Six impossible things

Lights, camera…what?

Action scenes are the bread-and-butter of whole genres of fiction. As such, they’re pretty important, and I was rather stunned to realize that I’ve said very little about writing them. I was even more stunned when I went to the bookcase that’s full of how-to-write books – five shelves of them – and couldn’t find even one that really talked about writing action scenes. (A couple of them pretended to, but what they were actually talking about usually turned out to be plot, or else conflict or suspense or drama within an action scene.)

I think part of the reason for this is that action scenes don’t get much respect. They aren’t very intellectual; they’re lowest-common-denominator. Everybody knows what an action scene is, and everybody can spot a bad one at twenty paces. So they should be easy, right?

Yeah, right.

Another part of the problem is, I think, that as usual, “action” can mean more than one thing. There’s “the action of the story,” which usually means the events that make up the plot, even if those events are all conversations and social encounters, and there’s “the story has no action,” which usually means that the plot does not involve car chases, gun battles, or other physically demanding activities.

For purposes of this discussion, which is going to cover several posts, I am going to define action scenes as scenes of physical action:  people attacking each other with fists or weapons, chase scenes, avalanches or trains barreling down toward people, escapes, and so on. Suspense alone is not enough; a ticking time bomb is not enough. A formal tea party can be suspense-filled and full of all sorts of emotional time bombs, but it’s not an action scene until the ninjas break in through the window to hold everyone hostage.

By that definition, the first key thing to remember about writing an action scene is that there is movement. People are doing something – running, fighting, sneaking, throwing, searching, blowing things up, whatever. Something physical (besides talking) is going on. In addition, whatever is happening often doesn’t take much elapsed time (a fight scene is more likely to cover a minute or two than an hour). Action scenes generally move fast; more to the point, they read fast. If the action starts to drag or the scene feels like it’s going on forever, something is wrong.

Note that this does not mean an action scene has to be short. As long as the tension and the pace remain high, an action scene can take pages or even chapters to cover a few minutes or an hour.

Action scenes are actually a subset of description, but instead of describing a static setting or backstory, the writer is describing movement…which means paying a lot of attention to verbs. Anyone who remembers Schoolhouse Rock should be unsurprised to hear this.   🙂

This leads me to one of the first big mistakes some people make with action scenes: dropping in some “action” to fill time or “liven up” a boring stretch of story. Action, like static description, needs a reason to be in the story. Readers will usually cut you some slack in this regard – they don’t expect to find out why the ninjas are attacking the tea party right away. But random encounters seldom work well in fiction, so readers do expect there to be a reason for the ninja attack, they expect it to have something to do with the story, and they expect it to be explained eventually.

To put it another way, whatever action sequence the characters are engaged in needs two goals. The first one is the goal the writer has for the scene. It may be that the structure or pacing of the story requires some action at this point; it may be the way to reveal some plot-critical information, or set up for a later revelation or plot twist; it may be a way to expose some aspect of the particular characters. Unless this goal is related to pacing or structure, it may not actually require an action scene to achieve, so the writer needs to at least consider the possibility that the most effective way of achieving his/her goal may be some other sort of scene entirely.

The second, and possibly more important, goal for an action scene is the one the characters have. In fiction, characters usually act to achieve something, and it’s usually plot-related in some way. The ninjas attack the tea party in order to kidnap the heroine; the bandits attack the caravan because they want the jade idol in the second wagon; the wolves attack the farm because they are starving, and they’re starving because the recently-arrived dragon has eaten all their usual prey. If none of the characters have a reason for doing whatever they’re doing, the scene probably doesn’t belong in this story.

And that’s it for today; I still have a thousand words to write tonight, and it’s already nearly 7:30 pm. More on action in a day or two.

  1. An online workshop I took described action scenes as a chocolate and vanilla marble. In vanilla scenes, nothing much happens no matter how interesting it is. Chocolate scenes are melodramatic with too much going on. Get the right marbled mix of the two and you have a great action scene.

    Being a rather calm person, when I write action scenes, I usually start with a vanilla scene, go too far in the edit and write a chocolate one then try again and get it right. Works well for me…

    • Alex – I love the analogy! And as always, the first draft doesn’t have to be great, or even good…as long as the last draft is wonderful.

  2. I also find action scenes a bit of a challenge. In Alex’s terms, it’s not so much the proportion between clear vision and lively fury, but the pattern of the marbling one can achieve with the proportions available. (I like this imagery too.)

    In my own terms, a good scene is conveyed both in the matter and the manner of the telling. In an action scene, the tension between the two is drawn to its limit. On the one hand, the density of incident and sensation is very high indeed – lots to get in. On the other, the flow is very swift and the scope for reflection (or even perception) very restricted – not a lot of room in which to get stuff. Since something has to be sacrificed to these conflicting demands, it seems to me that the art lies chiefly in recognizing what.

    On one extreme lurks the fog of war, which seeks to convey the experience and chaotic rhythm of the total action; on the other, something I can only call the ballet of combat, in which every detail stands out starkly. Elizabeth Moon’s mass-combat scenes in The Deed of Paksennarion work well for me on the former; Roger Zelazny has some beautiful examples of the latter in Nine Princes in Amber.

    My own fault tends towards excessive detail, and unlike Zelazny I’m not a martial-arts polymath who can sustain such by sheer expertise and virtuosity; therefore I usually find that trimming on the redraft, towards a viewpoint character’s experience, is the best way for me to go. So far…

  3. Action scenes really are good for pacing. Particularly at the end, when the goal is so close, but it would be terribly anti-climactic to just have the hero go pick it up, a good battle is almost a metaphor for all the previous struggles they’ve gone through. A good fight scene is also a perfect place for a revelation, a realization, or a betrayal.

    But with the description of it, there are so many difficult parts. The explanation of the art of war that most readers don’t know fully, and still making it real, like it is happening to them is a challenge. CS Forester is pretty incredible at this. With the change in the wind you realize that suddenly all their plans have been dashed, just by the balance of explanation and immediacy.

    I like tight viewpoint scenes, and one-on-one combat, especially because it gives me the opportunity to use what i have gleaned from fencing, the way half of the game is reading your opponent’s mind, where losing is sudden blossoming pain when you didn’t even see the attack. And pitched battle, like a rugby game, where your main thought process is, “oh no, not *again!*” But if you get too close to how it feels, you forget how it looks, which is important as well.

    Inside, outside, explanation, immediacy, and then of course, making sure you need the scene in the first place… how do these things ever get written?

    Also, not overusing “suddenly.” I could start every paragraph with “suddenly.” This is the hardest part.

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