10 actions for writing better action scenes
guest post by Sgt. Adam Fenner
Award winning author Adam Fenner has served in both the US Marine Corps and the Nevada National Guard. Adam is the co-author of On Two Fronts the Silver Medal winner of the Independent Book Publishers Association’s Bill Fisher Award (Nonfiction) and the “Deployment Wisdom” series. He is a student pursuing his Bachelor’s degree in Accounting at UNLV, and is currently working on a horror series called the “Horrors of War” with its first release OP #7 in March 2015, and a dark fantasy series. Adam maintains a blog at www.authoradamfenner.com.
ADAM FENNER’S WEBSITE AND BLOG
I recently edited Adam’s upcoming novel OP #7. His battle scenes, particularly those toward the end, impressed me. There are two ways to write: telling and showing. As writers we hear “show, don’t tell” for good reason. Readers like to experience a story, not merely be told the story. Telling is easy. You simply write down what happened. Showing is more difficult, but my dad always taught me that anything worth doing is worth doing right. When Adam Fenner writes action scenes, he does them the right way: he shows them. So, I asked him to think about doing a post for Write Well, Write To Sell, and this is what he gave me.
Readers like action, in all forms. Sometimes it is short confrontations. Maybe it’s a hero standing up to a bully. They never exchange a punch but there is a rush of emotion that translates into some physiological reaction. It is action, but nothing can ruin a good story like bad action. Don’t forget that action isn’t bound to violent encounters. It could be a car chase, a sex scene, or any other scene designed to get your readers’ hearts beating. Here are ten hopefully helpful hints to support your next action sequence.
1. Give your action scene a purpose.
Action for the sake of action is the difference between store-bought pie, and your grandmother’s secret recipe. Fundamentally they may share similar elements, but they just aren’t the same. A fight should move the story forward, but more importantly it should propel the characters forward, reveal something about themselves to themselves or to the reader. You have to give your reader a reason to care about the outcome of the action sequence, to want to turn the next page.
You can do this in a variety of ways. You can put the hero (gender neutral) into a new or unfamiliar situation and test his mettle. Or even more revealing is one that the hero recognizes something that will draw some piece of his past out, force him to face his fears and either fail or triumph. Variety is the key, however. Easy ways to accomplish this are multiple opponents, or by adding another element, a trap, or a new environmental threat.
2. Plan ahead.
Whatever you do, you are the author, the master of your story. Walk in with a plan, be it a simple punch to the nose of a rude guy at the bar or a massive battle with many intricately moving parts. Have a plan, and stick to it. Don’t completely let your characters run the show. Let them guide you along the path you have given them. But you are the boss.
I have utilized PowerPoint slides to track each phase of the battle, going so far as to plan out the deaths of over eighty characters step by step. Because when my heroes stepped over a dead body, I wanted to know whose body that was. I used one slide to represent the entire scene at a particular moment and annotated who was dead and whose POV it was in. I also would show the visual limits of that POV. It was a lot of work, but for a final battle it was worth it, and it really helped as a reference to support myself as an author and the readers by giving them a clear picture of the battle taking place.
Role-playing is also key. I have been known to punch, kick, and tumble (attempt to flip) in my living room or wherever I am writing, trying to get every detail of movement just right. This may seem basic, but if you want to do something like a wrestling match and really get the fine details of the movement of the two individuals, it is essential.
3. Research techniques, tactics, and procedures.
If you want your reader to not only read the action but also experience it, you have to know what you are writing about. To do that, you will need to do research. My military background has exposed me to a wide range of information, but it has also given me enough information to know what I don’t know and where to find out more: Google.
If you are using a weapon, understand it. If your readers are veterans, police, or military, if you are writing about any part of their job and are wrong, it will pull them out of the story. If you are right, it will fully immerse the reader in the experience. Don’t just learn that cops like Glocks and they usually use either a .45 or a .4 cal. Learn how they step into a hostile room, how they holster the weapon, and what the type of brush they clean the weapon with. Those finer details of how gear may sit on their shoulders or hips, or perhaps what foot they enter the door with, could change your story from a traditional tale into something significantly more.
