By Emily Young
Did you know that when you read a novel, your brain thinks you’re experiencing the events? “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life,” according to this article in The New York Times. No wonder we are hooked by action sequences. We think we are literally fighting for our own lives!
But this only works if the scene is well written. As an editor and writer specializing in speculative fiction, I am constantly reading, editing, and thinking about action scenes. They may be a blast to read, but they can be one of the trickiest sequences to write. These six tips can help you write more compelling action scenes.
Tip one: Ask your character what they want.
Before your character grabs their long sword and plunges into the fray, tap them on the shoulder and ask, “Wait! What do you want?”
I’m serious. Writing a dialogue between yourself and your character can be so insightful – particularly when you’re trying to get deeper into their desire. (You can read more about this freewriting technique in this interview.) Your character might say something like, “I want to win this battle!” But everyone wants to win a battle. What we want to know is what makes your character unique in the situation. Why do they, particularly, have to get out of this fight alive?
Pretend you’re a journalist and probe deeper. Ask:
- Why do you want to win?
- What will you do if you win this battle?
- What people in your life are you worried about right now?
- Who or what is standing in your way?
Once you know what your character wants, you’ll have a better idea of what’s at stake – what they stand to lose – if this scene doesn’t play out the way they hope.
Tip two: Know how the scene will change your character.
Often, an action scene looks cool, but has no emotional meaning. Try to avoid this pitfall. The physical events in this scene should be pushing your character to have an emotional change.
- Why does this event need to happen to your main character?
- How will their perspective shift?
- What decision are they going to make at the end of the scene that propels them into the next scene?
In an action-packed scene in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves, a pair of teenage friends fight off a monstrous bird creature. What gives the scene emotional depth is how it changes their friendship.
When the scene begins, the narrator, Gansey, is confused and frightened by his longtime pal: “When Ronan turned, his eyes were shuttered and barred. His hands were also coated in blood. Gansey had a pure, logicless moment where his stomach dropped and he thought, I don’t know who any of my friends really are” (page 134, hardcover edition). This is what is at stake, emotionally: Will Gansey actually get to know who his best friend is?
By the end of the scene, we have our answer. Gansey discovers that Ronan created this monster from his own dreams. This is a huge moment of vulnerability, which changes the arc of their friendship by bringing them closer together.
Tip three: Use a mini “arc” to plot your scene.
You know what your character wants and what’s at stake if they lose. You understand how this scene will help your character to change emotionally. But how do you maintain tension? By using the principles of structure.
Every action scene has a beginning, middle, and end, just like your novel. Let’s go back to the monster fight in The Dream Thieves (pages 136-140, hardcover edition):
- The inciting incident is the moment Ronan tells his friend something escaped from his dream.
- The tension builds. Take a look at these sensory details, which tell us something dangerous is about to happen: “The door to Ronan’s room was closed. A bookshelf had been emptied, tipped on its side, and pushed in front of it. The books were hastily piled beside the knocked-over telescope. Everything was silent and gray as the rain beaded on the windows. The smell Gansey had noticed downstairs was more prominent up here: moldy, sweet.”
- The action and intensity skyrocket from here, as the two boys scuffle with the monster.
- The scene reaches an all-is-lost moment in which Gansey thinks his best friend might be dead: “The thing made no sound as it reared back. Ronan swung again with the crowbar, and when it glanced off the creature, he aimed a fist instead. The two of them stumbled over the corner of the bed. The nightmare was on top of Ronan. Both of them fought soundlessly; Ronan could die, and Gansey wouldn’t know it until after.”
- The heroes make one last valiant effort, and they win the fight: “Then it was over, and Ronan unhooked the claw carefully from Gansey’s skin.”
Make a “scene chart” for yourself. Fill in the answers to these questions:
- What’s the inciting incident?
- How does the tension build?
- What are the action beats?
- What is the “all is lost” moment?
- How does the hero win or lose?
Tip four: Get ready for action.
How do you write those action beats we just mentioned? Here are some ways you can master action choreography:
- Take a self-defense or martial arts class. Even if you can’t afford a full course, you can probably drop into a free session. Some courses are offered online during the pandemic.
- Read self-defense and survival books.
- Enlist your housemates in a mock battle.
- Map out your scene with action figures.
Remember, you don’t need to put every detail in your action scene. The reader doesn’t need to know everything that happens – they just need to know the moments of action that raise the stakes or give us important context.
