How to Write Action Scenes

Today, I googled this, and everything that came up was super not useful. What is it about a lot of writers? They know how to do something, and they can show you examples of how it’s done well, but they can’t explain how to do it well at all. They ramble a lot. Get to the point!

I said to myself, “Self, you can do better than this.”

So… not saying I’m the best at writing action scenes, nor am I saying these ideas here are original. They’re cobbled from various sources including Holly Lisle and Morgan Hawke (two writers who buck the trend and are extremely good at giving clear advice), watching Buffy fight scenes, and that chick who wrote that blog on how to write 10,000 words a day. What’s her name? Ah, thank you, Google. Rachel Aaron. You can check this post out here. (Good article. I totally recommend it.)

Okay. Here goes.

1-An action scene is a mini-story and as such needs all the essential elements of a story, including a character with an objective, obstacles in the way the objective, and a moment of near-defeat before the triumph of getting the objective.

This is probably the most important thing. It’s the backbone of your action scene. To get a good idea of how to do this, I really recommend Buffy fight scenes. Watch two or three in a row, and you’ll see what I mean. Buffy has an objective (generally, slay vamp), there are obstacles (vamp is trying to kill her), and there’s usually a moment in the fight where you get that nail-biting moment of, “Oh crap, is he gonna get her?” before she prevails. (Unless it’s Fool for Love, in which case she gets stabbed with her own stake. And then Spike is adorable. I love Spike.)

2-Action scenes, like dialogue, are easier to understand when you keep people in their own paragraphs. That’s right. Lots of short little paragraphs are good in action. They create a sense of urgency and keep the reader pushing forward. It might look funny on your screen as you’re typing, but trust me, short means urgent. So, every time the action switches from one person to another, start a new paragraph.

3-Write direct sentences, with one or two clauses only. This is part of the urgent thing above. Also, make sure your sentences are very clear about what’s happening. It’s much more important that I understand who hurled what at whom than it is for your prose to sound pretty at this point.

4-Descriptive nouns and verbs are your friends. Adjectives and adverbs aren’t. Much better to say that he hurled the spear into the mass of orcs than to tell me that he swiftly threw the sharp, deadly weapon into the mass of orcs. I don’t have time to “see” all those silly details. Compact them, make them quick!

5-Your basic beat of an action scene generally works like this: A does something to B. B reacts to A’s action. B responds by doing something to A. A reacts to B’s action. And so on. I find it helpful to sketch out the basic actions of the scene before I start writing it, just so I know who will do what, how they’ll react, and how they’ll respond. Then I can spend the rest of my action scene combing my thesaurus for synonyms to yank and punch and run since I totally overuse those words. (Full disclosure: Action scenes are pretty much the only time I use a thesaurus.)

6-It’s fine for your characters to react emotionally and to think about what’s going on, but keep it snappy! If it’s an action scene, they don’t have time for much emotion or thought. Move it along, folks!

The end.