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Practical insights for writers from author and developmental editor Jessica Morrell

Writing a Potent Action Scene

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 04•18

Action is eloquence. William Shakespeare, Coriolanus 

There are a few techniques it seems like I’m always passing on to my clients: amp up your verbs; use language and details to create more tension; and force scenes to rise. By rise I mean writers need to thrust the drama level to a crisis, a confrontation, an explosion. Because in most scenes you’re aiming for the worst outcome.  But if you’ve been writing awhile, you know that action scenes don’t come easy. I’ve got some ideas for you.

Components of an action scene:

Characters The main players in the scene with their key traits visible & engaged. Secondary characters need a reason for being.
Setting The time, place and context in which the scene takes place. Setting is not a backdrop, stage action scenes for maximum wattage.
Scene driver: Inciting event/change/threat The event/stimulus/threat that starts the action rolling in the scene (action can be precipitated before the scene begins)
Internal response

External response

 

How the main characters react emotionally to actions, threat, choice.

How the main characters react physically–dialogue, movement, escape, confrontation, fisticuffs. Typically there is a second driver (event or response)that starts the action.

Goal What the main character decides to do as a reaction to the inciting event or threat.
Consequence How the main character struggles to accomplish the goal.
Resolution How the scene goal turns out–win, lose, draw, escape, disaster.
  • Three words to write by: cause and effect.
  • Action scenes are high stakes.
  • The action needs to build to a full boil crisis.
  • Whenever possible structure action scenes with a midpoint which is also a reversal.
  • Use all your tools to create a character’s emotional responses including, subtext, posture, facial expressions, gestures, mannerisms, eye movements, and voice quality. Voice includes pitch, rate of speech (does the character talk fast when nervous?), intonation.
  • As you write, imagine you’re holding a camera catching the action blow-by-blow.
  • With intense action, use short sentences to pick up the pace. Action scenes usually have a minimal amount of description unless it contributes to the scene. The scent of blood. The sound of a gun cocking, or the creak of a floor board. This is not the place for describing the scenery or the characters.
  • Action scenes feature choppy and incomplete sentences. Such as, “What was that noise?” “What the . . .”
  • If the setting is complex and the action intricate, sketch out a map. Place coins or placeholders to mark your players, define the sight lines, scene’s boundaries (how far can a character reach?), and how long it might take to walk, run (or sneak) from point A to point B.
  • If the action is complicated, ask friends or family members to act it out so you can verify the sequence and reactions.
  • Read your dialogue out loud.
  • Use simple past tense verbs such as “kicked” or “punched” rather than those pesky ‘ing’ participles such as “kicking” or “punching.”
  • Your protagonist has skills, strengths, and weaknesses you can exploit and showcase. Foreshadow those traits throughout the story so when the reader reaches the action scene, he is expecting complications and credibility.
  • Scenes are never random events—they all need a logical connection to the story line and to create ramifications.
  • Pay special attention to endings—they need weight, potency, and to reveal consequences.
  • Pacing is key, but is also controlled by the scenes that come before and after. These will typically be slower to set up and react to the fight.
  • When writing fight scenes or violence, pack these scenes with an emotional punch too.
  • Read screenplays to digest the moment-to-moment breakdowns.
  • When you watch films study the reaction shots.
  • Some emotions in an action scene will be brief or fleeting.
  • When a gunshot is fired nobody has time to think. However, the body’s chemistry shifts to handle lethal threats, allowing the brain to process far more information in a shorter period of time.
  • Keep in mind that action scenes happen at several levels and much of the fight needs to be about internal changes, the inner world of protagonist.
  • During revisions fine tune character’s emotional reactions so they’re unique, fresh, and individual. This aspect of revision is crucial, but sometimes difficult.
  • Make certain you can justify carnage and bloodshed.
  • Don’t bog down the sequence with too much technical description. Show who has the upper hand, rack up the tension to the nines, and tap into the motivations of the character readers root for. And if someone gets punched or shot or knocked to the ground, readers should feel it too.
  • Utilize all the senses and never rely solely on physical description.

stay tuned for action scene examples

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