We can't wait to get to the climax of a story. It's the most exciting part, the place with the most action and intense moments. Right?
Kisses. Bloody fights. Huge confrontations.
They're the best parts of a story, right?
You wouldn't be crazy to think so. And yet the best parts of a story aren't always what you think. Your favorite scene — whether it be one of action, confrontation, fighting, or sex — is probably not your favorite because of the raw details.
It's your favorite because of the build-up. And that what you need to master as a writer in order to deliver scenes that will soon become your readers' favorites!
The Problem With “Action”
Here's the thing: Many writers skip the build-up. They hurry to the “action,” to the climax of a story thinking that it's what readers want.
But it actually isn't. Readers think it is, but you have to outsmart your readers, and even yourself.
What readers really want is the build-up, and if you skip it, your action scene and the climax of your story will fall flat.
I've served as a judge for several writing contests here at The Write Practice. And so many stories make the mistake of skipping the build-up.
In one story I read, the setting was a far-off kingdom with magic and dragons. “Cool,” I thought after reading the establishing paragraph.
But then the protagonist, a man, struck his wife and began cursing at her. Obviously he was very angry, but I was shocked at this sudden level of violence and vitriol.
Immediately I was yanked out of the story. I was no longer wanting to learn more about the magical setting. Instead, I was thinking, “This is incredibly violent and vulgar . . . and I don't know why.”
The key word here is Why.
Because without the Why, your reader won't care and your scene won't work.
That's what the build-up is for.
3 Tips to Help You Create Exciting Scenes
Audiences don't get excited by unexplained loud noises, big explosions, or shocking intimacy. They need something more.
That something is Empathy.
Without empathy, the reader won't feel the sting of a slap or the warm caress of a kiss. They'll only be watching on the sidelines, vulnerable to boredom and apathy.
Here's how to connect your readers with your characters and generate empathy that will lead to incredible thrills like never before.
1. Make the Reason for the Conflict Matter
If two characters are beating each other up, there had better be a reason. Superheroes fight . . . to protect the innocent.
If two characters are kissing for the first time, there had better be a reason. Lovers kiss . . . to fulfill a longing of the soul.
If two characters are screaming at each other, filling the air with curses, there had better be a reason. People argue . . . to avenge deep-rooted wounds with a long history.
When it's clear to the reader why something violent, sexy, or angry is happening, he or she is much more like to empathize with the action.
But when a reader is confused, he or she will shut off any emotional output and transition, instead, to analyzing the realism of your scene. That's the last thing you want.
2. Fill the Build-up Nail-biting Tension
You may ask, “What do I do before the action?”
In a word, everything.
This is where the real action occurs: The wanting. Anticipating. Fearing. Hoping. Dreading. Remembering.
Recalling a trauma. Reciting a plan.
Shouting a taunt. Whispering a secret.
The build-up to your action is invaluable because it identifies the stakes, the risks, the longings, the wounds . . . practically everything that is about to be put on the line through physical action.
Without these emotional and spiritual anchors (and empathy triggers), your scene will be nothing more than the clanging of pots and pans.
3. Try the “Less is More” Approach to the Action
When the time comes to fire the first volley, do so with restraint.
Some authors are able to create excellent build-up, but completely abandon their protagonists when the action begins. The story goes from an intimate emotional journey to Shakespearean stage directions.
One way to prevent yourself from doing this is to stick to a “Less is More” approach to your action. When describing the fight, focus on one punch. In an argument, fixate on the emotions one feels in order to hurl a certain curse word. And in a scene of sexual intimacy, zoom in on that one action, or motion, or moment of vulnerability, that really takes the character to the edge of his or her comfort zone.
This can't be emphasized enough. The key to a successful action scene isn't big adjectives, verbs, or pushing the limits of taste or physics or an R rating, or anything else like this.
The single greatest key to a successful action scene is reader empathy. You absolutely must keep your reader's heart and mind locked inside the psyche of your protagonist, else you risk turning your reader into a skeptic at best and a harsh critic at worst.
So focus less on the raw action and more on the minds of your characters, and in the climax of a story you'll thrill your readers like never before!
Structure the Build-up
While this is totally feasible in a longer story, novella, or novel, it may seem hard in short form. After all, 1,500 words isn't much room to work with.
Consider this: If you use Shakespeare's five-act structure, you have five 300-word acts. Why not try this structure as you draft your entry to our next writing contest?
- Act 1: Inciting Incident (something about today is very different, and requires immediate action) — 300 words
- Act 2: Complication (begin the build up by establishing what the protagonist has to lose) — 600 words so far
- Act 3: Crisis (build to a moment when the protagonist is forced to take action while weighing the costs) — 900 words now
- Act 4: Choice/Climax of a Story (begin with a decisive action; stay with your protagonist's wants and fears!) — 1200 words at this point
- Act 5: Resolution (wrap up the action and make sure everyone receives a consequence for his/her choices) — 1500 words!
Give it a try and see how it goes. Good luck!
How do you build tension before the climactic action? Let us know in the comments.
Consider your current story idea or work-in-progress. What does your character stand to gain or lose by taking action (whether that action is a confrontation, a punch, a kiss, etc)? Use this information to outline a scene of build-up and escalation where the character realizes all that he or she must put at stake in order to be successful.
Don't have a work in progress? Try this writing prompt: Julie was dreading the phone call, but when it came, she knew what she'd have to say.
Take fifteen minutes to write. When you're done, post your writing in the comments below, and be sure to comment on someone else's writing!
You deserve a great book. That's why David Safford writes adventure stories that you won't be able to put down. Read his latest story at his website. David is a Language Arts teacher, novelist, blogger, hiker, Legend of Zelda fanatic, puzzle-doer, husband, and father of two awesome children.