Writing action sequences

March 4, 2009 in Best Of, Fantasy, On Writing by pacejmiller

How would you write an action sequence like this one?

How would you write an action sequence like this one?

Writing action sequences for any novel, not just fantasy, can be both exciting and frustrating.  The aim is almost always to create fast-paced, intense action that keeps the reader on the edge of their seats, but it’s not always as easy as it seems.

Writing action is a skill that needs to be practised and refined.  Often you can end up writing the entire sequence, explaining exactly what happened in the scene in your mind, and yet it turns out to be slow and boring – not the movie-like, fast-paced style that you had imagined.

Personally, I love writing action.  Consequently, my fantasy novel has its fair share of action-packed fight and battle sequences ranging from one-on-one sword fights to large scale, all-out battles.  I actually think it is one of my excrutiatingly few strengths as a writer.  It’s exciting to watch the action scene unveil inside your head as you write it, and even more exciting when you read back on it.  Here are some of my thoughts on it:

Imagine the scene and let your imagination fly

Some people prefer to choreograph the entire sequence in advance, like planning a dance.  For me, the preference is to just come up with a beginning and an end result – what is the situation at the beginning of the sequence, and what happens at the end of the sequence – and then fill in the middle with free, flowing writing.  Imagine the scene in your head like a movie.  Especially a movie you haven’t seen before.  When I start writing a fight scene, all I know is who wins in the end.  I don’t imagine every attack, dodge and parry in advance.  I let the image inside my head guide the action.  More often than not, I surprise myself with how smooth and innovative the sequence becomes.  If it gets a little out of hand, scrap it and do it again in a little while, after you’ve managed to get the old sequence out of your mind.

Stuff the cool verbs

A common problem with action scenes is the struggle to find the right verb to describe a particular action.

My advice: stuff it.

Describe the moves of each character precisely and in the most efficient manner possible.  Don’t worry about finding the perfect verb in the heat of the moment because it stops the flow of the action in your head, killing the creativity.  If it’s a kick, just call it a kick for now.  Just imagine – how annoying would it be if you are watching an action movie and every time a character is about to do something they call time out and ponder on their next move for a few minutes?

You can always come back with the thesaurus later and spend hours coming up with the best descriptive word possible.

Variety is crucial

If you have plenty of action sequences in your novel (like me), you need to spice it up with variety.  No matter how wonderfully you can describe an action scene, it will get boring if the reader keeps coming across the same sequence.  If every fight consisted of the same moves, it dulls down the action immediately.

I don’t just mean with the verbs and descriptions, though that does help.  But don’t go out of your way to use words you don’t even fully understand.  I still prefer to use easier, more direct verbs and descriptions as much as possible.  The faster your reader reads the sequence, the better it conveys the fast-paced nature of the action.  Using words they are unlikely to understand will just trip them up and retard the speed.

Instead, try and come up with something new in each action sequence.  As I said earlier, my novel consists of a wide range of combat situations, from the classic one-on-one encounter to the mass orgies.  But go even further than that.  Try to use a variety of weapons.  Different weapons will give rise to different opportunities in combat.  Try and come up with combat and battle strategies (which may require some research) that allow one party to outsmart or trick the other.  Try to make full use of a character’s physical characteristics and attributes.  Are they strong?  Do they have quick reflexes?  Think about the characters’ surroundings.  How can they utilise the equipment around them to their full advantage?

Most of all, try and introduce an element of surprise to some but not all of the sequences – guide your reader in one direction and then twist them around in the other.  Sometimes this can come naturally when you are writing freely; other times you have to push it in afterwards during revision.  Thinking of how to make each sequence work – both individually and collectively – can be a lot of fun.

Describing the other things

In an action sequence, the most important thing is the action.  However, you cannot completely ignore the other elements.  You may want to describe what a character is feeling (or appear to be feeling), or you may want to throw in some dialogue.  Perhaps you might want to give a clearer picture of the outward appearance of a character before, during and after a fight.  There are good reasons for doing so.

My opinion is that these things should be kept to a minimum in an action sequence.  The best way is to blend them into the action, if it’s possible to do so effectively, or alternatively, implement little breaks in the action to slot them in.  Just be careful not to make the break too substantial, or it will sever the pace you have built up from the scene.

Techniques and resources

There are specific techniques that can be employed to speed up the pace of your action sequence, like shorter sentences and more paragraphs.  Unfortunately, I’m not qualified to discuss them.  But fortunately, S B ‘Kinko’ Husley is, and here is a fabulous article entitled “Writing Action” that teaches you how to improve your shitty action sequence that goes through each step methodically using a set example.  Do yourself a favour and read it.  I am certainly going to be using it when revising all my action sequences in my second draft.

A more general article, also from the legendary Elfwood Tutorials, is entitled “Description, Dialogue, and Action” by Jessica Barnes.  I’m sure the sections not-related to action are also capable of assisting in writing better action sequences.

Here are a few others:

Lastly, a neat little article called “Novelists share their secrets on writing action.”

Pretty self-explanatory, though the article itself is not as good as one might expect.