How to Write an Action Scene

Action scenes are devilishly difficult things to write. I struggled with the beginning of my novel for months because of it – writing and rewriting action sequences until they worked. My hard work and perseverance seems to have paid off though, so much in fact that I was recently asked to read one of my action scenes at a local writer’s event, and asked to give a presentation on the topic to my writing group.

Since action scenes are an integral part of fiction – regardless which genre you like to write, or read – I thought I’d pass along what I’ve learned.

Once a scene, always a scene: First and foremost, an action scene is at its core, the same as any other scene in a book. By that I mean, it’s got to have a purpose – either propel the plot forward, reveal something about a character, etc.  Gratuitous action scenes drive me bonkers but beyond being a pet peeve of mine, from a storytelling perspective they’re missed opportunities and signs of sloppy writing. If there’s no reason for the conflict, or no consequences for the loser, the reader won’t be engaged. And if the reader doesn’t care, he’ll put the book down and not pick it back up.

Pacing: Not all action scenes need to fly by at break neck speeds. Whereas other scenes are blocked (as a director might block a stage play), action scenes are choreographed. There’s a fluid movement to it all, a natural ebb and flow.  There should be quicker moments when the characters face off, then slower times when they catch their breath, set up for a new attack etc. Think of a rollercoaster ride:  the climb up is slower but no less thrilling than the descent.  These slower periods allow the reader to take in what’s happening and they provide the writer with a golden opportunity to build tension and suspense.

Intensity:  While the pace of the scene might change, the intensity has to be consistently high, otherwise what’s the point?  Action scenes are by their nature intense – that’s why readers love them!  Tension between characters should be building throughout a story to the point where the reader can’t wait for the explosion between them. Action scenes that lack intensity are flat and boring.

Mimic the Action: To change the pacing of a scene, play with the length of the words and sentences. Faster action uses shorter words and sentences, or better yet, sentence fragments. (Never mind what you learned in elementary school about grammar – when it comes to action scenes, sentence fragments are just fine.)

Use Active Verbs: Adverbs are to be avoided anyway, but in an action scene they’re death. Active verbs make a passage more exciting and help describe the action in fewer words.

Use Similes: Lengthy descriptions clog up action scenes by taking the reader’s attention away from the action. If, for example, a writer needs to describe the mythical monster attacking the protagonist, she can either describe the creature prior to the scene (enabling the reader to “come prepared” to the scene), or she can describe the monster using a simile (he was as big as a bear).  Comparing an unknown creature/action to a known creature/action evokes an instant image/response from the reader without using a lot of words.

Become an Impressionist Writer:  A common trap writers fall into with action scenes is trying to describe every movement in minute detail. Giving too much detail bogs a reader down. Instead, try to write like an impressionist painter paints. Monet doesn’t have to give every detail of a woman’s face for the viewer to recognize the figure as a woman.  He provides the broad strokes – like the curve of her cheek, or the sweep of her hair. He doesn’t paint her eyelashes. When writing action scenes, pick the poignant parts of the conflict and describe them. The reader will fill all the little details in for himself.

Dialogue: Please, spare the reader the comic book banter and lengthy villain’s monologue. Dialogue is hard to write, period. It’s one of those skills that separates the wheat from the chaff in this business. Remember all the rules for writing dialogue, like for example, showing, not telling, the reader how a character feels. When it comes to action scenes, pithy dialogue is key.

As a writer, what are your favourite tips for crafting action scenes?  As a reader, what are some of the best action scenes you’ve come across in the novels you’ve read? Please pass them along in the comments section below. I’d love to hear them!

About the author 

Valerie Francis

Valerie Francis is a bestselling author, literary editor, and podcaster with a passion for stories by, for and about women.

Each month, Valerie recommends books from literature’s best female authors. Selections come from every genre because women write, and read, in every genre. The Women’s Fiction category offers up some terrific novels, but these days there’s a strong female presence in thriller, horror, crime, and other genres traditionally dominated by male writers. No matter what the publishing companies may think, in the 21st Century, Women’s Fiction is whatever we want it to be.

stories for women, by women, and about women