[NOTE FROM RICK: Scott Gamboe and I have done several posts on story details, police procedures, and weapons that you might want to check out. Look under the “Story details” topic under Categories on the left side of our blog, and if you have questions on police procedures, you can email Scott through his website (www.scottgamboe.net)]
Grenades don’t shoot massive fireballs into the sky, 9mms don’t punch baseball-sized holes through a grown man’s chest, and a broad sword is too heavy to carry with one hand… generally. Learn your weapons systems: how to use them and what they do.
One of my accidentally useful experiences as a writer has been my time spent as an Army Medic. As a writer, this has given me very useful knowledge of the effects of various types of trauma on the human body. I know what a blade will do when it penetrates the abdomen, or how gruesome a slice across the belly will be. These facts can making writing an action scene a lot of fun because nothing is more satisfying than dismantling your enemies—for both the reader and the writer.
4. Engage the five senses.
In a fight, all five senses are cranked up. Or maybe they aren’t. During large explosions, the ears can block out all sounds, creating a partial deaf experience. Don’t just engage your readers’ eyes. Give them a full sensory experience, whether it be the cool rain water falling on muscles burning from a heated battle, the taste of blood, the smell of charred flesh, or the clang of metal on metal. Put the reader in the middle of your action sequence.
5. Warriors get hurt. Make injury a part of your fight.
Only an idiot walks into a fight thinking that he won’t get hit. Getting hit is a part of the plan. Have your hero get hit and overcome the pain or injury. Or have him fail. Even Batman had his spine broken.
6. Write in shorter, easier-to-read sentences.
If your action scene is doing its job, the reader’s heart will pump faster, and if you know what that does to the human body it will start to make everything move faster. I do my best to avoid long paragraphs or sentences. I like the structure of my writing to reflect the intensity of the action experience. Here is an example that shows very quick flow while engaging multiple senses.
The following is taken from “He Chose Wynter” (unpublished):
* * * * *
He pulled back and swung hard.
The shield shook. The ground on which he stood vibrated faintly. He swung again.
Dust rose from the ground. His bones tingled and ached from the near deafening sound. He kicked his foot back and swung again.
He stayed low, the shockwave nearly knocking him off his feet. The dust filled his nose and mouth. He tightened his grip and struck.
A burst of energy knocked him off his feet and onto the vibrating ground. He gritted his teeth, stood and swung hard again.
* * * * *
7. Control the POV.
Action should be a flurry of movement, but it is your responsibility as an author to control that. Knowing your POV can be a big part of that. In my final action sequence for my first fantasy novel, I took advantage of my multiple POVs to show the expansiveness of the battlefield. The catch 22 to that is that you must limit what the reader is reading about to that POV. You can’t be hearing or seeing something that is out of that character’s experience.
Using more of a third person omniscient style removes that limitation but reduces the intimacy of the experience for the reader. I want my readers to feel what my characters are feeling. Whatever you decide, make sure that it can support the reader’s experience, and understand the limitations.
8. Structurally action it goes back and forth. Write it that way.
What I have found to be incredibly useful is the technique of using paragraph breaks for action the same way that I do for dialogue. If “he said” then “she said” are in sequential paragraphs, why can’t his sword slice, follow her block? This allows for quick paragraph breaks and shorter sentences while still communicating to the reader who is doing what.
9. Read the work of others. It puts tools in your toolbox.
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Stephen King said that. If you aren’t reading, you aren’t putting tools in your toolbox. Ask a carpenter how hard it is to build a cabinet without the proper tools.
When you are reading, look at how the author structures a scene, displays something of importance, or moves between key points. You can learn a lot by reading.
10. Have fun.
If you don’t enjoy your scene, that will permeate through your writing, and your reader will feel it. Enjoy what you are doing.
Action isn’t all serious. Your characters should have fun occasionally and make jokes, and so should you as the author.
I once put my fantasy characters on the island of an insane sorceress who had covered her island with desserts. And after my former-slave-turned-warrior had indulged himself in enough chocolate to give him a stomachache, I put him against chocolate goblins. Too bad he was throwing up during the entire battle. I had a blast writing the scene, and when I finally finish editing the book, I hope my readers enjoy it as well.
The other important thing to note is that the highs can make the lows feel lower and can help to bond characters with one another and endear them to the reader. So, when or if you do kill someone off, the pain of that loss will be felt that much more because there will have been those good times to remember.
Regardless of what kind of action you are writing. Keep these points in mind and have a great time. The more fun you have with your writing the better it will be.