Are Action Scenes Kicking Your Butt?

I am infamous for falling asleep during action scenes.  At the cinema.  The most notable was during one of the Die Hard movies, when I fell asleep while Bruce Willis and Co. were driving through some underground tunnel as a wall of water was bearing down upon them.  It was tense and exciting – so much so that the first thing I asked my husband when I woke up was how did they get out of that one?  My husband has been master of the *facepalm* for a long time now…

Now I love a good action scene.  I loved when the Hulk dealt to Lokey in The Avengers.  Loved the Helm’s Deep siege as Legolas and Gimili kept score while they were fighting.  The size and spectacle and special effects in movies such as The Matrix300 and Gladiator.  But there is a fine line between gratuitous violence and something that is inherent to the story.  So what makes a good action scene?

1. Purpose.

There is nothing worse than action for action’s sake.  If you are going to include any sort of action scene there had better be a good reason for it, because if your reader isn’t invested you run a real risk of them skimming the scene or worse, putting the book down.  So no random bar-brawls, unless it’s driving the plot.

Patrick Rothfuss, does a good bar-fight towards the end of The Name of the Wind.  It’s a solid fight scene, but the real hero of the writing is the silence that comes afterwards as the characters process what the presence of the attacker means.  It raises questions, ups the stakes and provides a good dose of foreshadowing.

I would go so far as to say the presence of an enemy at the door isn’t of itself a good enough reason for an action scene.  Something needs to be happening within the character’s own story arc.  A story about a master sword fighter who wins every fight just isn’t interesting.  Look at his (or her) motivations, relationships with other characters – is there a deeper theme that can shine through?

One of my favourite fight scenes to write was where one of my characters had to go out and rescue another character that was making life difficult for everyone else.  He didn’t want to be rescued, certainly didn’t like his rescuer and the tension between the two was more interesting to me than the skill with which my hero dispatched the enemy.

2. Tension.

The best action scenes are tense.  They’ve been building to a peak and we really don’t know what the outcome is going to be. Consider the scene from The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf faces the Balrog.  Things have been going badly in the Mines of Moria, they are almost to the exit – escape is close and then…

But it was not the trolls that filled the Elf with terror.  The ranks of the orcs had opened, and they crowded away as if they themselves were afraid.  Something was coming up behind them.  What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and a terror seemed to be in it and to go before it…

J.R.R. Tolkien takes time to describe the Balrog and the characters horrified reactions.  This part is almost deliberately slow, capturing every reaction but emphasising the action when it finally explodes onto the page.

3. Pace.

Action scenes, by definition, need to move.  Things happen quickly.  Senses are heightened and people tend to act on instinct rather than over think every little thing that happens to them.  The problem is, when we write an action scene we are often conscious of choreographing the movement.  We often put it together in slow-motion, but need to pick up the pace when we’re writing – so the reader feels their own adrenalin pick up with the character.  For example, this passage from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

Five different voices behind him bellowed, ‘REDUCTO!’  Five curses flew in five different directions and the shelves opposite them exploded as they hit; the towering structure swayed as a hundred glass spheres burst apart, pearly-white figures unfurled into the air and floated there, their voices echoing from who knew what long-dead past amid the torrent of crashing glass and splintered wood now raining down upon the floor –

‘RUN! Harry yelled, as the shelves swayed precariously and more glass spheres began to fall from above.  He seized a handful of Hermione’s robes and dragged her forwards, holding one arm over his head as chunks of shelf and shards of glass thundered down upon them.  A Death Eater lunged forwards though the cloud of dust…

Firstly note the scale.  You immediately feel there are a number of people involved.  The description is totally focussed on the external; curses, glass, splintered wood, the chaos of the ghostly figures.  We aren’t told what the characters are thinking in this scene – they simply react to the environment as the reader sees it.  And you see a lot of different things going on. The dialogue is short and choppy, the capitalisation emphasising the urgency.

When you’re writing action, all you need to know is how your character would react in the moment.  Don’t slow down the pace by considering every move.  There’s plenty of time to unpack it all later.

4. Stakes.

In fantasy action is often life and death.  Sword fighting is lethal.  Take a hit with a sword and you’re looking at serious injury or death.  So if you want your action scene to be real, let your character feel the bite of the blade, the burn of their muscles and the rush of adrenalin as they misstep.  If the stakes are life and death, make sure death is a real possibility.  Equally the action might be about establishing a pecking order.  In A Game of Thrones, Jon Snow thinks he is better than the rest at sword-play, yet beating untrained combatants actually loses him the respect of his peers.  The fight scenes become more about establishing relationships.  Other stakes could be freedom, self-respect, protection of others, control.

5. Character and Setting.

Sometimes action is about setting a scene or establishing a character.  In any of the Robin Hood stories, you must see early on that this is a man who has fighting skills and is prepared to use them to an end.   Our first introduction to Han Solo in the Star Wars trilogy is a man set on evading his ‘creditors’ at any cost.  In The Lord of the Rings, shadowy Stryder saves the Hobbits – and shows a man attuned to the coming darkness.

