For some writers creating action scenes comes easy. For others they are harder. I come from a journalism background. I learned how to write in short, distinct sentences and how to look for key points quickly. These traits make it easier for me to write action scenes than it might be for someone coming from an English or English lit background.
Let’s take a look at some ways to create action scenes. What works and what doesn’t.
Sometimes using a single word is all you need Whatever you do, however, the sentences must be tight. Let’s look at an example: “He walked into the room and found himself surrounded by a feeling of emptiness, that sense that nothing is there even though he knew she was in the other room needed his help.” An action scene like this would put the reader to sleep. Instead: He crashed through the locked door. Glanced around. No one. Listened. A noise sounded from the other side. He approached, gun in the air. Seconds later he held her in his arms.
Avoid using passive voice and the “to be” verbs. Of course, we should avoid passive voice all the time in our writing, but with action scenes it’s essential to use active voice. As for “to be” verbs. Sometimes we have no choice but again, use them sparingly when writing action scenes. Example: “The meeting was scheduled for later but he was early as he always was and when he found that the door was locked, he tried to break in, but his tools had not been replaced and he ended up with bungling through the door.” Again, I can hear our readers snoring. First, the sentence is too long and second the writer uses passive voice three times (can you catch them?). Let’s see if we can rewrite it: Mark scheduled the meeting for six. He edged close to the door. No sound. He fingered for the knob. Turned. Nothing. He reached for his trusty screwdriver and probed the lock. Impossible. A footstep approached. Mark bashed through the door.
Of course we can’t get too much in the character’s head during an action scene. It is not a time for internal dialogue unless that dialogue plays with the actions as in this excerpt from The Clock Strikes Midnight. Notice how internal dialogue and feelings play with the action: She resumed the butt-crawl. Having no idea how long she had been struggling like a snail across the floor, she continued to ease herself along the edge of the wall. Time crept by about as fast as she was. Once she reached the shelves, she backed up to them and finger searched. Don’t knock anything off. She doubted they would hear her, but she didn’t want to take a chance. Her hand rubbed across the smooth surface of jar after jar. Finally she hit on a round object. She had no idea what it was but the edge felt sharp. A lid from a Mason jar?
Here’s another example: Finally, she got it placed exactly where she wanted it. A noise sounded from the staircase. Damn! The door opened and footsteps edged down the stairs preceded by a flashlight.
Not long explanations. Example: “Who do you want to see?” said Louis. “I’m looking for the girl that you kidnapped,” Mark answered. Let’s re-write this to: “What the–” Louis blurted “Where’s the girl?” “What girl?” Mark grabbed him by the throat. “You know what girl.”
My last suggestion for writing action scenes is to write the scene. Then, go back and tighten it up. It’s much easier to cut words than to add them.
What are some of your ideas for writing action scenes?
Paul Carr says
I love these guidelines, Joan. You’re right; long sentences are snoozers.
Joan Curtis says
Hi Pat. Long sentences can be snoozers, but many literary writers pull it off. Literary writers, however, don’t worry about action scenes. They have little plot. The fun thing about writing action is conveying the feeling (fear, panic) through few words. That’s also the challenge!
Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.
Paul Vitols says
Hi Joan. Thanks for these tips. Let’s see if I’ve got this: short sentences, action verbs, character’s feelings, mixed lengths, and snappy dialogue (or I suppose “stichomythia”).
I’ll keep those in mind as I head into the action.
Joan Curtis says
Hey, Thanks for stopping by. Very funny. Ready, camera, action. You’ve got the hang of it!
J.Q. Rose says
Great info! Short sentences. Got it!
Joan Curtis says
Thanks J.Q. for stopping by. Yep, we must all remind ourselves–short is sweet.