QOTW: Action-Packed Scenes

21 Oct

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).

-The Writer Condensing Three Books Into One


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.

-The Writer With Her First Book Deal


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 Writer Editing Her Massive Rewrite of a First Novel


I love writing action-packed scenes! In fact, I think just about every single longer work I’ve written has included at least one chase scene… Many of them include physical fights of some kind, too.

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?

-The Writer Who Just Signed With A Literary Agent


To be really annoying, and vague: Voice.
Personally, I find action really boring to read (especially since generally I already know what happens. X hits/shoots/hammers/kicks Y. Y falls, gets up attacks X. Someone eventually dies/loses) and I’ll only stick with it if an author has a stellar voice. Otherwise, I skim.
Other than having a great voice, I think you need to establish some emotion. A lot of flat battle scenes are basically a laundry list of things people are doing. Sav’s advice to vary sentence length, construction etc to make things seem more dynamic is really great to get rid of that cardboard feel action scenes can often have. But, I also think if you keep character goals clear, and have people react within the scene — ie how is the POV character or protag reacts to X kicking them — that goes a long way to giving the scene both direction, and meaning, and deepens the emotional layers, because a character’s obviously more invested in a scene if there’s a goal.
Last piece of advice — a lot of action scenes are purely visual. They’re cinematic in that they show you what the characters are doing to each other, but fiction doesn’t work like film. Only engaging with one sense often leaves things feeling flat, so try to engage with the different senses — sound, touch, taste.


Do you have trouble writing action-packed scenes?


9 Responses to “QOTW: Action-Packed Scenes”

  1. Marina October 22, 2010 at 12:05 AM #

    Great advice. I have some trouble with action scenes and find myself trying to remember fighting from movies. Mostly I find myself repeating things or lacking emotion, so it kind of comes out chopped. Usually I have to go back to rework that.
    I also agree with Vee, sometimes I start skimming fighting if it becomes too prolonged or boring because it’s too descriptive. I think you have to be careful balancing the right amount of action with description and not go on for too long.

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 22, 2010 at 10:10 AM #

      Hey Marina, I totally agree with you about the balancing, and I think that’s why it’s not easy to write a scene like this quickly. 🙂

  2. TymCon October 22, 2010 at 5:38 AM #

    Love action scenes. If you’re doing a big, attle (eg: Armys clashing) you shoudl avoid describging the blow by blow. YOu should only really describe the important parts and describe inbetween as the whole if that makes any sense. An incredibly badly written example is on the way: “A soilder ducked an incoming arrow, parried a blade and drove it into the attackers stomach. Another soilder blocked a sword but got stabbed in the back, etc.”, or you could do this “The fighters clashed in a deadly dance. Men and woman dodged arrows or got ran through by them. Single combatants got swamped into a mass melee, and any fighter was liable to die in an ignoble death” While writing that I noticed I have a big habit i’ve saying men instead of fighters, soidlers etc. I’m pretty sure I mean men as in humankind:P

    I think the best thign to do when writing a big action scene is to make sure that there’s a reason there’s a big action scene. Perhaps The Situation is storming a castle. Why is he storming a castle? Does he want the elexir of immortality? Why are the defenders…um…defending the castle? Can they not bare hearing “We got ourselves a situation” for the rest of their lives?

    Another thing I thing is good, and I have difficulty with, is that you should build up the tension for that big action/fight scene. Yes I know I seem to use this book as an example a lot, but a lot of people here have read it. Is sabrial you know sooner or later Kerrigors goign to attack. You have a steady closing in atmosphere. First we actually find out he’s goign to attack. Then the generals on the line and people are duying. And then the frickin’ power lines die and someone says “That must be the power lines. The halfway point”. Because of that slow steady build up you enjoy the action a lot more. For one on one you should use the build up diffrently. Set two characters who are brilliant at what they do and set them on a collision coruse. Naturally, the protaganist should go up against the bad badass sometime, but you can still have alot of action and tension.

    If there’s no fighting in your action scene then we shoudl find soemthing out that syrockets the tension. OR that gives us a sucker punch because we never expected X to have done Y.

    And of course it would help if your main character has a small epiphanie during the action as a direct result of the action. Or a direct result of the coming action. Or after the action.

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 22, 2010 at 10:08 AM #

      LOL “We got ourselves a situation!” I think that would be a threat big enough to spur anyone to violence!!! 🙂

  3. authorguy October 22, 2010 at 6:00 AM #

    In my novels I present as much as I can from the POV of the character(s), and actions scenes are no different. I probably wouldn’t mention the bottles of ink toppling, except at the end, when the battle’s over and my hero looks around at all the carnage. At the time he was focused on the hands around his throat or blocking a kick, and that’s what I would be showing. In my Tarkas books, he receives his fighting abilities through an injection of Triple-Distilled Elixir of Warrior. He doesn’t know how he got these reflexes, but he has them, and scenes with him fighting tend to be about his reaction to his body doing all these strange things. My upcoming novel, St. Martin’s Moon, has several fight sequences, and my hero is severely outclassed in all of them. I don’t focus on each blow as much as the ineffectiveness of all of his blows. The trick is not winning, so much as what he learns while he’s losing.

    Marc Vun Kannon

  4. Julie Eshbaugh October 22, 2010 at 10:04 AM #

    I missed the QOTW! Shame on me! Here is how I would have answered:
    The answers above are all so good, I can only think of one more thing to add, and that would be stakes. Why would your hero/heroine choose to fight this person, in this way, at this time? It’s difficult to become engaged in a scene of violence that you believe is in the book for the sake of “spicing up the conflict” or because one character is just always looking for a fight. I think a physical confrontation is much more interesting and satisfying if you know that the MC is fighting for a purpose, and that the stakes involved in that purpose are sufficient to compel a person to violence. Hunger Games, anyone? 🙂

  5. Amie Kaufman October 22, 2010 at 12:57 PM #

    Oh, thank you thank you! This is one of my biggest weaknesses. I have a couple of chase scenes in the WIP I’m revising, and… well, they kind of suck. I’m going to go over them with this advice. (And Kat, feel absolutely free to make this topic into a whole post! I’ll be there with bells on!)

  6. Brenda Agaro October 22, 2010 at 1:53 PM #

    Action scenes are one of things I’m still struggling with, so this QOTW post helped a lot (thanks!).

    Something I tend to do when writing (trying, actually) fight/battle scenes is to show the characters’ emotions and intentions. Showing someone’s determination/reluctance, concerns, and reactions can be effective for readers. For example, if a character kills someone for the first time, does he/she feel guilty, satisfied, etc.?

    Mood and atmosphere can help too (describing the setting.) Like, is it suddenly harder for your character to breathe, the air becoming thick? What season does the scene takes place?

  7. Jess October 22, 2010 at 10:41 PM #

    I’m with Vee. I skim.

    Anyone who’s read my work can attest – my characters are all cerebral. I have to remember to add a sense of place in most of my scenes. This is for a couple reasons, 1) I’m always in my head, and 2) I can’t visualize. I’m horrible at it. I can get still frame pictures but to visualize an action sequence is torture for me.

    TORTURE. My most intense scenes are critical emotional sequences. Physical action tends to kinda bore me.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: