Notes Of A Storyteller: Action Scenes

The following has been respectfully shanghaied from my old blog. If you saw the Monday Meditations, you know that action scenes have been on my mind in a big way. They’re some of the difficult writing I’ve ever had to do in my life.

“Ever since I got the idea for The Kingdom Trilogy, I knew there were going to be swordfights. And chases, and monsters, and fire, and jumps, and battle-cries, and everything that made Star Wars, Braveheart, and Indiana Jones beloved by audiences around the world.

Well, Indy makes it look easy. If writing action sequences is not the hardest writing I’ve ever had to do, it’s in the top three. Movies have a natural advantage over me. If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine what kind of words you need when that picture involves a man kung-fu fighting a gang of ninjas and leaping out of an exploding submarine.

Problem is, I can only write so much. When I throw Arman off a stone tower, I only have one terse paragraph to put you in the scene. I want you to be excited. I want you to squeal as Arman plummets to certain death. Every single word has to draw you in, because when things happen this quickly, one confusing word or phrase will halt the flow.”

It’s been a few months since I wrote this. Now I want to add something. Action scenes are like writing poetry. Every phrases must burst with imagery. In this case, I must give an impression of the human body in motion, doing daring deeds at the pace of a sprinter. Connotation is vitally important. The word “dash” conveys a much more frenetic picture than the word “sprint”.

Let me show you what I mean. Here’s a paragraph from the rough draft of The Kingdom: The Quest, from when I throw Arman off that stone tower…

“His stomach smashed into his gullet as the swiftly growing earth pulled him down with a primal, roaring speed; a deathly whooshing wind reverberated through and past his ears, as he scrambled and looked about for the rope. Blurs of colours flashed down all about him: black, winds-softened cliff, grey, air-rippled tower, and a curiously brown line traveling with him that he recognized as the rope and grabbed onto just in time for an excruciating jolt to strain his suddenly aching arms and shoulders. The rope had straightened, and before he could comprehend with his eyes it had happened, he was already swinging downward at a soaringly swift rate, yelling incoherently to battle the surging wind, and clinging onto the palm-stinging fibers as he sailed rapidly over the ground, flying with a wave of exhilaration towards the tower.”

I bet you didn’t even make it through two sentences of that. Isn’t that clunky? Isn’t that boring? I’ve revised that chapter several times since. Here’s how it looks right now…

They dove straight to the earth. Arman was dimly aware of Vertaen tossing the hook, but what consumed him most was speed, and terror. Blurs of colors were all around him. Black cliff, grey tower, green earth, yellow lights. The ground swelled unnaturally fast. Hundreds of howls tore at his ears, not the least of which was the roar of the wind.

Do you see the difference? I’ll be tinkering with that passage even more in order, because even as I copied it down I recognized places where I can delete a word, or use a different word in order to increase pace and urgency. The faster, the better.

Enough about me. Have you ever written action scenes before? What works for you? What are your favorite examples in other writers? Am I spouting nonsense right now? Be a human being. Tell what you think.


17 responses to “Notes Of A Storyteller: Action Scenes

  1. I really like the revision. It allows the reader to fill in the visuals instead of forcing them to try and see what you see. That is the thing I like so much more about books than movies, is that books allow each reader to see something different, thus making it their own. You don’t get that luxury with movies.

    • It is one of the joys of literature. It takes faith for me. I have to trust that I’ve picked the right phrase, and that they’ll spark imagery in your mind. I’m glad to hear that passage, at least, did the trick. Thanks for reading!

  2. Dunno.

    I kinda liked the first version. Helped me fall with him.

  3. I love writing action scenes. I think my training in kung fu helps me picture things better, Very true that action scenes should have shorter, simpler sentences to reflect the quickened pace. I wrote a blog post about it some months back. Hit me up if you’d like the link to it. 🙂

    On another note, I thought you’d be interested to know that I’ve just released a long short story on Smashwords. It’s a horror novelette called THE DOLL, and I’m running a Halloween contest to promo it (see below). I’d be thrilled if you could take part, or even if you help spread the word! 🙂


    Join me in the Trick or Treat Spooktacular! Could you help make the Grand Prize a brand new Kindle Touch?

  4. Thanks for sharing the “before” and “after” of your action scene. I think we as writers are tempted to over-describe what is happening in the scene. We want the reader to see, hear, feel, smell, taste, everything that the character’s sense, but without filters it becomes overwhelming for the reader. Human minds process few very things at once and prioritize the rest for alter interpretation if needed. Our writing should be the same. We should “evoke” the scene, not “report” ever detail of every word and action.

    The second version is leaner with faster pacing and shorter sentences. That’s the right idea from my perspective.

    My only other general tip, is remember that even action scenes should be written via the POV character’s sense, if you’re using 3rd Limited or 1st person POV. Only describe/reveal what that character can actually sense or know. They can’t see the person sneaking up on them, but maybe they can hear footsteps or smell perfume?

  5. I’ve been thinking about action scenes a lot lately. They are, for me, the hardest scenes to write. (I’m glad I’m not alone.) So, here’s my two cents:

    1: Readers want to feel urgency and–duh–action. The best way to accomplish this is by using short and active sentences. So avoid using the words “was” or “were” and verbs ending in “ing.” Fragmented sentences are also useful. (Your second draft does this really well, though you can probably cut out a few more was’s and replace them with verbs.)

    2: Readers want imagery, but they want to imagine action, not what a character or setting looks like. So focus on diction, focus on verbs that enhance the scene. If you must describe something else, keep it brief. (You did this well as well.)

    3: Readers, many readers, want to know what the character is feeling. I used to think this meant physical and emotional sensations. (Those are good to have.) But after some analysis, I’ve realized that they’re actually referring to character thoughts. Readers want to know what goes through their heroes head when they encounter an opponent, or realize that they’re falling off a cliff. This is often accomplished with short italicized thoughts.

    Once I became aware of this technique–breaking up action with thoughts–I realized that most of my favorite writers use it around every other paragraph. Right now, I’m reading Brandon Sanderson’s work, and it’s a great example of the technique.

    Well, that’s what’s on my mind right now.

    Thanks for the great post. Inspirational as usual.

    • I’m glad to hear I’ve been of assistance.

      Passive voice will definitely kill your action scene. It’s already been proven to kill high school journalism, and most other forms of writing. Fragments, though, I would use sparingly. One of the ways I learned to hone my writing style was to specifically avoid fragments. I hadn’t thought of italicized thoughts. I’ve seen others do it. Christopher Paolini uses them too much in action scenes in the Inheritance Cycle. It’s a matter of timing, if that makes any sense.

      I’ll happily bring all this advice as I do my last week of edits.

      • Timing makes perfect sense. People say a novel has to be like a roller coaster ride with ups and downs. I like to think of action scenes in the same way.

        You have to make sure that italicized thoughts and dialogue takes place in the downs. That powerful verbs and images occur in the highs.

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