We’ve all heard the writing advice that our stories must hook readers from the start, and that pacing our scenes so readers stick around is equally important. It’s all too easy to take that advice and assume we must infuse our scenes with all the makings of a blockbuster movie. Speed, chases, weapons, explosions, scary monsters, you name it. But what this advice fails to remember is that readers largely come to story for character. Specifically, they come to your story for your character, who they want to care for, worry about, and subsequently cheer for in those high-action scenes. If we don’t keep that truth at the heart of our scenes, all the trimmings of an action-packed story won’t matter. Let’s talk about four reasons readers unbuckle their seatbelts and climb out of that fast-moving vehicle of your story so we can understand how to keep them until your ride has come to a complete stop.
It’s Too Soon for High Action
Just about every set of “rules” for writing a riveting set of first pages leads you to believe you have to jump right into action. This is partially right and partially wrong. Inserting readers immediately into action is powerful, but inserting them into high-action too soon can fall flat. Car chases, battles, being pursued by a nefarious actor, or even meeting the protagonist participating in an intense sport don’t yield the reader’s interest in the way we expect. Why? Because the reader hasn’t had time to care about your character, much less their external circumstances. They don’t understand what’s at stake if your character can’t catch the bad guy, or if that zombie gets hold of them, or if they fail to make that winning touchdown.
The outcome of a physical-stakes-based scene scarcely matters without the underpinnings of care for the characters who are involved in it. We are banking on the notion that readers are going to be intrigued enough to know how the scene turns out. But we’ve failed to remember why readers come to story: the character’s journey.
Yes, we want to start our stories as early as possible with scene work. Nothing invites the reader into your book as a co-creator quite like loaded dialogue and interesting, revealing movement. These craft elements let the reader start making a movie in their minds. The more we can sink readers into what’s occurring in the sensory world of our characters, the better. But beware the urge to go for the big blockbuster opening scene as your first scene since the reader hasn’t had time to get their bearings and to care about the characters involved in its outcome.
The Scene Is Making Us Dizzy
A common pitfall of writing action scenes is that we, the writer, tend to see what every character is doing, moment by dull moment, as the scene plays out in our minds. But writing is all about handcrafting and hand-carving these scenes to reflect your protagonist’s experience (or only the most crucial players) most of all. If we’re asking the reader to notice every movement by every character, it can be dizzying. They’re trying to keep every character’s location and most recent movement, all while new character’s movements and locations are coming at them. Worse, readers start to lose track of who represents them in the scene, and what deep internal value is at stake for the primary player(s). It starts to feel like reading a bunch of stage direction instead of an edge-of-our-seats event.
Consider keeping the narrative “camera” as close to your protagonist as much as you possibly can. Everything happening should be filtered through them because they should have the most on the line for internal stakes in that scene. Anything you include that doesn’t stick close to the protagonist should only be included because it impacts the protagonist in a direct, powerful way (e.g., Their loved one is on the brink of disaster across the room and it’s presenting some sort of choice to your protagonist in that very moment.). If you do feel you have to include a few players’ experiences in the midst of one action scene, consider the way writers of shows like Game of Thrones direct their scenes. Oftentimes, the camera is with one player for a sustained period, and what we’re shown is almost like its own “Act.” Then, we rotate to another player for a sustained period and they have their own “Act.” As we rotate back to any given player, their story within the scene is oftentimes presented like its own 3-Act structure, but we aren’t dizzy because we’ve been in any given act for any given character for longer periods.
The Details Have Become the Haystack, And We Can’t Find the Needle
Even if you do stick close to your protagonist, resist the urge to stage direct their movements or what’s being done near them. Sometimes, we see every movement our character makes and we feel compelled to include it so the reader sees it, too. But as we overly burden the narrative with orchestrated movements, a problem emerges: Readers find it hard to pin down what matters most in the haystack of detail.
With my editing clients, I love to use an example from the film It’s a Wonderful Life. Director Frank Capra zooms in on George Bailey stashing his daughter’s flower petals into his pocket, and in drawing our attention to it, we hold onto that moment. Capra’s choice to zoom in guides us with confidence and certainty. The payoff is that George later uses those petals as a way of verifying he’s been given a second chance at life. How might you apply this in your action scenes? If you’ve given readers too much detail, it’s hard for them to judge what matters most. And when they lose their sense of what’s important to notice, they oftentimes start to skim because they can’t possibly hold onto all the details.
We Already Know the Outcome
As much as we want to think high-action scenes inherently pull their weight, the truth is that oftentimes, they don’t. We tell ourselves, what can be bigger than whether the character lives or dies? But readers know we’re not likely to kill off the characters that matter—especially if that character is your protagonist. Whenever we hinge everything on the character reaching safety or staying alive or coming out of a scene unscathed, readers experience the dreaded urge to skim. They know the outcome before they’ve read, so all that physical movement in the scene scarcely matters. It’s just stalling the story until the next scene. What really matters is why your character needs to win that scene in tangible, goal-driven terms.
Ensure that each fight/battle/high-action scene your character goes through has something at stake that’s deeper and more meaningful than their physical safety. What does losing a particular battle or not coming out on top in an action scene cost them? Why must they win beyond retaining their physical safety? What does that scene’s outcome represent that then allows the character to advance the next scene toward a larger goal?
What are some other features of high-action scenes that tend to drive you away as a reader? Are their particular techniques you use in your writing to avoid the pitfalls of too much attention on the action itself? Chime in!
