How Realistic Should Your Action Scenes Be?

At a conference some time ago I was on a panel with some fellow thriller writers. During the Q & A we got this question from the floor: “How can I learn to write a good action scene?”

I answered first. I told the questioner that it’s what happens inside the character that’s the key, and you can make that implicit or explicit by using all the elements of fiction writing ­­–- dialogue, internal thoughts, description, and action.

I recommended he read how Dean Koontz does it, especially in what is considered his breakout bestseller, Whispers (1980). There Koontz has an action scene (an attempted rape) that lasts 17 pages (that’s right, 17 pages!) all taking place within the close confines of a house.

Another panelist protested (in a good-natured and professional manner). He said action needs to be “realistic.” For instance, when a gunshot is fired nobody has time to think. It all happens too fast. If they’re shot, the pain comes, and they will not be reflecting on anything. They’ll just be in pain.

This was grist for a great debate. I licked my chops but, unfortunately, we ran out of time. I never got a chance to respond. 

Now I will.

I would have said, first, that a gunshot does not cover the wide spectrum of action. In the Koontz scene from Whispers we have someone stalking the Lead. No guns. So that example is of limited value.

But further, and even more important: fiction is not reality! Fiction is the stylized rendition of reality for emotional effect.

That’s so important I’ll say it again:

Fiction is the stylized rendition of reality for emotional effect.

Reality is boring. Reality is not drama. Reality is to be avoided at all costs (“We must stay drunk on writing,” Ray Bradbury once said, “so reality does not destroy us.”)

Hitchcock’s Axiom holds that a great story is life with the dull bits taken out. Reality has dull bits. Lots of them. Fiction, if it works, does not.

A thriller writer wants the reader to believe he or she is vicariously experiencing the story. We use techniques to engage the reader’s emotions all along the way. If there is no emotional hook, there is no thrill, no matter how “real” the writing seems.

Let’s have a look at a couple of clips from Whispers. Hilary Thomas, a successful screenwriter, comes home to discover that Bruno Frye, someone she’d met one time, is waiting for her, and not for a game of cribbage.

She cleared her throat nervously. “What are you doing here?”

“Came to see you.”

“Why?”

“Just had to see you again.”

“About what?”

He was still grinning. He had a tense, predatory look. His was the smile of the wolf just before it closed its hungry jaws on the cornered rabbit.

Koontz breaks into the dialogue exchange for some description. The effect is like slow motion, which is another key to a good action scene. In essence, you slow down “real time” to create the feeling and tone you desire.

He took a step toward her.

She knew then, beyond doubt, what he wanted. But it was crazy, unthinkable. Why would a wealthy man of his high social position travel hundreds of miles to risk his fortune, reputation, and freedom for one brief violent moment of forced sex?

Now Koontz inserts a thought. In real time, when a rapist takes a step toward a victim, there would probably be no reflection, no pondering. But fiction enhances moments like this. Koontz is stretching the tension. He wants the reader taut while furiously flipping pages.

But 17 of them? Is Koontz insane? Or is he one of the best selling writers in history for a reason?

In fact, Koontz is a consummate pro who knows exactly what he’s doing. He even names it a couple of pages in:

Abruptly, the world was a slow-motion movie. Each second seemed like a minute. She watched him approach as if he were a creature in a nightmare, as if the atmosphere had suddenly become thick as syrup.

That, my friends, is stylized action for emotional effect. If you’d like to grumble about that –– complain that it isn’t “like reality” –– you may send your objections directly to Dean Koontz, who gives his address in the back of his books.

Let me know what he says.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking to sell your fiction, learn to use the tools. Especially in actions scenes.

Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him on Twitter.

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2 Responses to How Realistic Should Your Action Scenes Be?

  1. Gordon says:

    Amen to that. I have one expectation when I open a Koontz book: Spectacular. He is the only writer I have that expectation of. The man is brilliant.

  2. “Fiction is the stylized rendition of reality for emotional effect.”

    This!

    As writers we pick and choose what parts of reality to draw in and enhance, and what to leave out. A common example of this is dialogue. It is flavored with reality, but we certainly don’t bloat exchanges with “coffee talk” common in the everyday. Instead, every line is purposeful and pushes the story forward in some way.

    I think the difficulty lies in (as always) finding that balance between drama and reality. We do want to offer an emotional experience, to pull readers within the moment, but we don’t want to tip the balance so far that it’s unrealistic and over-dramatized. When that happens, readers break free of the moment because it’s lost its authenticity. I’m glad you brought up Koontz because not only does he know what he’s doing, I think one of the best ways to figure out the right balance with any story element is to see how other authors handle it. Reading helps us improve our gut instinct, making it easier to see what works and what doesn’t in our own writing.

    Thanks, Jim!

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