Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Allow me to set the scene: you’re becoming deeply involved with a wonderfully gruesome crime novel, the writer has successfully created an intriguing plot, the characters are enigmatic and exciting and, four chapters in, they are galvanized into action. The pace is set to increase, the antagonist makes a dramatic entrance, our heroine realises she must act quickly, you sit up in anticipation and then…
Whoa! Wait, go back a few pages. How did that guy get there? And who is dead?
A poorly constructed action scene can leave your reader befuddled and frustrated, thumbing back through the pages, trying to figure out who did what. At the end of the day, you don’t want to make your reader frustrated—at least, not in terms of an action scene. Sure, frustrate them with a message that makes them think, but don’t put them off or waylay them on their journey to finding that message.
While you can write an action scene in any number of ways, there are 5 key elements that remain steadfast if you want to keep your readers gripped. Let’s have a look at each of them.
1. Increase the pace
You’ve been hunched over your computer all day and you decide a hard, fast run will help unknot your shoulders and clear your head. You grab your iPod, select ‘Run Playlist’ and press play. What kind of music floods your ears? Shostokovich: Piano Concerto No.2? Unlikely to make you pound the pavement. P!nk’s Good Old Days? Better.
Pace is a matter of rhythm and an action scene requires an increase in that rhythm to emphasise that the characters are in motion, are acting quickly.
So how do you change the rhythm?
Keep the sentences short and keep them succinct. Now is not the time to throw in impressive lyrical prose, or words that have some of us reaching for the dictionary. Simplistic and direct language is the most effective in creating the scene clearly in the reader’s mind.
Have a look at this excerpt from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races:
Dove is beginning to panic. Movement to her right makes her jerk her head sharply enough that the rein rips open one of the searing blisters on my palm. I see white all the way around Dove’s eyes.
I need to get out of here. Sand stings my cheeks and the corners of my eyes, but I can’t spare a hand to swipe my skin.
As the reader, you are caught up in the urgency, the panic the horse feels, the fear Puck feels. There are no flowery descriptions there, simply what Puck sees and feels and how she reacts.
2. Don’t over complicate things
Action scenes occur in all genres, whether it is a science fiction, with Light Sabre wielding characters, or a romance when things really get heated up between the two main characters.
Whatever the scenario, though you may imagine more activity in your mind—Matrix-like bullet-dodging, followed by a faster-than-the-speed-of-light karate chop to the neck and kick in the sternum—remember that trying to describe every single action and reaction will slow the pace down and your reader will become trapped in a bog of Too Much Information.
Keep the choreography as simple as possible, direct your characters so the outcome you require is reached, but allow the reader to use his own imagination to fill in the more complicated steps.
Too Much Information also includes too much of a character’s thought process. Write your character’s actions as if he or she was a ninja—little thought, just instinct.
The Mount Doom action scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King is quick and to the point:
Gollum on the edge of the abyss was fighting like a mad thing with an unseen foe. To and fro he swayed, now so near the brink that he almost tumbled in, now dragging back, falling to the ground, rising and falling again. And all the while he hissed but spoke no words.
I would encourage keeping the descriptions of the scenery to the bare minimum as well. If the surroundings are intrinsic to the battle, set the scene prior to the commencement of the action, but long paragraphs about the muted colors of the weed in the swamp is distracting, unnecessary, very likely boring and, of course, slows that rhythm down.
3. Ssssh, stop talking so much
In a similar vein, try to refrain from too much dialog.
If you’re involved in a nail-biting diamond heist, do you stop to have a cigarette break and a deep and meaningful conversation with your partner in crime? I don’t. There isn’t the time and I’m running on pure adrenaline which doesn’t encourage chatting (not to mention cigarettes would set off the smoke detectors). I usually wait until the post-heist-review coffee and cake at the nearest Starbucks.
As always, I fully encourage a witty one-liner here and there, in keeping with a character’s sense of humor and allowing the reader some comic relief, but keep it realistic. The dialog in an action scene is going to be staccato—short, rapid fire, to the point. The characters are possibly breathless, under pressure—it is not the time for poetry or soliloquizing.
4. The fewer points of view, the better
If you’re writing in the first person narrative, this shouldn’t be a concern. From the third person narrative, however, try to present the action in a scene through one character’s perspective. Too many angles of the same scene can be confusing.
I know you may want to present another character’s thoughts, actions and reactions, but here’s where you use the “show, don’t tell” device. Show the antagonist’s reactions, for example, a narrowing of eyes, a contorted expression of fury, all seen from the protagonist’s point of view. Respect the intelligence of your reader—it is not necessary to spell out the obvious. For example:
He was shocked and horrified to realize he would lose this fight. She was half his size, he was far more powerful, more experienced—it was not possible. And yet the sword protruding from his chest said it was.
His eyes opened in surprise as she lunged forward and plunged the sword through his chest. He stared down at the blood seeping slowly across his robes and the surprise turned to disbelief and finally to horror. He had lost.
5. Don’t get lost yourself
Last, but very importantly, you yourself must keep track of who is doing what. Perhaps write timelines for each character, which would not only help you clarify events in your own mind but help identify any holes.
It is essential to a clear, effective action scene that, as you are writing, you know what has happened, what is happening and what will happen. If you, as the author, are not sure, how do you expect the reader to be?