You sit down, ready to write, and you’re excited because this scene is going to be full of terrific action-packed conflict to grab your reader. But then you wonder, do you even know how to write action scenes?
Are plot points and blow-by-blow action really what keeps readers turning pages? Do you know how to write the kind of action that will add suspense to the story, rev your readers’ heart rate, and leave them dying to know what happens next?
Creating an action scene that works on screen is difficult. Creating an action scene that works on the page might be an even steeper challenge!
Luckily, there are writing strategies to help you write an action scene with skill.
Poorly Portrayed Action Loses Readers
Moving your story into an action sequence can be a risky business. It requires special attention, and if you don't give it what it needs, you invite your reader to leave the book.
I’ll be honest—if I’m at the cinema and I have to go to the bathroom, I always wait for the action scenes to make my move. Too often, these scenes are long on tropes we’ve all seen before and short on story, depending on special effects to carry them through.
I don’t feel like I missed much when I come back.
In my writing career, I've come to realize there needs to be something more at the core of the action to keep readers emotionally involved.
Knowing the obstacles you're up against—and practical techniques that can help you overcome these—is key to writing effective action scenes.
3 Obstacles That Make Action Scenes Hard to Write
Let’s take a look at some of the challenges you’ll face when writing action scenes.
1. It’s all on you
On the movie set, there’s a whole crew of talented folks working together—director, actors, set designer, Foley artist (creates sound effects), film editor, and more.
On the page, all of those jobs fall to you. You are the one who must set the stage, direct their action, provide the sound effects, and so on. While this is always true, it may be most apparent when it comes to action scenes.
2. It’s not about the action
Putting physical conflict on the page is challenging because it’s not really about the actions taking place—it’s about the emotional core of what’s happening. A detailed, blow by blow description can impede the flow of internal conflict and fritter away the tension so carefully built prior to the action.
In addition, violence is tricky because too much graphic detail will cause some readers to put the book down. Tolerance levels vary, even within sub-genres.
3. Form must follow content
Your page is your stage. The physical appearance—the way the page looks—is important in conveying the right feel for an action scene. It comes down to pacing.
When your characters are involved in action, it generally calls for shorter sentences and paragraphs, active voice, limited use of adverbs, and terse dialogue.
Pacing is critical to effective action in your scenes. Get the pacing wrong and it cracks the door wide open for your reader to leave the book and not come back.
Awareness Leads to Permission
As beginning writers, there’s so much about the craft that we haven’t even thought about. Then, as we level up and gain more skills and experience, we start to see vistas open up that we never even dreamt of.
I love what my mentor, Dean Wesley Smith, says about the ever-rising planes of writing prowess that await dedicated writers:
“A major part of learning is just understanding that there are techniques you don't have yet. Awareness is the key. Once you become aware they exist, you give your subconscious permission to use them.”
The first time I really became aware of the special skill set involved in writing action was when I attended a lecture from James Rollins. Since then, I’ve studied a lot about writing effective action and overcoming the obstacles.
It's helped make me a better writer, and I’m pleased to share some of what I’ve learned in this article.
Set the Scene for Successful Action
Before you can write action that will add suspense, you have to build a solid foundation. That foundation should consist of at least two important components:
- Ground the reader solidly in the setting and point of view character.
- Make sure the reader is emotionally invested in the character.
To accomplish this first objective, you must open the scene with the specific types of details that will pull the reader into your viewpoint character’s head, as discussed in Deep POV: 6 Key Details to Use in the Beginning of a Book (and Beyond!).
You accomplish the second objective—making sure the reader is emotionally invested—with skillful character development that readers will care about.
It’s essential that you pull the reader into the viewpoint character’s head. That character is your reader’s interface with the story, the conduit through which all sensory input, emotion, and opinion is delivered.
Only after you’ve built a firm foundation can you create an action scene that fires on all pistons.
Make Action Scenes Emotional
Your reader can only experience what’s happening through your point of view character, so stay focused on your character's motivation and emotional core—what are they thinking and feeling?
