Writing Action Scenes, Part 2

And here we are for part two of “Writing Action Scenes”.

Do we.
Remember what we.
Learned last time?
(Sorry, sorry, remember not to push it quite that hard. We’re not all Christopher Walken)

If memory (and the link to the previous post HERE!) serves, I finished up with my absolute favourite Action Writing Technique: “BEATING YOUR HEAD AGAINST A WALL”, so it’s only fitting that I continue with…

You have finally nutted out how they’re going to fight their way out of there. The cat will carry a message to the news crew, in the proud tradition of Lassie, Skippy, and any St. Bernard EVER. Because those things save lives man (how many times I’ve sat in the snow trying for a free tiny keg of rum). Whatever, you’ve got that part down.

So unless your character is Sherlock Holmes, there’s going to be some figuring out for your protagonist to do as well. Only they’re on a timeline. You weren’t. So some points to bear in mind :

a) We don’t often realise that we already have all the tools at our disposal. Why else was McGuyver such a revered bad-ass? So it shouldn’t be a simple thing for them to remember, in the heat of the moment, that they took a community college class in conversing with felines back in ’88.

b) 100% aggression is a common response to conflict. Your character might at least try the aforementioned haymaker technique as a warm up, before coming up with something better. Hell, they might get a lucky hit in, or might just make their situation worse (punching the big guy is always one of these).

c) Running the heck away, or at least trying to, is another common response. Don’t let your labcoated citydweller duke it out until they’ve at least tried to slip away through the garbage chute.

d) Logical characters will be planning ahead, but they’re poorly equipped to predict the emotional responses of others. There’s a lot you can’t do with your foot in your mouth, and someone else’s up your…

e) Assembling a plan is even harder for emotional characters, as they’re more reactive. You want them champing at the bit, like a hopped up greyhound at a bunny farm, or…wpid-a0159652_18524021.jpg

f) Having a bit of a breakdown. A crisis within a crisis. Be careful playing this card, as it’s like a literary Draw Four. You can lose friends (and readers) pretty quickly with it.

So now the impossible situation is also looking that way to a few of your characters, you’re ready to think about the next difficulty level…

Just because things are getting blowned up (intentional word crime there, I assure you) doesn’t mean you should stop now. Do the unthinkable. Shoot Alderaan with the Death Star. Sink the Titanic. Bring down the roof on everyone, and raze King’s Landing to the ground…


But you get my point. Don’t be shy to shake the foundations of your world.

With action, you’re writing something that’s not often done well. Often it’s more Looney Tunes than Saving Private Ryan. While there’s a place for both, I think you should probably aim for somewhere along that spectrum. That’s why I suggest drawing on your own experiences (however scanty) to make it just a bit more visceral. Think of the time you twisted your knee playing football (or statistically more likely, netball). How did that make you feel? Like hitting me in the…? Good, good *scribbles notes down*. Have you ever kicked a heavy bag? Feel that shock up your leg? What about crashing a car? Confronted your step dad? Ran from security? Stubbed your toe? Your own experiences = solid gold realism. Use and adapt them.


How to get the reader’s eye flying across the page faster than a cheetah in a minefield? Dialogue. Bursts of back-and-forth dialogue.

Not conversations though, as it’s hard to converse whilst driving at a hundred, on shot out tires, with the backseat passenger kicking your head and the guy riding shotgun firing… a shotgun.

Swearing, screaming for help, name calling, begging, barked commands and orders, all have their place. It’s here in the thick of things.


Action is not a place where you want verbosity. Too many words is not a good thing. But you are going to need a lot of verbs, because action is all… well… doing stuff. Doing stuff = Verbs, right? So what do?

Well, on your first write-through, you can say “he hit them” in forty seven different sentences. Good job, pretty sure they’re not getting up. Also a good chance I’m not reading that, because “hit” forty seven times is going to hit a nerve. This is a great time to get out your stegasaurus- *is handed a note* -get out your thesaurus, and start substituting. Smashed, slammed, smacked, slapped, snapped, scratched, scraped, spooned (okay, maybe not spooned, depending…) and that’s all just the S words! Go for gold with this.


I’m not one of these people who’s going to say “does this fight/chase/cataclysmic scene serve to further the plot, because I know that’s not always the point. We often put action scenes in because, come on, action is awesome.