Action may also be a mechanism for world-building, to show the realities of the story context.  In Braveheart the tradition of the Laird bedding a new bride says more about the politics in one act than any drawn out description.

6. Length.

Your character will expend a lot of energy fighting, and so will your reader if you do your job properly.  Don’t drag a fight scene out unnecessarily or the only thing injured might be your story.

Finally, if you’re struggling with writing action scenes find a few of your own favourite writers and see how they do it.  It never hurts to get out your favourite action movies and watch how the actors move.  But most of all let go when you’re writing and trust your instincts.  You never know what might happen.

How about you?  What do you think about writing fight / action scenes?  What are your most memorable action scenes?

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29 thoughts on “Are Action Scenes Kicking Your Butt?

  1. Excellent advice. I love the instincts bit. I tend to write too much internal dialogue, and, during edits, I’m cutting it all out. I think my problem is trying to balance what actions are based off instinct and what actions my character has the ability to think through, and whether those two things are mutually exclusive.

    1. Fair comment. Because I write fantasy the genre tends to lend itself to battle scenes, sword fights and physical action. But the same principles could appy to any scene that includes physical or time conflict, such as battling the elements (river, flood, storm) or racing to the airport to prevent someone getting on a plane. If you need to write an action scene you could reference someone in your genre who has approached it particularly well.

  2. I love all your examples 🙂 Brent Weeks is another author who writes great action scenes. I tend to keep my action scenes short when I write, and for a long time I thought I was wrong in doing so. Then I read his Night Angel books and discovered his action scenes are not that long either, but they are still intense and fast-paced.

  3. I’m all for keeping action scenes short myself if you can. More often than not the character is trying to finish things up quickly – so I go with that. I’ve noticed the best scenes I’ve read manage to paint a vivid picture in a short space of words. I haven’t read any of Brent Weeks – but will check him out!

  4. Great post! I really love writing action scenes. I especially like what you said about the pacing–though sometimes I get too enthusiastic about fast pace, forget to slow down the really crucial moments, and end up kind of glazing over them.

    1. I think they are really hard to do right. But that’s the beauty of editing – looking at the whole afterwards and thinking – yeah that was a crucial moment. I’m like you though – I like to write them fast!

      1. See, you went and mentioned Russell Crowe and the first think I did was forget my comment and click Susan’s link. LOL *brightshiny, brightshiny*

  5. My biggest problem with writing action scenes is staying out of my character’s head and just reacting to the situation. I’m getting better at that, but I still succumb to the internal dialogue during a tense scene. Sure, because you’re really going to start wondering about how something happened when you’re in the middle of fighting for your life. *face, palm*

    1. I suspect when you can rely on spectacular effects there must be a real temptation to go too far on screen. I’m not sure it is quite the same with the written word. I enjoy writing them, but you don’t get the same payoff describing your character cartwheeling down the centre of the room, light bouncing off their tight (and reflective leather trousers), hair swishing seductively, as they pumell their oposition with the skill and grace of a gymnast…

    1. Thanks for dropping by – I was going to promo the Blog-Hop but had technical issues getting the button across. *sighs* Will get there – like writing action scenes. Always good to get feedback though… See you over at your blog!

  6. I love action scenes, and have no problem envisioning them, but when it comes down to words they just seem off… will be putting this advice to use

  7. Great advice – haha speaking of random bar brawls, that was exactly what put me off the Jack Reacher novels. How could I drool all over him when I knew he was always going to get into a punch up and dislocate someone’s leg. I like a little more spontaneity in a man. 😛 Anyway thanks for joining the blog hop! If you’re tweeting your involvement at any time, @me and I’ll RT you. 😀

  8. I am trying to keep my action scenes short and avoid gruesome detail (because I am targeting my works at slightly younger audiences). It is a delicate balancing act to have believable action that helps the story along without dragging or becoming overly bloody.

    1. Yes I know what you mean. I had to write a few full on action scenes for the 3rd book in my trilogy (which I wrote first of course…) – and the trick is how much of the gritty reality do you portray. Some authors will describe every blood spatter in detail – I like to dispatch fairly quickly.

      1. Yep. The other day I finished up a scene that was 83 bad guys against 60 good guys (how I got those numbers is another story completely) and I had to focus on the overall strategy of the battle, the small unit tactics employed by one side, and the individual efforts/results of several of the participants. The setup was half of the chapter before and the resolution was half of the chapter after and the battle itself took one chapter. My longest detailed battle before that was a little over half a chapter, so this was exhausting.

    1. Me? Nothing specific. I have read/studied/watched lots of military history stuff (as well as fiction of all description) and I have a friend who is former military and is just finishing up his PhD in history. He has also written several source books for role playing games and I have had the fortune to help him play test a bunch of stuff over the years. By necessity that includes him putting us through various tactical scenarios using equipment ranging from 1st century Roman to middle ages European to modern day special forces and futuristic sci fi (and everything in between – Victorian England and 16th century pirates and WWII and Vietnam era combat troops – you name it).

      It may sound goofy, but playing an RPG really helps get an understanding of the ebb and flow of a simulated battle and the strategies and tactics that either side could use as well as the devices that could counter those strategies and tactics.

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