The Dos and Don’ts of
Writing Action Scenes
(Squeamish Warning! – very descriptive with gore in this article.)
Writing action scenes can be one of the most fun aspects of writing a story. They’re fast-paced, thrill rides that churn around in your head, only to wildly spill out onto your novel’s pages in all their vivid glory.
These dazzling scenes keep the reader glued to your book as they flip from page to page chasing after the action. Thus, in the midst of this thrilling writing process, we can forget that whether you’re writing a high-stakes fight scene or a high-speed chase, there is an unspoken set of rules that can prevent us from writing action scene blunders. These rules are what I refer to as the “The Dos and Don’ts of Writing Action Scenes,” and without further delay, here are your Dos, and here are your Don’ts:
Do learn from other writers, especially those with experience in writing this type of writing-
A good reference for writing action scenes could be writers in your genre or writers you look up to. You can read and study how they present their action or fast-paced scenes and maybe implement some methods yourself. This can especially be helpful if you’re stumped on how to write action for a particular audience.
(Keep in mind, this isn’t an excuse to blatantly steal or copy and paste action scenes from another work into your writing. Please, do not do that! That is not the intent of this tip. )
Do maintain a sensible pain tolerance-
Unless you’ve previously established your character to have some sort of super-strength or power don’t make them invincible.
If a character gets a limb like his foot or arm decapitated in a fight, he’s not going to jump back up and start swinging a sword, he’s going to be lying on the floor screaming in agony as his insides pour out.
If your character is running from something other dodging blow after blow, they’re going to get tired, or out of breath, and that should affect their performance.
Make sure to stay within some realm of realism, even if you’re writing fiction. (In other words, remember that something like being walloped by steel pipe over the head isn’t something you can just walk off. )
Don’t get wordy-
Keep your action scenes in real time. That means it shouldn’t feel like your pausing the story just to explain what’s going on in a scene.
Avoid writing something akin to this:
“Henry hastily climbed over the old penitentiary’s rusty, brown, creaky fence while angry Dobermans and Pit bulls snapped and jumped at his dirty, rubber shoe heels. He then landed on the other side and noticed his thumb was bleeding. ‘Shoot, I cut myself.’ He thought.”
-This sounds too past tense, with words like, “then,” and its’ overly descriptive details slow down the flow of the story.
Do write something more akin to this:
“As Henry hastily climbed over the penitentiary’s fence, angry dogs snapped and leaped at his heels. As he landed on the other side, he noticed a sharp pain in his hand. He gazed down at a red splotch on his thumb and swore. ‘Shoot!’ He thought shaking his wrist, ‘ I cut myself!’ ”
-This does away with as much past tense as possible, and it keeps the flow of the story going.
(I go into more detail about this in my article titled: over-detailing:)
Do help the reader experience the action-
A lot of the thrills from watching fight scenes unfold comes from imagining how it feels.
Think about it, why does the audience wince when someone gets slashed across the face in a fast-paced barfight, or turn pale when someone’s bone juts out, or limb bends like it’s not supposed to. It’s because we know that that’s got to hurt, and even if it does get your audience squeamish, writers know it gets their attention, and keeps them engaged.
Do use gritty descriptions-
This is to help further invest your reader. In an action scene, your character is on the move. Try to think about that pain that character is feeling, there is no one type of pain. Pain can come from nausea, or fatigue, it can dull like a bump on your leg, or sharp, like a cut on your side.
Which sounds more likely capture the interest of an audience?
He was out of breath, OR His chest throbbed, as he gasped for air.
There was a searing pain on his side, OR There was a sharp, fiery pain in his side.
He was hot and covered in sweat, OR His face was flushed, and drenched with sweat.
She felt dizzy and fell, OR She felt lightheaded and collapsed.
She tasted blood in the corners of her mouth, OR The tangy taste of blood lingered in the corners of her mouth.
Don’t erase effects in a short period of time-
Unless you’ve demonstrated that a passage of time has occurred, don’t just eliminate a character’s injuries in the next scene. That means, if your character gets really injured after a fight, don’t have him or her walking around like it was just a scratch, or nothing occurred in a few pages later.
If you do this, not only do you eliminate the sense of danger or urgency because the character just turns out fine, it’ll also look like you either forgot about the action scene that just took place or didn’t care enough to keep things consistent in your writing.
Do take advantage of the effects of action scenes to progress the plot instead of to stall –
You don’t have to decommission or push a character to the side because of their injuries from a previous scene. In fact, you can use it as a plot point, or to further progress the story.
Examples could be like, maybe now the protagonist has to learn to fend for themselves, thus growing their character.
Or, maybe the protagonist needs to retrieve an item to heal that injured character, making a new feasible plot point.
Get creative, and see how that injury could actually contribute to the plot.
Do watch actions scenes in movies for inspiration, whether fighting or car chases –
Try to take note of what elements in those scenes gets your blood pumping, and think about how you can implement similar elements in your writing.
That’s all for now on action scenes! Did you like this post, or is there another element of writing you would like me to tackle? Whatever your thoughts are, I’d like to read them down below in the comments! Until next time!