Getting Sweaty with Your Clothes On: How to Write Action Scenes
By S.L. Armstrong
No matter what genre you write, eventually, you’ll find yourself staring down the barrel of an action scene. Maybe it’s a fight, maybe a chase scene, or maybe it’s just the race to get to the airport before the character’s one true love leaves them forever. Whatever the reason for it, the action scene is a fast-paced way to jump the tension level up in your story, and is a valuable tool to have in your writer’s toolbag. So, what I want to do is offer up a few tips on writing a thrilling and compelling action sequence.
The first way to create a sense of action and motion in your writing is to stick to short, direct sentences. Now is not the time for lengthy descriptions, weighty dialogue, or internal monologues. By using a series of short, almost choppy, statements, you create the illusion of speed. Consider the way sports commentators call a play-by-play:
“Adams passes to Barnett. Back to Adams. Back to Barnett. Barnett sets up the kick. A beautiful block by Carruthers! But Barnett picks it up. Back to Adams. Barnett. Adams. Adams with the kick. GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!”
Now read the same scene written with more elaborate sentences:
“Adams passes the ball to Barnett, who passes it back to Adams. Now Adams passes to Barnett again. Barnett pauses for a moment and stares down the goalie. He’s taking his shot on the goal, but Carruthers, the goalie, leaps in the ball’s path and knocks it away! Barnett chases the ball down and regains control. Now, he passes it to Adams again, but Adams quickly returns the pass to Barnett. Once more, Barnett kicks the ball to Adams. Now it’s Adams lining up for a shot on the goal. He kicks, and the ball slips past Carruthers and into the net!”
Both scenes describe the exact same series of actions, but how much more tedious was the second set than the first? It feels like a much more sedate game. Similarly, the length of your sentences helps to set the pace of your scene. At the same time, though, make sure you include some slightly longer moments that allow your reader to catch their breath, especially if the action continues for more than a few paragraphs. Otherwise, your reader could get too overwhelmed by everything that’s happening and completely lose the thread of the scene.
A second way to ratchet up the tension in your action scene is through the use of dynamic verbs. This would be one of the few good times to lean a little on your thesaurus. Move beyond the standard action verbs into truly active verbs. Look at these two sentences:
GOOD: John McClane ran into the street and jumped onto the hood of the car.
BETTER: John McClane raced into the street and threw himself onto the hood of the car.
As above, the two statements are saying the same thing, but the second uses more visually dynamic verbs. John’s need to catch that car feels more palpable, more visceral, simply because of the choice of words. A six-year-old on a playground runs and jumps; using strong, active verbs ensures that the reader assigns much greater importance to John’s mission than that. On the other hand, you don’t want to delve too deeply into your thesaurus, or too often, or else the constant barrage of flowery verbs can wear down your reader’s patience:
TOO MUCH: John McClane galloped into the street and catapulted onto the hood of the car.
Finally, if you’re having difficulty describing the action sequence unfolding in your mind, don’t be afraid to get out of your chair and act it out! Sometimes, the best way to work out the dynamics of a scene is to physically act them out yourself, and then write that down. Pay attention to the way your body reacts to certain movements. It could be that the way you see it mentally just isn’t the way a body is capable of actually moving!
Keep these tips in mind, and in no time, your action scenes will keep your reader furiously turning the page, anxious for what happens next!