How to Write an Action Scene

Writing action scenes can be difficult. It’s not an easy feat to create movement that seems realistic and is fast paced enough to keep the reader’s attention. During a recent presentation I gave to my copyediting class at PSU, I spoke briefly about some tips for writing action in creative writing. For this post, I decided to expand upon that presentation.

Want to see a particularly horrible action scene? Well, check out the clip from the not-so-classic film Night of the Kickfighters below:

Although the action scene above isn’t from a novel and is in a different medium, there are several things we can learn from it. First off, pacing. Tall guy (the large man who gets hit with a chair) stands still while short guy (the small man who uses the chair as a weapon) reaches for the chair. It’s unrealistic, and as a viewer, this makes it difficult to feel tension and suspense.

When you write your own action scenes, make sure that the events take place in “real time.” The reader shouldn’t feel as if the action is taking place in slow motion (like the clip above). However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t vary the pacing of the scene. As with any scene, there are going to be parts that ask for more attention. Use short, clipped sentences along with longer, more descriptive sentences that evoke the reader’s senses—what are the characters hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting?

Here’s an example of one sentence—with and without description.

Without much description, the sentence reads: “Dan raced down the corridor—not daring to look back. He grabbed the doorknob and slammed against the door.”

With description, the sentence reads: “Dan raced down the corridor—heard footsteps behind him, loud across the cold floor, but he dared not look back. He grabbed the doorknob and slammed against the door, hoping to God it wouldn’t open.”

Neither one of these sentences is necessarily better than the other, but each of them sets a different pace for the reader. As the author, you must decide which one better suits the needs of the piece.

In an action scene, it’s of the utmost importance to make every word count. Cut words like “up,” “down,” “left,” and “right.” Or words like “then.” In reality, these words should be cut wherever they exist within a piece—in an action scene or not. They serve no purpose, clutter writing, and slow down scenes.

Take a look at the following example: “It stood on the porch with its left hand resting on its jutting left hip, its head tilted to one side in a quizzical look.”

(If you’re concerned about the use of “it,” this sentence is about a goblin-like creature—don’t ask.) As you can see the use of words like “left hand” or “jutting left hip” or “tilted to one side” do nothing for the sentence. In fact, they make the sentence clumsy. Look at the sentence carefully. Does it really matter that the creature is using its left hand and left hip, or that its head is tilted to one side? Not really. And since it’s impossible to tilt your head to two sides, it’s also irrelevant. Unless these details are important to the plot, cut them. Remove the words and see what happens:

“It stood on the porch—its hand resting on its hip and a quizzical look on its face.”

Much better.

Another easy way to improve an action scene is by avoiding info dumps. An action scene is not the moment to tell the reader the life story of a character or to clarify something. If something needs explaining, make sure to take care of that before a tense scene begins. One way to help this is by sticking in the point of view of one character throughout the scene. Getting in one character’s head eliminates the need to try and fit every detail in the scene. It also accurately depicts the way an individual might feel after a fight or dramatic event—our perspectives are always limited. While a person is busy fighting the bad guy or in shock after a car crash, they may not notice things immediately—like a hurt friend or, you know, which of the enemy’s legs they just drop kicked.

Here’s a great example of an effective edit of an action scene from Jodie Renner, an editor who specialize in thrillers.

Before: “Fortunately for Jennifer, the attacker was far enough away that when he attempted to grab her she sidestepped him and delivered a sharp kick to the outside of his left knee. He grunted and fell back against the stack of wooden crates. He then got up clumsily, rubbing his arm, showing his anger at how easily Jennifer had dodged and hit him.”

After: “The attacker lunged at Jennifer. She dodged to the side and delivered a sharp kick to his knee. He grunted and fell against the stack of wooden crates. He scrambled up, rubbing his arm, eyes full of hate.”

By using some of the tips I listed above, the sentence has become much cleaner. It’s concise and fast paced, allowing the reader to focus on what matters.

What tips have you found useful in creating your own action scenes? Tell us below!

Melanie Figueroa

Melanie is the Editor in Chief at The Poetics Project. Having earned a masters in writing and book publishing from Portland State University and gained experience as an in-house editor, she now works as a freelance editor and writer. Her favorite book is The Bell Jar. You can follow Melanie on Twitter or Instagram @wellmelsbells.

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