The process server from the fly by night notary service beat me up. His name was Mike. We fought for a couple of minutes, throwing punches, hitting and kicking each other repeatedly when out of nowhere a Blue Chevy Truck with a chrome bumper and painted flames came barreling through the red brick wall. My friend from high school Bobby came out of the car and said to me: Hey, stop fighting you two and come help me move my pickup before the police come and we are all arrested for trespassing. At the same time Mike the process server punched me twenty six times in the face and I choked him until he was unconscious, just after he cried “Uncle”
Was that a good action scene, or was it as painful to read as the fight itself?” What went wrong? Why was it so bad?
A story needs conflict. What better way to demonstrate conflict than with an action scene. But what is an action scene? If you don’t know then I’ll guide you.
In this article we will reduce an action scene down to its core: its primordial state. We will then use time tested techniques to script a compelling action scene that will make your conflict exciting, dangerous and suspenseful.
Fight or Flight
A few weeks ago we learned about what makes a good antagonist. We learned in that workshop that to know your protagonist you must know what kind of conflict you are dealing with.
- Person vs. Person
- Person vs. Self
- Person vs. God
- Person vs. Nature
- Person vs. Society
What does every one of these conflicts have in common? Duality. Every conflict encompasses duality. Every character will struggle with the push and pull of conflict, the to and fro, the action and reaction, the cause and effect.
The fight or flight response is a stress trigger in all animals that occurs when there is a harmful event that is a threat to survival. Basically, when an animal is threatened it instantly makes a decision to act based on two choices. It can either fight for its life, or it can run for its life. This is the primordial basis for all action in storytelling.
The Fight Scene
A fight scene can be between two toddlers squabbling over a toy or it can be an epic battle between seven armies. Every character in a fight scene has something to lose and something to gain. Every fight scene should establish the risk and what is on the line for combatants. What is in jeopardy of being lost and what will be gained at the end of the fight.
The Chase Scene
On the flip side of the coin is the chase scene, or the direct answer to the flight response. Whether it be a sheriff on horseback chasing a bank robber, or the hero spy that is trying to escape with the secret plans to bring back to headquarters and save the world. Just as in the fight scene, something needs to be on the line in a chase scene as well. There has to be a risk involved and both parities need to be in jeopardy of losing something if the other character succeeds.
6 Tips to Create a Compelling Action Scene
Ready, Set, Go!
1) Show don’t Tell
This is important to remember anytime your writing, but especially in action sequences. Use the 5 senses to give information: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.
2) For Every Action, Show a Reaction
Cause and effect in a microscopic form. One punch=broken rib, flat tire=slow chase. Reveal your POV character’s emotions, brief thoughts, and physical reactions, starting with their visceral responses.
3) Make Sure the Stakes Justify the Action
Make sure your action scene furthers the story and is not just stuck in for a little excitement. It shouldn’t stop your plot from developing. Something must be at stake. Put something on the line. How will the character change for ever after this one catalyzing action scene? Give the character a deadline where there are real consequences if they fail. We call this the ticking time bomb technique.
4) Speed up the Pace
Make it happen in real-time. Use short sentences and paragraphs, for a tense, breathless, staccato effect. Write tight. Cut out any little unneeded words that clutter up sentences and slow down the pace. Avoid info dumps. Keep the readers right there in the scene with the characters. Don’t intrude as the author to clarify anything. If details need explaining, fit that in somehow before the tense scene starts.
5) Keep the Dialog to a Minimum
People don’t have long conversations in the middle of a fight or a chase. You can even avoid using dialog tags in some situations to keep the pace flowing.
6) Avoid using Adverbs and Adjectives whenever possible
Use dynamic action verbs instead. What sounds better? Tom ran swiftly and went right, then left, then right again, then left avoiding the rocks littering the dirt road. Or, Tom sprinted and juked to avoid the rocks in the road.
Using these tips I rewrote the action scene from the beginning of the article.
He punched me in the gut. I returned with a kick to the groin. If I don’t get rid of this guy pronto, I am going to miss my ride. I head butt the man causing him to lose his footing and stumble back.
“Sign the papers!” the man said as blood gushed from his nose.
“Leave me alone, asshole,” I wiped the sweat from my brow. “I don’t even know you.”
“The name’s Mike.” He tagged me with a stinger that shut me up for a moment. “I am the process server your wife hired.”
I recovered and jumped to deliver a roundhouse kick to his abdomen. Mike stopped trying to talk and gathered his breath again.
An engine roared from outside getting closer by the second. Bricks smashed and crumbled as a truck drove through the wall. We continued to spar. Nothing would stop me from fighting for the right to see my daughter.
Bobby jumped out of the driver side of the truck and spotted us.”Hey, finish your business and lets go.” Bobby called out. “The police are coming.”
Mike swept my legs out from under me. I grappled his legs and brought him down to my level. He rabbit punched me repeatedly. I saw stars. I kicked Mike hard in the left knee and grabbed his neck. He whispered something unintelligible as hepassed out. I think he said, “Uncle.”
How was that for an action scene? Was it compelling? Were there risks? Was there something on the line?
Writing action scenes is essential to a good story. According to Joseph Campbell and his breakdown of mythologies in the Hero’s Journey, the protagonist’s inner journey will have a fight and/or flight episode after the call to adventure. The hero will fight with self doubt and often take flight from responsibility before overcoming inner demons and accepting the call to begin the outward journey.
Remember to put something on the line. Show don’t tell what is at stake and justify the means. Set the pace with quick dialog. Keep the pace fast with short sentences that avoid using adverbs and adjectives. Avoid the info dump along with any unnecessary words and details.
How do you write actions scenes? Do you have any tips that can be included on the list?
Ready, set, go—write an action scene right now!
If you enjoyed this article I recommend you check out these websites. You can find useful information here, some of which I took inspiration from.
Writing Tense Action Scenes by Joe Moore
12 Tips for Writing Action Scenes by Kathey Temean
How to Write a Fight Scene by Randy Ingerman