Are they filled with dread about the conflict? How do their emotions change throughout the struggle? Remember to touch on the high stakes involved in the battle.
The best fight scenes avoid a lengthy blow-by-blow description and focus more on the direction of the battle scene—who’s gaining the advantage (is it the bad guy?), and where the weaknesses lie.
You may include detailed descriptions about some of the specific movements in the action, but leave out the “shoe leather.” Readers don’t need, or want, to know every minute detail. Including it slows the pace.
A good example of what I’m talking about is from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. In one scene, a glitch in the team’s plan forces the main character, Ethan Hunt, to climb out a window on the 130th floor of a hotel in Dubai and make his way eleven stories up the side of the building. We saw this coming because . . . well, it would happen, wouldn’t it?
He wears special sticky gloves to facilitate the climb and halfway through the maneuver, one of them gives out. This definitely cranks up the suspense, but was not totally unexpected.
Ethan falls at one point. My hands clenched when he did. But still—it had to happen.
What came as a surprise was a sudden sandstorm barreling toward the city, violent and devastating. If it reached the hotel with Ethan still clinging to its side, it would whisk him away in an instant.
Suspense and surprise.
Remember to stay in the viewpoint character, letting the reader experience his changing emotions as the action progresses. This is much more engaging than a catalog of moves.
Build the Conflict
Action that engages the reader is action that arises from conflict.
There are many varieties of conflict to choose from in constructing your story. Exploring the different types of conflict goes beyond the scope of this article, but you can learn more by studying about:
However, you might consider this technique to ramp up the conflict by pouring your characters into a crucible.
Mix Ingredients in the Crucible
A crucible is a container in which substances can be heated to high temperatures, melted, and refined.
Apply this concept to story, and you have a type of conflict in which characters are forced together in a closed environment, making confrontations inevitable and inescapable.
One famous example is Agatha Christie’s classic novel And Then There Were None, where the characters are trapped on an island while someone picks them off one by one. I can think of several more:
- Dead Calm, where the action is confined to a sailboat
- Speed, where the action is confined to a speeding bus in LA traffic
- Rear Window, where the action is confined to an apartment building
- Kiss of The Spider Woman, where the action is confined to a prison cell
- Nocturne in Ashes, where the action is confined by a volcano
Now that you know these foundational components, how can you create action that works?
2 Essential Ingredients for a Suspenseful Foundation
If you’ve laid the foundation for suspense, you’re ready to create the kind of action that adds suspense.
The classic types of action in a thriller, mystery, or suspense novel revolve around chase scenes, brawls, races to the finish line, sword fights, fist fights, shootouts, other types of combat, and violence. These devices work because they heighten the tension in the scene—provided the groundwork for suspense has been laid.
But suspense-spawning action isn’t limited to these devices. The action can be something far more simple—if the scene includes two essential ingredients.
1. The action drives the story
Walking is action. Opening a letter is action. Climbing stairs is action.
In many cases, such actions are “stage business,” the little things that go on all the time in real life, giving your characters something to do so they’re not static during dialogue or scene setting. But there’s no real suspense involved unless these actions matter to the story.
Is the hero walking to the neighbor’s house to confront him about an issue germane to the story? Does the staircase lead to a suspect’s apartment?
Action that adds suspense is more than busy work. It should be wrapped around a crucial event in the story.
2. The outcome is uncertain
To drive suspense, there must be more than one possible outcome to the action and uncertainty about which way it will go. Both reader and viewpoint character should be able to anticipate an array of outcomes and be wondering which will occur—or if something unforeseen will happen.
Will the neighbor welcome a discussion or react violently? Will they disclose key information under questioning?
Large or small, dramatic or ordinary, action that drives suspense will contain these two ingredients.
Interact with the Setting
Action that engages and adds suspense works with the setting almost as if interacting with another character. (P.S. The setting should be established with POV details so that it comes alive and has something to offer during the action.)
