Writing Action Scenes, Part 1

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Today I’m going to talk about writing action scenes. I’m just hopping off the back of re-writing an old action scene, and thought I’d share my freshly sprouted thought mushrooms. Do try.

1. STAKES
Not the kind you hammer into vampires’ chesty bits on your night off. Story stakes. Their decisions here should impact on their journey as a character, as well as the plot. So what have you established that the characters stand to lose?  They might die? Okay… that’s a good staple. Like bran. Storyfibre. No, you need something meatier. Will the pet cat strapped to the conveyor belt, Toodles, go through the batterguns and into the deep frier? Will your PETA-protestor-protagonist catch the cackling-crazy, or shut-down the machinery? There’s no time for both…

Stakes come from knowing the ins and outs of your overall plot, and then your characters’ individual arcs. How you gonna predict all those butterfly-effects without pinning down every butterfly?

2. TWISTS
So kitty is cut free, and we breathe a sigh of relief. But Toodles is shredding your protag’s polyester shirt trying to get away. They hear a metallic clink behind them. WHAM. Red star vision, travelling floor hits face. Last thing before lights out is the smell of crazy’s cheetos-stained fingers, and a cackling laugh.

One good way to add twists is to re-write the scene. Take your sponge cake and stick some marshmallows on it. Torch the marshmallows. Give up and have scotch instead. Point being, the first time you write action is not crazy enough to surprise anyone, because you thought of it like that *clicks fingers* so why couldn’t they? If you want to dramatically fiddle with a scene without having to take copy-paste backups of it first, try using Track Changes. You can shuffle around bits from your first draft, modifying them to fit around the flood of mutant geese from the ventilation ducts.

3. STRENGTHS
What’s better than your hero busting out some ol’ John Wayne and haymakering the living stuffing out of all who dare oppose them? Well, unless they really are a cowboy with a strong right, pretty much anything. You want your heroes to forget their strengths like you want fish to fly and birds to swim. Okay actually that might be amazing. Poor analogy. Start again: You want your heroes to stick to their damn strengths. So Trogdor burninates, Hermione works things out, and Will Smith “makes this look good.”

4. WEAKNESSES
When your character is taking a whooping, it can be for any number of reasons. Sometimes though, it’s great to pick the obvious one, and then rock your protag’s face with a pool cue. For example, my prideful character, Yumiko, getting herself shot because she refused to back down. We all have weaknesses, and they can be powerful once in a while. Warning: also annoying if you bring them out again-and-again without further development.

5. RULES
This is more important for fantasy, but it is ULTRAMEGADOOPER important. Your world needs rules to keep the sparkly stuff believable. Could just be some foreshadowing of a hidden talent before they ram-out-with-their-spam-out and level the lacrosse stadium. It could also be a magical history explained in detail, with anecdotal treats, like sailing-ship pipesmoke rings to break the magical tension. Basically, don’t make it up as you go along, and if you do, at least go back a few chapters and sprinkle the seeds for the fifty-foot oak tree you just sprouted.

6. SNAP
Write in.
Lots of.
Short snappy sentences.
Alright, maybe not that bad, but hell, you’re not going to get their eye zipping along the page with a wall of text. You’re also going to hurt my brain if you stop mid-sequence to smell the daisies. Really, I might climb into your book, pop out of your keyboard and strangle you with an extension lead. TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS NEXT DAMMIT.

7. BEATING YOUR HEAD AGAINST A WALL
This is the most important one. You will naturally avoid sticking your characters into situations that you can’t imagine a way out of. You wouldn’t drive your car into the river. You wouldn’t push your kid’s pram into a rosebush. You don’t want to shove your character into a noose, on fire, at forty-thousand feet, with a sniper aiming for their bits. Because you’ve got absolutely no idea where to go from that.

Do it anyway. You’re going to spend the next week smooshing your face against the computer monitor, crying into a whisky sour (mmm, salty, salty tears). Despite what you might think at the time when you plunge your character into this predicament, you will figure out what to do next. Explain it to your partner. Your mum. Your boss. Your pekingese. They won’t help at all, but each blank stare is a sign. A sign that you’re onto something. Because if they had an answer, your scene is too obvious. Besides, you’re only using them as a sounding board for the tiny enslaved writer smurf that lives in a canoe floating in your inner ear. Which, by the way, is the cause of your tinitus. Oh, and your story really does need this.

There will be a part two (IT’S DONE NOW! Click away), as this is only half of the list that I combobulated. If you have any Action Writing Tips of your own, please share in the comments.

Until then, best regards,

D.R.Sylvester

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About D.R.Sylvester

A Clinical Research Associate by day (google it), writer by night, D.R.Sylvester lives in Sydney, Australia with his patissiere wife and Siberian Wolf. His interests include travel, music (predominantly Metal), reading, & archery.
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14 Responses to Writing Action Scenes, Part 1

  1. floresypaz says:

    Thanks for sharing these tips! They’re helpful 🙂

    • Thank you! 🙂 Glad if you’re getting anything out of them. I’m planning to do a how-to as a weekly thing.

