William Noble (a Writers Digest Elements of Fiction Writing book).

    As for good action in stories, the late David Gemmell has some great works, particularly “Legend” and “Waylander.” You could also look to some older stuff by Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard. As for newer stuff, E.E. Knight’s “Way of the Wolf” and Joshua Palmatier’s “The Skewed Throne” are great. Lastly, Joe Abercrombie’s “The Blade Itself” has a blurb on the back that reads, “I could happily recommend The Blade Itself for the fight scenes alone,” – SF Site. In this, I concur.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Emily

    AJ> Great post and thanks! I’ve been thinking about writing action scenes.

    As for a favorite action author: I love a scene in Terry Pratchett’s “Making Money.” It is set up like a “man takes a bullet for the president scene,” but it is actually Moist taking a cream pie for the tyrant of the city. It is all in Moist’s pov, and it is both effective and really funny. Both an example of that kind of a scene and a send up of it, as well. Lots of fun!

  • Thanks for the post, AJ! This is something that I always worry about in my writing and you offer some great tips.

    As for action writers, I liked Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series and the use of action in them. Terry Pratchett has a knack for good fight scenes (odd in a comedy book no?), especially in THUD! and the other City Watch books.

  • Dave,
    you identify a great issue. While the realism of a long fight sequence might be questionable it can be fun/exciting/scary and it is sometimes worth remembering that how much we use should be dictated by story. After all–though, like you, I’m a proponent of accuracy–we are writing fiction rather than scholarship. Real combat, as you suggest, doesn’t usually have the dramatic or moral clarity we generally want from art, so I suggest striving after what’s plausible rather than what’s merely “real.”

    The second issue you raise is in the difference of fiction from film/TV. The latter is better suited to protracted action because we can take it all in so much faster, experiencing each moment as it happens. Books are less suited–in my view–to being entirely action driven. Some people love those that are, but for me the particular strength of literature is elsewhere. I love action sequences in books if they are well done, but I don’t want them to have to carry plot, character, thematics, ideas, phrasing etc.

  • Emily and Mark. Glad you found the post useful. I agree with both your choices. Ludlum really is one of the fathers of the modern action thriller: few people do combat better. Pratchett is a favorite of mine, but I’m still surprised by how good he is at action because he is so strong in other areas less easily mastered by action writers.

  • A great post. I have trouble with action scenes, especially fighting, so it’s always a treat to here someone declaim on the topic for my enlightenment. One thing that I hear a lot is that people who aren’t as knowledgable on fighting should focus more on the emotional aspects of the conflict. It seems like readers don’t mind if this takes up a certain amount of time, but perhaps that is something that goes more for epic or high fantasy, and less for some of the “grittier” sf and UF and thriller genres.

    Thoughts?

  • Thanks, Atsiko. I think your instinct about dwelling more on emotional consequences than action if that’s your natural leaning is probably a good one, though (like so many things) it depends what genre or subgenre you are working in. You may have to meet your readers half way if the genre *expects* more action than you are comfortable with. If the thought of writing violent scenes offends you (emotionally or morally) you may–at some point–have to rethink which genre you want to work in. If it’s simply a sense of lacking knowledge or confidence, that’s fixable with study and practice. I must say that I never thought of myself as good at writing large scale action scenes, but felt they were a staple of the genre I was writing in. I worked at it, tried to find a way of making them successful for me and dived in. Imagine my surprise at finding the battle scenes high on the list of things reviewers praised when the books came out! Certainly I think you’re right that (however much I recommend studying other successful examples) shaping action scenes (or sex scenes or whatever) with your own particular slant and interests is a good thing. Genre shouldn’t make any writer generic :)

  • Like what you have to say about pacing and sentence structure.

    As far as fight duration goes, in my kung fu class, my instructors half-jokingly say that against an untrained opponent, all you need to learn is the first block and punch. (After that, you hit them in the back of the head until they stop moving. Then you take their wallet). The other 99% of our training is for the “Oh shit” moment when you realize the other guy knows what he’s doing, too. Those are the fights that can last longer than a few seconds.

    To expand on your point about minimizing reflection mid-action: Even if you’re well-trained, fights are too quick-moving to think about how you’re going to physically respond. It’s not like “Ah, a gut punch. I will respond with my palm-down block.” When you train martial arts, it’s so that when you have to instinctively react to an attack, your panicked arm-flail will hopefully be something that resembles a real move.

  • Good point, Edward. Of course the trick is to balance the sense of what it feels like to be in a fight with enough description that lets the reader know what on earth is going on! Sometimes, you can ignore the logistical ballet entirely and focus on the red mist over the eyes, but most of the time you have to shape that realism with narrative so the reader stays with you.

  • Yeah, it’s more that I need more practice than some moral objection. I have relatively few fight scenes outside of my fantasy material.

  • A J > Great post!
    I’ve enjoyed reading your insights and all the comments. I’m not writing any action scenes at the moment, but I will be soon. Your advice will certainly be put to good use when I get there.
    Thanks!

  • My apologies for coming to this so late, A.J. As others have said, this is a terrific post, and I really like the little action scene you include here — elegantly done. I haven’t much to add. Like others, I block out fights in my office, often using props for swords or knives. It’s easier now the that the kids are old enough to be at school. When they were younger and they walked in while I was rolling around on the floor it was a little hard to explain. I’ve written many large battle scenes, all of them in books with multiple point of view, and I’ve found that just as sentences become shorter, more direct in fight scenes, the point of view sections become shorter in battle scenes. In other words, one way to convey the frenzy of battle is to shift among POV characters more frequently. Quick episode, then jump. A snippet of a fight that ends with a beloved character in danger, then jump. Etc.

  • heteromeles

    A couple of quick references that are useful for context, because fights never take place in a vacuum. http://www.vikingsword.com is a collector’s website, but it’s a great place to find out what weapons actually look like and (to a lesser extent) how they were used. It’s my favorite place for finding out about the cultural milieu of weapons. Remember, most of the time, weapons were NOT used in combat, and often, their cultural context and uses are more important that how to fight with them. As one example, the Indonesian keris is the equivalent of a European neck tie–it’s far more used as a complex set of cultural signals than as a utilitarian item or weapon.

    I also recommend “There is no best sword,” (http://www.thearma.org/essays/nobest.htm), especially if you’re writing fantasy. I’ve gotten to the point where when I read someone cutting another person’s arm off with a rapier, I put the book down and think about whether I want to keep reading it. It’s easy to do research these days, and even if you don’t do martial arts, it’s not hard to find a proper weapon for any scene.

  • Thanks John. Glad you found it helpful.
    Heteromeles, good links, thanks. Also, I like your reminder that weapons are not always what they seem and are crucially tied to other forms of symbolic capital (notably class). rapiers have always been fascinating to me because there’s such a range of within the basic category, swords varying tremendously in terms of hilt/guard, length, eight and the precise nature of their blades so that some are like fencing epees and some are like broadswords!

    David,
    I love the idea of you having to explain away your bizarre behavior at home. This is the real difference between the successful published author and the unpublished writers we all start out as: the former can have fake sword fights in his kitchen without being branded a raving looney!

    I like your insight into large battles. I tend to write from a single character’s POV, so I use a different approach which I hope to explore in 2 weeks. It would be great if you could chime in with more on this, since it would counterpoint my approach in interesting ways.