Writing a Thrilling Scene, Take 1, and Action!

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

Thank you.


More than just a Bad Guy

Antagonists, and Antagonistic Forces

What is an antagonist? In grade school it was simple enough. The protagonist was the good guy, and therefore, by default, the antagonist was the bad guy. Good vs. Evil. Good triumphs over evil. End of story—right? Boring. So, to create a greater range of drama storytellers went and muddled up the idea of what an antagonist to broaden the range of conflict in narrative.

“Know your enemy,” is a saying derived from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. The proverb extends beyond a statement as simple as, “know your enemy,” but for the sake of discussion I will concentrate on this aspect of the expression. Know your enemy and know your antagonist. How do you expect to win over the heart of your readers if you don’t establish a strong enough conflict? If you want your reader to care about the protagonist overcoming adversity and resolving the conflict, than show a character, an anti-hero, who cares as much as the protagonist, if not more so, to achieve a goal in stark contrast to that of the hero.

A+B=C, Protagonist+Antagonist=Conflict.

During this discussion we will define what an antagonist or an antagonistic force is and deconstruct the motivations of the opposition. We will be able to approach the root of the conflict in each category. We will learn how to not only overcome adversity, but how to sustain a reader’s attention beyond the common story setup and repeated narrative themes.

The 5 ultimate conflict types

To reflect modern gender neutral terminology, the traditional man vs. man descriptions and the like have been replaced.


Person vs. Person

This is the most common conflict. Cowboys vs. Indians, Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader, Lt. Ellen Ripley vs. the zenomorph (notice how I didn’t use a Disney princess and instead chose the most bad-ass female protagonist in all of Sci-fi action movies Alien—at least in my opinion)

Person vs. Self

This type of conflict is an internal one. Joseph Campbell has written many works about the role of heroes in myths and religions by comparing stories from around the world. Joseph Campbell concluded that one of the hero’s first steps to finding herself or himself and becoming the hero is to face, and overcome an existential crisis before gathering the strength to defeat the larger external conflict of the main protagonist. But, many stories do deal with the core theme of person vs. self. As an example, in my own book, The Prick of Time, John, the central character is wrestling with his own demons of addiction, morality, ego and mortality.

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Person vs. Nature

This is a story of survival, whether it be a blizzard in the woods, a volcano in Pompeii or, just plain weather. Apocalyptic tales about earthquakes and climate change have become a staple of summer movie blockbusters in the last forty years. No doubt the trend will continue as long as CGI, 3-D and surround sound supplement the story. Audiences continue watching millions of desperate computer generated humans being destroyed with a sick sense of pseudo-sadism to escape the mundane.

Person vs. God

Sometimes the hero will be encountering fate or even God himself. These stories aren’t so much about defeating the antagonistic—I mean, how could they—but more about coming to terms with certain unalienable truths and surrendering to the idea.

Person vs. Society

These stories are about a conflict with the status quo. It’s not any one antagonist causing trouble, it’s just how things are done. Stories like these typically take place in an urban environment. Whether the society is dystopian or utopian, the common elements are a societal structure that is oppressive or perceived to be by the protagonist. Everyone stands in the way of the protagonist, but not everyone is at fault.

There are several subdivisions of the five conflict archetypes that fall into several categories like person vs. animal, person vs. technology, and person vs. supernatural.

Of the five major conflict types we are going to delve into the more common of the types: person vs. person. This is a good starting point because these enemies are human and easier to define than say a snow storm or the grandeur of God. Also, by dissecting the themes of person vs. person, you can relate some points of contention to the other main conflict types. You can find parallel themes by anthropomorphizing the conflicts of mere mortals using metaphors and similes.

First I’ll start by saying that we are all judgmental. We are human; it’s what we do. Recognize that you—as a writer—are blinded by your own judgements, and tend to discriminate because of your previous conceptions of persons, places, things and ideas. If you envision your antagonist as a bad guy, then you’ve already put the character in a box that they can never escape. You will write that character insincerely from a place of your own judgement.

These are some tips that I use on occasion to help me when writing an antagonistic character. So what makes a strong antagonist?

  • A strong antagonist is motivated to act. They are trying to accomplish something. Whether it be an evil plan or upholding the status quo, a strong antagonist wants to gain something, has a goal to achieve, and has a plan meet their needs.
  • A strong antagonist has a strong personal desire. Greed, personal demons or an affinity to violence or maintaining power, they posses a plan to meet their goals.
  • A strong antagonist is compelling. They have a soul. They are flawed and have something to hide. They are avoiding something. By making an antagonist likable you make them relatable. An antagonist you love to hate because you can relate is the best antagonist. We as humans tend to dislike viewing our own flaws mirrored by another.
  • A strong antagonist is adaptable. A strong antagonist is cunning and learns from the protagonists actions. As the antagonist continues to create conflict by always being one step ahead, the protagonist will be forced to overcome their own certain limitations and grow beyond them.
  • A strong antagonist is in the path of the protagonist’s goal. Without the dynamic of two characters with personal goals is direct opposition to each other, than you have a weak conflict, an insufficient plot, and a reader lost after forty pages.
  • A strong antagonist is not over excessively capable. If your character is indestructible or impossibly intelligent it overshadows the protagonist and eliminates hope.
  • A strong antagonist is not dumb or incapable. An easily defeated antagonist is boring. There has to be thought before action; action before reaction; conflict before antagonism.
  • A strong antagonist thinks like a protagonist. The best antagonist doesn’t know they are the bad guy. In fact they imagine they are a good guy, but like the old adage goes: the road to hell is paved in good intentions. I don’t agree with a man like Hitler in any way, but I sometimes wonder how well he slept at night. Hitler probably assumed he was doing a good thing. Hitler saw himself as a world changer. He considered himself a power for good to rid society of “disease.” Yes, Hitler was bad, but he didn’t think so.

Hitler 2

  • A strong antagonist is not evil for evil sake. A strong antagonist doesn’t wake up one morning and say, “hey, I feel like doing some damage today.” A simply evil character is boring and one dimensional. The world is complex. What is good and bad is almost never clear. Even the greatest good is bad on some level and vice versa. Your antagonist should be forced to make emotional decisions and be defined by their choices.

Vader kitten


Understand what type of conflict you are writing: person vs. person, person vs. self, person vs. nature, person vs. God, or person vs. society. Once you figure out the points of contention then you gain a foundation on which to build a strong antagonist.

If an antagonist reminds the reader of someone they know or of themselves and a situation they were in, you have a strong protagonist. If the reader is trying to guess the next move of the antagonist because the antagonist is clever and capable of a well played rouse, you have a strong antagonist. If you have an antagonist whose goals are so grandiose that the protagonist views the journey as an insurmountable task, you are on your way to a compelling antagonist.

What makes your antagonist gripping and jump off the page? What makes your antagonistic force give your reader a lump in their throat? What makes your antagonist just like you?

If you liked this article I suggest you check out Fiction University at JaniceHardy.com. The blog contains many articles on the craft of writing, the toils of publishing, and the lifestyle of an author.


Enemy Mine, by Janice Hardy

Traits of Strong Antagonists by Janice Hardy

There is no Bad Guy: What to do when your Antagonist isn’t a Villain by Janice Hardy

The Faceless Villain: What to do when your Bad Guy isn’t a Person by Janice Hardy

I’m not Evil: Writing from the Antagonist’s Point of View by Janice Hardy

Another good article to check out for the Authors Nook

7 Ways To Create an Antagonist Readers Hate To Love by BD Schmitt