      Btw, for some reason my spam filter originally blocked your comment, so I had to go and rescue it. Very strange, because your messages normally get through to me :\

  2. This was a really awesome post! I’m looking forward to the second part 😀 I’m awful at action scenes because I don’t particularly like reading, writing, or watching them in TV or movies. I read a story the other day, and they violated a few of these examples you gave. Like having the character get philosophical while entrenched in a war zone. And they had long sentences. I think that prose should reflect the situation. Poetic prose for an action scene wouldn’t work very well. I have an idea for a novel or novella and it deals with a soldier that has PTSD and gets early onset dementia. But I need to read lots of military fiction before I write it because I’m clueless about how it actually works. Articles or blog posts like this also help 🙂

    Also, SUPERMEGADOOPER should be a word. Love it XD

    • Supermegadooper thank you then 🙂

      I’m thinking of doing this as a regular thing, since most of my posts are unstructured brainspew about writing anyway… might as well fatten them up and make them presentable.

      Sounds like a cool story! Would like to read that. I think if you want to read some fairly authentic military stuff you could maybe try Chris Ryan’s The One That Got Away (he was British SAS, and the book is his account of being the only escaping member of his unit during the 1st Gulf War), or for more historical stuff Peter FitzSimons’ Tobruk? I can ask my brother in law if you’ve got a specific thing you’re interested in. He reads widely in this area, as well as actually serving. I’m planning to pick his brain about ships for my WIP.

      • Thanks for the book suggestions! I know very little about military fiction. If your brother knows of any good military fiction dealing with PTSD, that would be awesome :$

        I can tell you a bit more about the story but it’s pretty vague XD It doesn’t really have a plot right now. Well, I had originally wanted to make it a short story, but I think it might be better as a novel or novella. Probably novella. It’s basically about a soldier coping with PTSD after serving in Iraq. What I’m not sure about is whether I want him to have Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s. Maybe it would be better to do the Vietnam War and it’s Agent Orange that causes these problems. But it would be really difficult to write a period piece. I might try to find some connection between the military and these problems.

        Lewy body dementia would work best, but I don’t know if it’s even possible for someone to get that in middle-age. I’ll tell you why that one would work best. So because of the PTSD he has flashbacks. Lewy body dementia is frequently accompanied by hallucinations, so it would likely exacerbate the PTSD. I like blurring the line between reality and not-reality. And it’s basically about him trying to get diagnosed and coping with the after effects as he starts to lose himself. I know how it ends XD Friend A basically came up with the ending, and it’s brilliant :$

        I went through hell getting all of my health issues diagnosed. And the thing is no one would suspect dementia in a young person. I’ve gone through the process of being young and no doctor believing me. My family trying to convince me I’m crazy. It’s horrible. I wanted to convey a bit of that in the story.

        I actually interned in a memory clinic so I’m fairly familiar with how they diagnose Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, etc. I might have him start out in Iraq. Not sure, but I’ll need to be fairly familiar with the military or the story will fall flat. Right now I don’t really have the plot :$ Just sort of an idea, a depressing one. Maybe it will fit in a short story, but it feels like a lot of ground to cover in 5k words.

  3. Terina Sylvester says:

    Really like point 7, Beating Your Head Against a Wall. Annoys me when they do that (the writer) because I’m frightened the author will ruin the character, but keeps me coming back J

    • Thanks mum! Yeah, I recently put a book down because it failed to deliver on this… You make an interesting point about “fear that the author will ruin the character.” I’ve read books where they actually followed through on that, but because of the foreshadowing it was awesome and powerful. Examples: Matthew Reilly – Scarecrow, Jim Butcher – Changes, Stephen Blackmoore – Dead Things, anything by George R.R. Martin…
      Still, wouldn’t like it to happen in every book, because I don’t like pain all that much.

  4. Millie Ho says:

    Great thought mushrooms, D. #4 is an important point—as much as it’s a crime to create an infallible character (Eragon protagonist, anyone?), mindless character torture is just as bad. However, the rule might not apply to immoral anti-heroes people love to hate. I’m thinking of Tony from “Skins”.

    • Thank you! I absolutely agree. It’s a fine line to tread. Wait, mindless character torture is bad? Alright, Mindful character torture it is then 😉 I’m not sure why, but I suddenly thought of Malfoy, the amazing bouncing ferret…

  5. ehbates says:

    Totally agree with #7. My poor husband has been subjected to more variations on totally implausible escapes from horribly wretched situations than any human being should.

    • Haha excellent. I figure that, looking on the brightside, by the time we’ve finished with them they’ll be well prepared for anything up to and including the zombie apocalypse.

  6. Pingback: Writing Action Scenes, Part 2 | WRITES & RESPONSIBILITIES

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