Action scenes. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, but as a genre fiction writer you probably will have to someday write an action scene for your novel. Getting the best results often involves having the right recipe and ingredients and I’m here to share some of my secrets for creating an action scene that makes readers keep turning the pages!
The first ingredient is the characters. As Melinda and Kathy pointed out in their earlier advice about The Perfection of One’s Character and Writing the Fight Scene, it’s important for you to know the kind of fighting experience that your characters have. Are they trained military or law enforcement? Do they have martial arts experience? What kinds of strengths or weakness do they have physically? How tall or short is each of the fighters? Each one of these will make the difference between your action scene being a bar room brawl slugfest or a well-choreographed and precise battle between two opponents.
The next item to add to the mix is location. Where is the scene taking place? Action that is happening on dry land is going to be very different than that occurring in wet sand or water. Will the combatants be at risk in the location, i.e., near the edge of a cliff? Are there any possible weapons that can be used at the location? On the beach, sand becomes a weapon when it is tossed in someone’s eyes. In a closed environment, such as an office, a heavy bookend or letter opener can be used against an opponent.
Physics is the next ingredient to add to your mix! How do bodies and things react to the application of force? It’s important to know how a punch will move the combatants so that you can plan for the next logical step in the fight. For example, a blow to the face will likely have an opponent’s head moving back and so a knee to the face might not be possible. As Rayna mentioned in her post on When in Doubt, Act It Out, if you have any hesitation, physically go through the steps yourself to make sure the physics of the scene make sense and also keep in mind the characters’ physical traits. Height, weight and the sex of the characters will make a big difference.
Next up in our recipe – Dialogue. I vaguely recall that one critic said of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that the only thing sharper than her jabs were her one liners. Good advice for any action scene with dialogue.
The words your combatants exchange should be like body blows, short, precise and stinging. Nothing slows down an action scene more than long discussions between the various combatants. In general, it’s probably best to keep dialogue to the beginning and end of the scenes – the first to incite the action and the latter to help transition to the next scene in your book.
Likewise, internalized dialogue as the characters fight should be kept to a minimum. Although the character may be in a life or death struggle, your action scene is not the time for the character to have her life flash in front of her eyes. As with spoken dialogue, keep internal thoughts to a minimum and have them up the ante in the fight. For example, if the heroine knows there is a weapon nearby, have a quick thought flash through her brain about how to reach that weapon or how to use it. Or spice the scene with a thought about the heroine’s reaction to either receiving or connecting with a punch.
Hand in hand with dialogue is the narrative in your scene. Much as with dialogue, keep it short. Short sentences create tension and move the scene along. If you’re doing an action scene correctly, there isn’t room for long winded narratives about what’s happening, except to possibly set up or end the scene (more on that later!). Also think about using elements of deep POV to heighten the tension and keep the action moving, namely, a new paragraph for each thought, action or punch. For example:
A sharp jab to the nose had his opponent reeling backward.
Mick charged ahead.
A left hook glanced across the man’s cheekbone, but landed with enough force to daze him. Mick’s opponent dropped the sharp-edged broken bottle and it shattered against the concrete floor.
Blood dripped from a cut on the man’s temple and nose as he swayed, eyes glassy. Unfocused.
Mick cocked his arm to deliver the coup de grace.
Last but not least, the final ingredients in the recipe are the beginning and ending of your action scene.
When it comes to the beginning of the scene, keep one very important thing in mind – Does the action make sense in light of the characters, location, weapons, and story line? I always think about that scene in Indiana Jones when Jones is challenged by a rather large and muscular man. Bull whip in hand, Jones realizes he is no match for his opponent – until he pulls out his gun and shoots the man.
Like Indiana Jones, a smart hero knows when to back off an altercation or avoid a fight unless it’s absolutely necessary. Heroes who charge in without a thought to their own safety or possible collateral damage come across as too stupid to live.
Where do you start the scene? The best place to do so to keep the pages turning is to start the scene at the end of the chapter before. Make them turn the page to see if the hero will engage in combat.
Where do you end the scene? That’s a hard question and really requires you to do one thing – write the entire scene from start to finish. Then find a good place smack in the middle to insert a chapter break, usually at a place just a millisecond before a punch will be landed or a knife will be thrust (see the example above with Mick – Did he throw that last punch? Did you want to know what happened next?).
Keep the reader wondering about what happens next as it will force them to turn the page. At the start of the next chapter, resume your action scene.
One other important thing to keep in mind when it comes to ending a scene — Remember that a real hero won’t inflict damage above and beyond what is necessary. Doing so diminishes her in the eyes of the reader and that’s the last thing you want to do. Even justified lethal force can be difficult for readers, so keep that in mind so as to not put off people. For example, in the above scene with Mick, Mick may have determined that his opponent was no longer a threat. The next chapter can open with Mick deciding to just walk away from the fight rather than inflicting any more punishment.
By combining the above ingredients, you have a recipe for writing fast-paced action scenes that will keep readers attacking those pages!
New York Times and USA Today bestselling paranormal and romantic suspense author Caridad Pineiro wrote her first novel in the fifth grade when her teacher assigned a project – to write a book for a class lending library. Bitten by the writing bug, Caridad continued with her passion for the written word through high school, college and law school. In 1999, Caridad’s first novel was released and a decade later, Caridad is the author of over twenty novels and novellas. When not writing, Caridad is an attorney, wife and mother to an aspiring writer and fashionista. Caridad’s November 2009 release, SINS OF THE FLESH, is the first book in an exciting new paranormal suspense series from Grand Central Publishing. Look for STRONGER THAN SIN in October 2010. For more information on Caridad, please visit www.caridad.com or www.thecallingvampirenovels.com.