This week, the question comes from Kelly, who asks:
How do you guys ensure that your action-packed scenes are realistic
and don’t make it seem so flat? How do you build up the tension and
panicked atmosphere – because some authors are so successful they have their readers holding their breaths waiting for the next scene to
I haven’t written straight up ‘action’ before, not as in terms of hand-to-hand combat. But, the end of the ANTEBELLUM series was a little action-packed, and I always tried to end each book with some sort of dramatic scene. The key to action, I believe, is long sentences.
Short sentences usually consist of one verb, and our brains automatically interpret short sentences as only one thing occurring at a time. That’s why they should be saved for when actions are VERY significant, like at the end of chapters. Long sentences, on the other hand, make it easier for our brains to recognize that many things are happening at once, contributing to the sense of great movement.
So, for large, sweeping, dramatic scenes (epic battles), I use long sentences, and for really close, tight scenes (two people fist-fighting to the death in a warehouse) I use shorter sentences, to contain the action.
Also, don’t forget that when you’re writing action, you’re going to be describing lots of character movement, and there won’t be as much dialogue, so it’s important to mix up the types of sentences you use so that people don’t become bored reading the same type of description over and over (He picked up the rock. He bashed it over her head. He repeated the action. Her blood gurgled).
I think Sav covered a lot of good ground, but I’d like to add that making sure you have the emotional component is KEY. Don’t say: “I was scared when the zombie lunged for my throat.” Rather, SHOW that stuff–maybe your protagonist screams or ducks or covers their face or craps their pants. Action falls flat without the human element. Sometimes, if my action scenes are super-intense, I’ll write the literal action, then go through and find places to demonstrate/show the feelings of my characters. It can be overwhelming to juggle both!
I think action requires a good amount of imagination, not just in WHAT happens, but in terms of how our characters react to it. I’d take your time, think it through, and really try to get into the shoes of your character. Seeing the action through THEIR eyes (not from our desk chairs/computer screens) makes a big difference.
Sav and Sarah pretty much said everything I wanted to, but there is one thing I will add. Now that you’re paying attention to the emotions, pay attention to the other little things around them as well. Things in their surroundings. How do their surroundings react to the battle?
Say two people are fighting in a castle bedroom and one pushes the other into a desk. You can say “Albert shoved John into the desk.” Or you can get a bit detailed and say, “Albert shoved John into the desk. The edge dug painfully into his side.” And finally, you can say, “Albert shoved John into the desk. The edge dug painfully into his side, and the impact sent quills and bottles of ink clattering onto the ground.”
In that last sentences, there’s a better idea of the general chaos going on. It highlights the consequences of shoving someone into the desk. There’s the pain the person will feel, but there’s also the damage to things and property.
The most important part of making it “exciting,” I think, is really getting in the head of your character, even if you’re not in first person. Fighting, fleeing, attacking–unless your character is some kind of hitman (and maybe even then), none of these are actions undertaken clinically. The first step is to figure out what emotion is driving your character’s actions. A person fighting out of fear is going to act and react very differently than one fighting because of anger, and this should bleed into your writing.
Simply describing how a punch lands isn’t very exciting. Neither is saying “John ran through the street, trying to stay ahead of the three men chasing him. They were gaining, and he knew that if he didn’t run faster, they’d soon catch him.” We’re not really in John’s head. He’s panicked. These men are out to kill him. The road narrows. His vision narrows. He sees nothing but the sharp bend up ahead, hears nothing but the men behind him. His gasps rip from his chest–he doesn’t have enough air to call for help–they’re close. They’re close and they’re getting closer and he doesn’t know what lies around the bend.
…I obviously have too much I want to say about this, haha. Maybe a post?
Do you have trouble writing action-packed scenes?