Marissa has been a freelance editor and reader for literary agent Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency for over seven years. In conjunction with Angelella Editorial, she offers developmental editing, author coaching, and more. Marissa feels if she’s done her job well, a client should probably never need her help again because she’s given them a crash-course MFA via deep editorial support and/or coaching.
Kyrie Wang says
Last year I was reading a book with a very long action-suspense sequence as the ending. It was vividly described but boring for the reasons you have given.
It was a romance so I knew both female and male leads must win/live. They were already married with a child at that point, and the child was safety send away, so zero tension on the romance/homefront. Other than their physical safety, little was at stake in that loooooooong battle.
I skimmed the ending despite the fantastic firsy half to that novel. Oh well.
Marissa Graff says
Kyrie, oh this sounds dreadful and completely skim-worthy! It’s awful when that sort of scene is the ending, after all the time we’ve put into something. If you’ve never read Maggie Stiefvater’s THE SCORPIO RACES, I can’t think of a more fitting book to redeem the one you didn’t care for. Stiefvater brilliantly pits two protagonists (who are also love interests) against one another, and though they both want/need to win the race, only one can. She imbues them with massively heartfelt motivations, and so as the reader, you’re torn completely down the middle wanting both to win. Since you know only one can achieve victory, the need to see that race through, moment by moment, is perhaps my favorite example of how a strong action scene should look. Thank you for adding to this topic!
Karen Dimmick says
Genius – I’d never thought of “life and death” stakes in an action as something that would cause a reader to skim because they know the main character isn’t going to be killed off. Totally makes sense though – I know I’ve skimmed as a reader when that happens because it felt like hyped drama almost – I’d just never thought about why it felt like that.
Marissa Graff says
Isn’t it hard to really nail down when we’re reading or watching something? But we do somehow just know–for the most part–that the character isn’t going to die. The other thing is that mentally, I think it’s very hard for us to grasp the character dying as stakes because it’s both nebulous and if they die, they’re not there to lose anything, if that makes sense? Thanks so much for adding to the discussion!
Kate Darroch says
Reminds me of why I hate car chases! of which there are none in my books 🙂
Marissa Graff says
Hi Kate, haha, yes! I always like to ask my clients, what’s on the other side of that chase? Why does the character need to get away? It’s one thing if the character is being pursued by an angry driver over getting cut off. It’s an entirely different thing if your character is trying to deliver the last vial in town of a life-saving drug and someone else is chasing them because they want it, too! So glad you stopped by!
V.M. Sang says
A succinct and helpful post. Reminding us of these things is helpful. Especially to stick with the character and important actions.
Marissa Graff says
Thank you for the kind words, V.M.! I find I always need to cycle through writing advice to stay on top of it all. We hear so many tips, and it can be hard to keep them all in the forefronts of our minds as we try to let the muse create. Thank you again!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Love how you so succinctly reminded us that action scenes–all scenes–are about the character. This is an easy thing to forget, especially when there’s high action going on. A story can build to an important moment (a battle, an escape, etc.) but it’s STILL about the character and the impact of being in that situation, and the mental game of navigating the challenge in front of them. Great post, Marissa 🙂
Marissa Graff says
Thank you, Angela! It’s so true. I tend to get very bored with high-action movies because they can oftentimes lose sight of character and meaningful stakes. One exception I always come back to are the Jason Bourne movies, and I have enjoyed pondering why those worked for me. It always goes back to character and that *thing* they actually need beyond the battle. A huge thank you for having me on!
Brenda Nichols says
Words of wisdom to be sure. I even fast forward through most chase and fight scenes in movies or a TV series because they are all the same. I’d rather know what caused the action or the aftermath than the tedium of the action itself. Reading is very much the same. Some dialogue or internal thoughts can break up the round after round of screeching tires, blazing guns, or he punched, he ducked and changed his form from jujitsu to Kung Fu, Shang Hai karate, or whatever.
As for beginning hooks, I sometimes think we get too hung up on them but it’s also expected these days. It’s nice to get to know the character, care about them, before we see them hanging by their fingernails over a lava lake.
Thanks for the reminder.
Marissa Graff says
Brenda, you make terrific points! I’m with you–my poor husband knows I won’t be persuaded to sit down to watch one of those types of movies because I just can’t understand why those types of scenes are so alluring. One of my favorite exceptions have been some very intense Game of Thrones episodes–one of which was an entire hour of battle (Battle of the Bastards is the episode title). Despite an entire hour of intense fighting, I was glued to my seat needing to know the turnout because many, many internal stakes had been established prior to the battle. The writers did a fantastic job making us root for the victory of one character just as much as we needed to see the nasty antagonist of the episode go down, making it especially amazing. And yes, making us care is truly what it’s all about! Thank you for chiming in!
MINDY ALYSE WEISS says
Thanks for this helpful post, Marissa! At one point, I went too big with the opening scene, and wish I had seen a post like this to guide me back then.
One thing that helps me with high-action scenes is to keep in mind:
It’s easy to get caught up in action and forget to make sure you’re including the right amount of internals and reactions. I free-write my first drafts, but always look for this while revising.
Marissa Graff says
Love this “mantra!” What a great way to think of these types of scenes. The internal piece is so easy to forget, isn’t it? I’m not a major high-action fan, but I always stand in awe of shows like Game of Thrones that manage to really make me care about multiple characters and high-action outcomes. We can learn so much from books, shows, and movies that model what outstanding high-action does to make us care. Thank you sincerely for having me on today!