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Pen, Coffee, Action!

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Article by Adina Edelman - Edelman Edits

Action scenes are fun, right? Who doesn’t appreciate a good explosion, gun fight, battle, or samurai duel?

So how do we create a scene that’s both fast-paced and dramatic but also clear and believable, especially considering that most of our fighting knowledge is from Hollywood, which is more interested in how things look than actual physics?

Well, what you read here will be of some help. But it’s also important to do research on your own specific to the action scene you’re trying to write. If it involves guns, there are plenty of websites clearly explaining the types, how to fire one, at what point you’d need to reload, and what the range is. (Quick tip: if your character already cocked their pistol…don’t have them cock it again before the “big moment.”)

If the scene involves hand-to-hand, there are so many professionals on YouTube and with their own blogs who clarify the common mistakes movies make and how fighting actually looks. You can also check out a local martial arts center and take a few classes to get some hands-on experience. (Pun unintended.)

If the action scene takes place in a forest, a warehouse, or an airport…well, maybe go to those places and note the obstacles there that you might not have thought to include in the scene. In general, running through a forest isn’t as easy as it looks in movies. Have you tried to race through shrubbery? That stuff is thick.

Bottom line: You are the author, and you have a responsibility to your work. Do your research. Your readers will thank you.

So, on to practical tips for writing action scenes!

1. Keep It Real

Your character might be able to shoot flames from his hands. She may be able to levitate. He might know how to take down an opponent twice his size, or fire a weapon from a distance. But there will, and should, be limitations. Energy or bullets run out. Distractions happen. An opponent has a surprise ability. Asthma kicks in.

And here’s the thing: readers don’t want characters who defy physical limitations. Even in fantasy, there will be limitations around a superpower, and if those are defied, readers aren’t happy.

There’s a bestselling series out there I won’t name with a protagonist who’s so competent and powerful that I thought, “Well, if he can’t beat the villain, no one can, so obviously he’ll beat him. Done deal.” I couldn’t relate to the character. He didn’t have enough flaws, enough limitations. And readers want that—they want to see the struggle.

So, when you’re creating your action scene, use the knowledge you gained through research to make this awesome moment believable. Create limits for the characters. And if they exceed those limits, the method for doing so better have been built into the story beforehand. Balance drama and power with realism, and it’ll make the scene stronger, more relatable, and generally provide more conflict.

2. Be Clear and Concise

This is not the time for long, complex sentences. Shorter ones help control that fast-paced sensation. Cut any extraneous words. Fragments are encouraged as long as they’re clear.

I sometimes see sentences like this:

The large man was quick, but Aramel, of course, was quicker, and before the thug could pull his gun from his holster, Aramel had the man in a headlock with his knife to his throat.

Compare that with this:

The thug’s hand darted to his gun, but before it had left the holster, Aramel had him in a headlock, knife to his throat.

You’ll need to change it up depending on the context and style, but you get the idea. Saying that the man was quick but Aramel was quicker is telling. And while telling can speed up the pace since it often gets the point across more quickly than showing, in this case it’s only pushing off the action that shows what we’re being told. Why not just skip to showing the reader how Aramel is faster than the thug?

And along with being concise, aim for clear, concrete language. Tone down the metaphors and fancy imagery and try to just write what happened. Instead of “He moved in a blur of motion,” just say, “He ran toward me.” In the first, the language doesn’t tell us anything other than moving quickly. And that can bring confusion if it doesn’t set up how the next action comes about. Make sure each action explains how the next action could happen. If at one point Joe is across the room and the next minute he’s tackling Eric, the reader will be like, “What just happened?”

3. Keep Track of Your Characters

If there are more than two people fighting, it gets harder to keep track of what each character is doing and also describing that without breaking up the action. A good method, at the very least, is to create an establishing shot before we dive into the action. How many fighters does the protagonist see? Where are the main players? What weapons should be noted? Who goes for whom? Then we can zoom in to the protagonist’s fight.

Also, having your MC take a quick glance around if they have a breather can be really helpful. It’s why you often see a paragraph like this in a fight scene:

One thrust, and the bandit was down. Thomas glanced to the side. Malt was facing off with a huge man, but his friend was grinning—he’d be fine. Thomas heard a roar behind him and spun, raising his blade in time to parry the third bandit’s onslaught.

A quick look in those few seconds of quiet, and the reader knows what’s going on with the other characters. What you don’t want is several long paragraphs focused on your protagonist while the reader asks, “What’s going on with his mentor? His mentor is totally gonna die, isn’t he? The mentor always dies!”

As the fight progresses, allow small glimpses to catch your protagonist and reader up to speed.

4. Cut Back on Dialogue

Talking while fighting is like trying to drive on the highway with rock music blaring, five kids all screaming for your attention, two semis straddling you, a police car behind you, stray eyelashes in your eyes…and no glasses on.

In other words, it’s “possible.” But does it make much sense? No.

I can tell you from experience that, at least in hand-to-hand, when you’re fighting, that’s all you can do. It’s all about the struggle. The only thing your mouth is capable of doing is sucking in air so you can keep fighting.

So, if your characters have to talk, have them do it before they start fighting. And if the action scene requires some dialogue (orders given, warnings shouted), keep the wording as concise as possible. Instead of “Katie, watch out! There’s a man coming up behind you,” just do, “Katie, behind you!” (And note that those words would be coming after a quick glance and likely while they turn back to their current opponent.)

5. Slip in Brief Thoughts

The advantage writing has over film is our ability to show a character’s thoughts. And this can be especially helpful in an action scene, where there’s a whole lot of stuff going on and the risk of creating distance for the reader. That’s where the character comes in.

Abe fired off another round, then ducked behind the low wall. Did I hit him?

These little snippets help the reader relate to both the scene and character. You don’t want to overdo it (being in the action tends to limit your ability for thoughtful reflection), but adding it here and there can reveal character and build tension. This is a prime tool for a writer—take advantage!

These are just a few tips on writing action scenes. There are a lot out there, and I also recommend reading good action scenes (Brandon Sanderson, Frank Herbert, Orson Scott Card, Suzanne Collins, to name a few authors with good fight scenes) and researching real-life scenarios to make your scenes as vivid as possible.

Write on.

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