Almost any genre you might write in will include some kind of action scene, so it makes sense to learn how to write action scenes well. Action does not always mean a car chase or a shootout, though these are time-honored examples. An action scene can simply be a place in the story where the pacing increases and the movement is external, rather than internal.
I watched a lecture given by the best-selling thriller writer James Rollins in which he shared some of the tips and tools of the trade. He said right up front, “I’m a hack. These tips may seem cheap and corny, but they work.” Most of the advice he gave did not strike me as cheap or corny, but really quite useful, so I’m passing on what I learned from James Rollins to you.
Before the action
Rollins asked the audience what they thought the difference was between fiction and non-fiction. A couple of answers bounced through the crowd, but Rollins boiled it down to a difference in purpose.
Nonfiction is meant to deliver facts, while fiction is designed to deliver emotion. He emphasized that it’s important to understand the emotional core of what you want to express before the action occurs on the page.
Conflict arises out of character. The best way to experience the conflict and the emotional arc of the character is by getting deep into the point of view character and staying there. So it’s helpful to have an idea about the size of the conflict and how your character will react on an emotional level.
Do your homework
Sometimes you need to do research. If weapons are involved, or a foreign language, or any kind of specialty knowledge you’re not familiar with, you need to do the homework beforehand and get it right. Often, while doing research, you’ll uncover fascinating details that spark ideas you never thought of. This can enrich the story, or open up a whole new avenue.
Research can be a dangerous activity, however. You have to be careful not to get lost in the weeds, sucked down a wormhole, or think that you have to impart all your newfound knowledge to your reader. Stick with what’s pertinent to the story and resist peppering in a bunch of details, however entrancing they might be.
And here’s a research cheat from James Rollins: pick up the phone and make a call. You can save yourself some time and effort, make a new friend, generate interest, and get the answers you need by calling an expert. People tend to be flattered when asked for their expertise and playing the “author card” can open a lot of doors. Rollins says not to be afraid to use it.
Watch out for “So what?”
Your reader has to care what happens to your character before the action starts or the action doesn’t work. Rollins revealed seven secrets to creating a sympathetic character your readers will care about.
- Demonstrate they are very good at what they do. He gives House as an example—kind of an arrogant jerk, but viewers care about him because he’s exceptionally good at his job.
- Make them funny or humorous. Someone who can make us laugh earns our respect to some degree. They become a sympathetic character.
- Show that they treat others well.
- And they’ll earn extra points for compassionate treatment of children, the elderly, or pets.
- Make them the recipient of undeserved misfortune. This is a powerful technique, and may I add my own little twist to this—make them misunderstood. If not plagued by unwarranted tribulation, let them be misjudged. What a great way to get the reader in their corner.
- Give them a physical, mental, or educational handicap or make them a massive underdog.
- Have another character express liking for them and show them returning, to some degree, that affection.
Don’t overload your character with all of these, but pick a judicious few and engage that reader sympathy before the action. That way, the reader will be invested in the outcome.
During the action
Once the action begins, don’t get bogged down in the details. Stay with the emotion, and don’t interrupt the action with explanations. You can get to those after, if any are necessary.
Be cautious about the level of gore you use in the scene. You want to be consistent with the expectations you’ve set for the reader. If everything that came before was sweetness and light, you can’t spill someone’s guts out on the floor without serious reader repercussions. Don’t go for gratuitous.
Make sure to use both surprise and suspense in the scene and know the difference between them. Surprise is a powerful story tool, and great for focusing reader attention. But lean toward suspense for that lovely slow burn that keeps readers riveted and turning pages.
Setting as a character
Don’t forget setting. While you don’t want to spend lavish attention on details during an action scene, strong setting is critical. Use the five senses, filtered through your viewpoint character, to ground the reader and make the setting vibrant so that action leaps off the page.
In many action scenes, the setting functions almost as another character, providing conflict and possibilities for resolution. A rugged mountain setting supplies cliffs, bears, avalanches. A kitchen is stocked with knives, frying pans, a sink full of soapy water. Use the setting to further the conflict and/or provide the means for resolution.
Let’s talk about white space
Pacing in writing is an important skill. If your reader is flipping pages at a fantastic rate because there are fewer words on each page, it increases the tension and creates pleasurable anticipation.
White space is your friend during action scenes. Use terse sentences and short paragraphs. Increase the tempo, make it punchy. Keep your reader breathlessly turning pages.
It’s a good idea to vary the pace, too. Scene after scene at breakneck speed becomes tedious, and a predictable pattern of slow/fast/slow/fast is just as bad. Change it up, pay attention to rhythm, and be sure to build both the physical and the emotional arcs.
Thank you, James Rollins
I appreciate the opportunity I had to learn more about writing an action scene from a master of the form. If you’d like to watch a video of the lecture, it’s available for purchase from Writer’s Digest.
Whatever genre you write in, chances are you’ll need to include some action scenes. It’s nice to have tools in your toolbox to get the job done.
How about you? What strategies do you use when writing action scenes? Let us know what you think in the comments section.
For today's practice, let's write an action scene.
First, create your character. Choose a couple of the strategies above to create a character readers will sympathize with. Write a two-sentence character sketch.
Then engage your character in an action scene. Using your own idea, or one of the following prompts, write the scene and don’t forget to draw upon the ideas in the article.
- Sam confronts a gang of cattle rustlers who show up to steal the herd.
- Tracy speaks to her boss after finding out the promotion she’s been working for just went to another employee.
- Pete lies to his mother about breaking her favorite vase.
- Karen’s car stalls as she’s crossing the railroad tracks and she hears the train in the distance.
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.