I will say this: Think about why. Now you’ve got your ninjas and Chuck Norris cage match set up, how will you make that serve your story? What does your character learn? This is different from the stakes I mentioned in the previous article, because those stakes really could just be “because I’m gonna die otherwise.” Okay, I get that. What I’m saying is, find out how you can make this fight connect with your character’s personal development journey, and maybe even the overall theme of your story. This is where a lot of Hollywood blockbusters are falling flat recently (and you know it).


No fight has meaning until you collect the scrapes and bruises, physical and emotional. If your characters don’t have REactions to the action, then they are robots, and while awesome, I don’t give a badger’s hoot about them (which is especially easy, because badgers don’t hoot). This goes back to that core tenet of writing – make me care.

Okay! That’s all I’ve got for Writing Action, for now. If you’ve got any other ones to add, or major disagreeances (they’re allowed too) please speak up in the comments.

EDIT! I forgot one of the most important points, so here it is:

Ticking timebombs. Mental countdowns until the plane will pass out of intercept range. Range counters on the incoming torpedo. The bad guy is escaping. The whistle is blowing the all aboard…
Put a time limit on something. And don’t just say that you’re counting down, actually tell me how many minutes/seconds we’ve got left. If you spell it out, the reader thinks “This guy’s not huffing around.” We know you’re not going to spin it out and allow them whatever time they need. You’ve set another rule the heroes have to follow (see rules in post 1).

“I will shoot you in the head when I count to three, unless you tell me where you hid the money.”
“I told you already, I don’t know-”

If you’ve ever read anything by Matthew Reilly, he is a demon-god of ultimate spandex-pants-power when it comes to this technique. Especially in his book Area 7. In fact, that’s your Action Writing homework. Go read Matthew Reilly. Temple or Ice Station are also great starting points.

That’s really it now.

Best regards,


Disclaimer: no cats, big or small, were hurt in the writing of this post.

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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10 Responses to Writing Action Scenes, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Writing Action Scenes, Part 1 | WRITES & RESPONSIBILITIES

  2. backwrites says:

    Lots of good stuff in both of these posts! Thanks for them! I always have such a hard time writing action scenes, because it often boils down to “and then he did this, and then she did that, but then those guys did this other thing, and then they ran away.” Will definitely have to find ways to add more dialogue to make it more interesting.

    Gah, when is your book coming out?!

    • Thanks! I hope it helps. OH YOU JUST REMINDED ME! I forgot one of the most important things in Action Writing. Hang on, I’ll edit the post.

      My book is going to be delayed, as I’d aimed for pre-baby, now I’m just aiming to have the re-write sent to my editor by October (and awesome test readers *wink*). I’m guessing it will take them a while, then it will take me a good few months to get it fixed up. Could be early – mid next year?

  3. soulandquill says:

    Nicely done! Helpful stuff here, and well delivered. Your narration is both entertaining and informative. I do enjoy the challenge of an action scene (specifically fight scenes) heaps of fun.

    Keep it up!

  4. Mary Michelle Scott says:

    Informative, and hilarious!

  5. Thanks again for taking the time to detail this. I’ll have to refer back to it if and when I write an action scene again. I’m horrified to go back and look at my own actions scenes that I wrote in my fanfic story. I had no idea what I was doing. They tended to be pretty quick though because I really disliked writing them. Poetic prose has its time and place, but not in an action scene. I definitely agree with that.

    When I think of bad action scenes that I’ve read, mostly in fanfic, it’s often way too detailed. I think they see a movie and then try to duplicate it, but that doesn’t work in fiction. Or there was way too much dialogue or introspection. McCarthy writes quite a few action scenes, and they are usually very blunt, fast, and to the point.

    I’m sure mine sucked too, but I don’t think I was too detailed since I hated writing them. My action scenes always had a reason behind them or else I wouldn’t have written it XD I tried to write as few as possible. Perhaps if I practiced more I wouldn’t dislike it as much. Maybe I should write a short story with it. I definitely need more practice.

    Thanks again for the help and advice! I’m sure I will refer back to it when I write another action scene. I’ll have to check out the books you recommended. I think reading some good action scenes would go a long way for me.

  6. Pingback: Writing Dialogue, “Part 2!” | WRITES & RESPONSIBILITIES

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