Watch any Jackie Chan movie to see what I mean. Chan is brilliant at interacting with the setting during his action scenes. He moves over, under, around, through, and in between objects in the environment, using them to further his purposes. Anything, in his crazy capable hands, can become a weapon or a shield.
Remember the crop duster scene from North by Northwest? Who imagined such peril coming out of nowhere on the flat plane of farmland? Ditches, cornfields, and a lonely stretch of road comprise the setting for one of film’s most suspenseful moments.
Or how about the sword fight scene between the Dread Pirate Roberts and Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride? Another genius example of using setting to advance the action.
Your scene doesn’t have to rely on such elaborate choreography to be a good fight scene, but think about your setting and what options it might offer for your action. Consider the setting in terms of weapons, props, obstacles, solutions.
Use the setting to further the conflict and/or provide the means for resolution.
Setting and worldbuilding can give you an advantage in adding suspense to your story through action.
Alternative Options for Portraying Violence
Writing violence can be a risky thing.
Always keep the level of gore and graphic detail in line with your reader’s expectations when writing fight scenes or other action. Remember, it’s less about what’s happening and more about your character's reaction—how they feel about it. Focus on the emotional core of the scene.
When you need to portray some heavy violence but don’t want to focus on play by play graphic detail, here are a few techniques you can incorporate into your writing style to minimize the risks.
1. Create an imagination gap
In this method, you set the scene of impending violence with vivid details, making it real to the reader, then, just before the axe falls, cut the scene. Pick it up after a shift in time or character.
You might go to a different point of view character who sees only the aftermath. Or keep it in the same POV but make it clear the violence is over and we’re now dealing with the ugly results.
Here’s an example:
Donna shivered. Frost crept around the edges of the windshield, feathering and growing there, outside the sweep of the wipers’ reach. Looking at it made her feel tired, as if those icy tendrils were wrapping around her brain, numbing her into a long winter’s nap.
She bit her lip and focused instead on the gray ribbon of road, framed by an overhang of frozen oak and pine boughs, shaggy with snow. The air inside the old Plymouth smelled hot, drawing its breath from the toiling engine under the hood. Donna kept the radio low, needing the noise but not able to tolerate the full booming volume of sleigh bells and cheer. There would be more than enough of that to deal with when she arrived at Gran’s house, with the whole family gathered to hear her news.
She wished she had something better to tell them. In the next instant, a figure appeared in the middle of the roadway and Donna gripped the wheel, swerving to miss it. The car leapt and spun in a sickening arc, the seat belt clawing at her chest as her head met the frosty windshield with a resounding crack. With a shriek of tortured metal, the old Plymouth dipped, bounced, and took flight like an unwieldy bird.
Donna’s world went black.
Tire tracks in the snow told the story as the first policeman arrived on the scene. Patrolman Bob Custer studied the twin treadmarks, seeing how they passed the broken guardrail and disappeared into a frozen pond that hadn’t been frozen enough to support the weight of a force-thrown Plymouth. A single fin of the car’s rear fender broke the surface of the ice-scummed water, a cold metal grave marker for some pour soul.
In this way, you leave a gap for the reader’s imagination to fill with as much or as little graphic detail as they choose, while maintaining the flow of the narrative.
2. Use a fuzzy background
To understand what I mean, picture a violent movie scene where the victim focuses on something outside the attack—a vase of flowers, a stain on the wall, children playing across the street. The rest of the scene is out of focus, giving us just the impression of blows and pain. The victim has emotionally withdrawn, muted the stark reality, unable to face it head on, giving us an oblique view, as well.
In the dim light, I caught movement from the corner of my eye. I pulled back, but he was on me, shoving me to the rough concrete, his knee grinding against my spine.
A single dandelion, pushing up through a crack in the sidewalk, shone gilded in the glow of a distant street lamp, eye level as I sprawled beside it. I couldn’t move, couldn’t even raise my head. Gaze fixed on the dandelion, everything else fading to black, I counted the furred leaves peeling away from the crooked stem. Four leaves.
