Terrible Writing Advice – Chapter 26: Action Scenes

BOOM! Pew pew pew! Bang bang! Kaboom! Zap! Pow! But what about the plot and charact–BLAM! Pew pew! Boom! KABLA– oh the budget ran out.

My Honest Thoughts on Action Scenes

There is a significant percentage of readers who will, without fail, completely skip any and all action scenes when reading a book. I can’t really blame them. Most novel authors tend to neglect action scenes because action scenes are difficult to portray effectively in written form. Movies and games have a huge advantage here since they can just show the audience the action. However, movies in particular have a bad habit of using action as a crutch and thus often rob action of one of its most essential elements: context.

When I mean context, I don’t just mean the plot reason characters are chasing each other or beating each other up, but the emotional context of the characters. The action scenes shouldn’t be about characters fighting each other over control of a macguffin, but rather why they care enough to fight over the macguffin at all. Fighting to save the world is a good enough goal for the run of the mill superhero or a standard episode of Power Rangers (since the heroes live there and all), but action scenes can be far more engaging if the heroes have a personal stake in the conflict.

Let’s use an example. The final action scene works in the first Avengers film because all of the avengers have a personal grudge against Loki. Loki’s plan is to show the avengers why they won’t work together while the heroes band together to prove that he is wrong. Contrast that with the second avengers film where the final action scene has just as many flashy special effects, but doesn’t have the emotional impact of the first. The stakes are the same; to save the world. Yet the first film has a far better emotional context (and is also a bit less confusing). Compare the second avengers final battle with the final battle in Captain America: Civil War. The final confrontation resonates far more because, again, the emotional context and personal stakes are more clearly defined for all characters in the conflict. This gives the conflict more weight.

This lack of emotional context is why so many action scenes simply fall flat in fiction. Consider that no one adds dialog scenes into a story to keep the audience engaged. Imagine how awkward it would be to have characters just start talking to each other about nothing. Action scenes tend to be most effective when used to bring character conflicts to a head while advancing the plot. Like a lot of scenes, an action scene needs to be pulling double or even triple duty to get the most out of it.

Now as I said, movies, games, and TV have it easy. What about novel and short story writers? How to does one write an effective action scene with resonating emotional context? Well, other than that points I already covered in the video, I can suggest a few things that I find work for me. Maybe they can work for you too.

1: Try to keep characters smart. Have characters use dirty tricks to get ahead. Have them use shortcuts and deception. Make them exploit their opponent’s mistakes. Don’t just let them finesse their way through with sheer skill or power, but try to mix it up by having them think their way out of their problems. Most of all, have them approach the action in a way that is unique to their character.

2: Terrain, terrain, terrain. Terrain is so useful in an action scene that I am often perplexed as to why authors so frequently ignore it. Terrain not only helps set the scene, establish spacial distance between characters, and look really cool when it blows up, but it is also an opportunity to show off how clever a character is. Having characters utilize or be impeded by terrain is a great way to shake up a dynamic and keep the characters, and thus the readers, guessing at the outcome.

3: Watch the prose. It is easy to create boring, mechanical prose in action scenes. Some writers tend to go overboard with details. Others don’t give enough. Pacing is key. A lot of fights last seconds, but can take minutes to read. Having the prose set the pace is essential to letting the reader know just how fast events are unfolding.

4: Power fantasy doesn’t mean that a writer need not challenge their characters. Even super-powerful characters need some kind of challenge. Try constructing a situation where they are challenged in ways they can’t use their powers to overcome.

5: I don’t construct action scenes. I construct scenarios. I lay out the battle ground (terrain again), arrange the pieces on the battlefield (emotional and plot context), and then I try to add a twist that one or more sides did not plan for. Then I watch it play out.

6: Dialog has an ebb and flow to it. So does action. I can tell when my own action scenes are working when it has a flow to it. You will know you have it when it feels right. Then that feeling will disappear after reading the same section for the 1000th time, but that’s okay. Beta readers will let you know if the action scene is working.

Finally, my best advice for writing action scenes is that if you don’t like writing action scenes, then don’t worry about it. Focus on what you love about writing. I love a good action scene. I love constructing fun scenarios for my characters to get out of. Yet a lot of my favorite authors completely skip their action scenes. That’s fine, but if you are going to write an action scene, make sure it isn’t just for the sake of adding action. Then you will wind up like Hollywood with forced action sequences and be trapped with millions of dollars. What a horrible fate that would be.