How to Write Great Action Scenes

Whenever I think of an action scene, I see it play out in my head the way it would in a movie: guy jumps from car, pulls out machine gun, blows up tanker.

As you read the previous sentence, what you are visualizing is called “external action”. You know nothing of the internal action in the scene. While pure external action scenes work for movies (supplemented by sexy outfits and special effects) , books simply cannot rely on external action alone to engage the reader. If you do, your writing tends to come across as superficial and mechanical.

Any scene in a book, including action scenes, should propel your story forward and develop character. This is where you mix internal action with external action. Don’t be afraid to write about your character’s internal conflicts. I like to jack up the emotional stakes of an action scene with things like betrayal, lust, and sacrifice. Be sure to work these in!

Another point. If an action scene lacks tension, it’s boring. Trust me, being afraid for your life usually isn’t enough. Once you understand it, tension is easy enough to write. Think of an elastic band being pulled in two opposite directions, the harder you pull the more tension there is. If a character is experiencing a strong emotion (he loves the girl), introduce or suggest an opposite emotion at the same time (he’s afraid she might kill him) and voila! Instant tension.

Finally, pay attention to your pacing. Action scenes tend to be written with short tight sentences to suggest rapid movement. This is entirely appropriate, but if you don’t give your audience a change of pace once in awhile, they’re going to drop out of the race.

You can use longer sentences to highlight points of particular importance to the plot of your book. Below I’ve written a faster-paced sentence:

Tom spun in surprise and Eric hit him on the jaw.

Depending on the story, this might be a really significant event and you may want to spend some more time with it. For instance:

Tom spun in surprise, his expression shocked. Eric, wearing a crooked grin, slung a bloody-knuckled fist into Tom’s jaw.

Notice the tension developed by the fact that Eric is smiling as he punches Tom out.

You can also use longer-paced sentences to build atmosphere and drop in choice bits of description. Because an action scene does tend to be visual, it’s important not to forget about the place where your scene happens.

🙂 In the interests of keeping this blog a reasonable length, I think I’ll stop there. Let me know if you have any questions!


About cjgosling

I paint, I sing, I walk in the rain. I'm clumsy and I love the smell of campfire. My head is full of imaginary things and the only thing I ever really want to do in life is write. My first book "Shadowlands: The Guardian" was released in Feb. 2011. The sequel is coming in 2012! View all posts by cjgosling

2 responses to “How to Write Great Action Scenes

  • Elle Strauss

    Great post! I have action scenes coming up in my wip, so I’ll keep this in mind. I’m going to add you to my blog list of authors who blog about writing.

  • Rusty Biesele

    Sometimes action scenes can be created by rapid conversation with lots of short lines. For example, two kids taunting each other where the taunting rises to a climax of some kind. Sometimes teens focus on those tauntings more than anything else in the book. The action is the implied action that would go with such a conversation.

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