Rendered powerless, the POV character focuses on the four leaves of the dandelion while violence is perpetrated upon them. We feel their inability to deal with it now and know they'll have to face the pain and repercussions of it later.
3. Hide behind the mundane
Violence often comes out of the blue, so shocking that the POV character can’t at first accept what’s happening. Under such circumstances, the mind scrambles to shield, protect, and preserve life as usual. A character under attack may worry if he remembered to pick up the dry cleaning, pay that parking ticket, or pack his lunch.
This is a variation on the method above, except in the fuzzy background, the focus stays fixedly on a single image outside the realm of violence. Here, there’s a stream of consciousness catalog of the myriad details of an ordinary life—one which the victim clings to even as the violence obliterates it.
Try this as an example:
Here on the downs, the chill wind swept in with a rush, billowing the yellow grasses, raising tears in her eyes. Rebecca dabbed her nose with a wadded tissue from her pocket and kept up her brisk pace, determined to cover the distance and get back to her desk before her lunch break ended.
A noise like a buzzing wasp sounded in her ear and she fell, skinning her knee on a moss-covered rock. Shaken, she pulled herself to her feet, swallowing against the rise of bile in her throat. What a shame—she’d torn the hem of her skirt and picked up a dark stain. Would that come out with a regular detergent or require special treatment?
She had a box of borax on top of the washer but hadn’t had a chance to use it yet. Was it really good at whitening a load of linens? Doris claimed it was. It hadn’t cost much, just $1.25 from Rite Aid. She vowed to give it a try next time she washed sheets.
We, the readers, suspect there’s more to the “wasp” and tumble than appears on the surface. But we understand that Rebecca is in denial, focusing on mundane details as her subconscious shields her from a reality she can’t quite grasp.
As a bonus, this raises more questions and suspense for the reader. What did happen?
Has she been shot? Stabbed? Stung? We must read on to find out.
Never Pull a Reader Out of the Story
Your goal is to pull the reader deep beneath the story's surface so they won’t want to put your book down.
When it comes to action, watch out for areas that will take the reader out of the story. Ensure this by:
If the action must depend on a certain type of weapon or martial arts move, make sure you impart the correct information. If your reader knows enough to recognize an error, it will send them to the surface with a case of the bends.
Either avoid using such details or make sure you get them right.
Keep action inside the character
If your character suddenly does a triple flip and vaults through a window mid-conflict, make sure you’ve set it up in advance that he’s got mad skills like that. Otherwise, your reader will throw the flag and pop right out of your story.
Avoid distracting language
You want your reader to forget they’re reading and simply be immersed in the story. Everything you do should go toward that goal, and not toward highlighting your awesome vocabulary or pretty turn of phrase.
Remove excessive exposition
The thrall of action is not the place to set up payoffs or expound backstory. Make sure things are in place before the action starts.
You’ve worked hard to capture your reader and pull them deep into your story. Don’t let a careless slipup reverse your careful preparations.
Build Your Writing Toolbox for Good Stories
Writing action scenes is critical to establishing strong elements of suspense. Knowing the obstacles you face when writing action scenes—and techniques to overcome them—will help you write a suspenseful story that is more than one great fight scene. It will help you write a story that builds suspense with action.
If you liked this post and want to learn more about including suspense in story structure, check out these additional topics:
- Pull the reader deep into the POV
- Make readers care about your hero
- Raise the stakes
- Provide timely information
- Create cliffhangers
- Pace your story
In my next article, I'll focus on learning how to use foreshadowing and plant clues to boost your stories to a new level of suspense.
See you soon!
What elements of action scenes keep you hooked (or make you skip ahead to something more interesting)? Tell us about it in the comments.
Use one or more of the techniques in this post to write an action scene for your novel or short story. Choose from one of these prompts:
- Jamie’s work crew gets in an argument on a construction site
- Garrett gets involved in a car chase on a mountainous road
- Jenny runs to escape her captor on a moonlit hillside
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.