For more action scene advice, be sure to check out this podcast on writing action scenes that slay.
Tip five: Get deep into your character’s POV.
When you’re drafting this action scene, ask yourself what your main character would actually be paying attention to in this moment.
How do you immerse us in a character’s POV?
- Use metaphors.
- Give us sensory details.
- Use sentence structure to change the pace. Short, choppy sentences mimic the fragmented experience of someone fighting for their life. Long, flowing sentences might show a sense of disorientation.
- Remove “filtering” words and phrases like “she saw, she heard, she felt.” Instead of saying, “She felt a hand punch her,” just say, “A hand punched her.”
- Embrace the techniques of deep POV.
Let’s take a peek at this moment from Daniel Woodrell’s literary noir novel Winter’s Bone. In this scene, the protagonist, Ree, is being attacked by a group of women for asking too many questions about her father’s death: “The other women closed in with boots to the shins while more heavy whacks landed and Ree felt her joints unglue, become loose, and she was draining somehow, draining to the dirt, while black wings flying angles crossed her mind, and there were the mutters of beasts uncaged from women and she was sunk to a moaning place, kicked into silence” (page 129-130, paperback edition).
Notice those metaphors? Killer.
Tip six: Revise.
Your first draft might be dry and technical or messy and confusing. That’s normal! Action scenes take lots of time. In revision, you’ll probably have to do multiple passes. Be patient, and reward yourself each step of the way. Remember that we are always here for you at Writers Helping Writers!
Emily Young is a fiction editor with Angelella Editorial. She holds an M.F.A. from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program and attended the Tin House Young Adult Fiction Workshop in Spring 2021.
When evaluating a story, Emily focuses deeply on character. In her opinion, almost every part of the manuscript – from sentence-level flow to big-picture structure – can be improved by delving into the authentic emotions of your characters. Her favorite stories are science fiction and fantasy novels that pay as much attention to their characters’ journeys and internal growth as to the external adventures. You can follow her on Twitter at @egywrites or connect with her at Angelella Editorial.
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Glynis Jolly says
I assume much of this article can be applied to any scene. It’s given me strategies for my revisions. Thank you.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
These are great questions – even when emotions are heightened, motivation is always the key, and every action, choice and decision (and punch!) will be steered by it. It’s all about what motivation is rising to the top in that moment. Thanks so much, Emily!
Peggy Lovelace Ellis says
Excellebt, Emily! We ask ourselves what the characters think, but asking THEM is a whole ‘nother ballgame, something which we should do consistently. I freely admit the idea had never occurred to me! Perhaps the most difficult part of writing/editing fiction is POV, so thanks for your input on this point too.
Emily Young says
I’m always amazed at some of the things my characters hide from me until I ask!
BECCA PUGLISI says
This is great advice, Emily. Actions scenes (in some form or another) are common for writers of all genres, so this is information everyone can use.
Emily Young says
Thank you so much! I totally agree that action scenes don’t have to be fights – even a dance is an action scene.
Cathryn Cade says
Super helpful post, Emily. Love the piece about emotional change/growth as a result. Looking back over my books, I can see where I’ve used that instinctively, but also times I’ve failed to do so.
Emily Young says
I’m so glad you found it helpful! I have been trying to remind myself of the importance of emotional change/growth when I write, too. It’s interesting that you used that instinctively.
Jemima Pett says
Oh, I like this. Never thought of asking them while I write. I have found I’ve learned a huge amount about them when I’ve interviewed them for my blog, though.
Might do another series of that this summer…
Emily Young says
I love that you interview your characters on your blog! I’ll have to check that out. Will you share the link?
Mindy Alyse Weiss says
Thanks for giving us so many helpful questions to ask and other tips to write action scenes so vivid, readers will feel like they’re experiencing them. I can’t wait to use your tips on my novels. 🙂
Emily Young says
Yay! They’ve helped me with some of my recent action scenes so I hope they help you too 🙂
Ruchama Burrell says
It’s 2:00 a.m. and I was gearing up to write a scene I’ve been having trouble with. A little email procrastination. My scene is very much NOT an “action scene. Sometimes the fights are not physical, but they are very much a form of action. The approach and steps Emily laid out tell me exactly how to get over the stumbling blocks I had trying to figure out how to make write an action scene between two women battling without swords or fists Thanks Emily.
Emily Young says
Ooh I relate to that procrastination! Thank you for bringing up that important point — a fight can definitely be without swords or fists 🙂