Writing Action Scenes

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What words come to mind when you think ‘action’? I’ll bet at least one of them was speed, strength, or power. When writing action scenes, you need to incorporate these things into your writing. So, remember that teacher who told you to use adjectives and adverbs to make your writing more interesting? When it comes to action scenes, forget all that — in fact, forget it for about 90% of everything else, too. Describing words weighs down your writing and should be used sparingly, especially during an action scene.

Most writers make the mistake of using too many adjectives and adverbs (words that describe a noun or a verb, respectively). How many times have you seen a character ‘run quickly’, or ‘yell loudly’? Not only are these weak descriptions that slow the pace of the story, but they’re redundant — people tend to run quickly, that’s the point of running; and is it possible for a person to yell quietly? Instead of running quickly, the character could be dashing, or racing; and rather than yell loudly, he could bellow or roar. Yes, that’s right, it’s time to break out the Thesaurus and find those power words! Unless you’re intentionally trying to slow the scene or plot, use powerful words to describe what you’re talking about, and steer away from adjectives and adverbs.

Trim out the unnecessary bits. During a fight or chase scene, is it really necessary to break off into a whole paragraph about the blood-stained grass? Save that for afterwards, if you must, but don’t throw it smack dab in the middle of the fight. The same goes for explanations and histories — it takes a talented writer to get away with interrupting a fight scene to explain why these two characters hate each other, and even they have to tread lightly in that territory. When you’re done your first draft, take out everything that doesn’t contribute to the action — Susan is not going to stop mid-fight to take note of how much Lisa resembles her mother with her soft golden curls and bright sapphire orbs set against alabaster skin, or how the soft yet vibrant colours of the sky as the sun descends below the horizon, leaving only darkness behind. This might be acceptable under other circumstances, but it’s certainly not appropriate for an action scene.

Use sentence structure to your advantage. Fights are short. They are fast. They are unpredictable. A description of the sweeping sword does not drag out over the course of five minutes; therefore, neither should your sentence. Vary your sentence structure, but try to use more short sentences than you use in other areas of your writing. Use one-word sentences if you have to. Break some rules. Our English teachers only taught us the mechanics of writing; they didn’t teach us the art. Look at any classic novel — do they follow all the rules? Chances are they’ve broken quite a few in order to achieve the affect they were looking for, and they pulled it off. Don’t be afraid to break a few rules in your writing — best case scenario, people love it; worst case scenario, they don’t, and you learn what not to do next time.

Many writers find action scenes tricky to write because they have to adjust their way of thinking. The pace has to pick up, the intensity has to increase, and it all has to be maintained until the end of the scene, at which point it can be ended abruptly or it can taper off. It’s important to write action scenes with confidence — that is, be direct and precise. Don’t beat around the bush, and use bold words. Make the reader feel like they’re watching a fight, not listening to someone describe what happened. In trying to make the reader feel like they’re there, however, beware of trying to describe their surroundings too much — when someone’s watching a fight, what are they thinking? They’re not likely to be paying any attention to what’s around them, because all of their attention is going to be on the fight. The fight is your focal point. Emphasize it, and don’t distract from it with needless details or flowery prose. Remember: a fight is about speed, strength, and power. Make your writing reflect that.

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