Reading blog posts about how not to win the terrible sex scene award got me thinking about a similar but often less explored territory. Because just like a great sex scene, fight scenes require a bit of coordination and good old fashioned practice (er, on the page that is).
So you want to write an action scene.
Or maybe you don't. But if not or if you're on the fence about it, I would encourage you to consider it because they're fun -- both to write and to read! Who doesn't like car chases, explosions, shoot outs, hand to hand combat, and ticking time bombs? There's a reason action sequences are a staple of blockbuster movies and many genres of commercial fiction. They get the heart pumping. They raise the conflict and tension in a scene and make you worry for the characters involved. And of course, they allow the audience to root for the main character, to hope they survive, and that they win against the opposition. Whether you're writing about an assassin on the run, an MMA fighter in the cage, a navy SEAL on a mission, a famous soccer player who loses his cool on the field, a mafia enforcer, a detective chasing down a perp -- whoever your main characters are, adding a fast-paced action scene can really spice up your novel in the same way that a good sex scene brings out the steam.
But how do we wrangle an unwieldy or flat action scene into something explosive?
I'll list the steps I use below when I'm drafting and revising a new action scene. But first, real quick, let me give you an assurance (hopefully) on why I feel I have a little something to offer on the topic. My first two chapters (that's right, holy moly maybe a tad too long at almost 5k?) of my novel are essentially one long fight scene. I introduce readers to my female protagonist by having her bungle a heist and get tossed into a mud-pit to fight for her life against a monstrous and fantastical beast. Yikes! What was I thinking? Well... it was crazy fun to write for starters. And I think it worked out in the end. I've have multiple agents and editors tell me that my opening chapters are some of the most fun and exciting they've read as a start to a novel. It's also earned me several contest finals and wins including the Golden Heart, Pitch Wars, Fire & Ice, the Sheila, and more! One agent who left editorial comments on my manuscript in a "rest" chapter (to pace out the action, readers do need a break now and then!) told me, "Let's get to it, I'm here for the fight scenes!" Oh, and the Manuscript Shredder wrote a blog post on "Opening Action: Getting It Right" based on my first chapter. http://themanuscriptshredder.com/opening-action-how-to-make-it-work/ :)
Now for the quick and dirty of writing a great fight scene -- Click READ MORE below
Step 1: Picture It
For this step, I like to take a page from animators. When the Naruto anime needed to draw out a good fight scene, the staff sometimes used reference from real martial arts fights.
I can barely draw stick figures so I'm no good at storyboarding (which would be really helpful I think if you do have artistic talent). But I do try to imagine each step of the way how it will play out in my head. And for that, I need to know realistically what it should look like. When I wanted to write a scene in which my female protagonist defended herself against a male aggressor, I started by watching some self-defense and MMA tutorial videos on YouTube. Based on her backstory, I determined her level of experience and training and then decided what sort of moves she might favor in addition due to her personality. Similarly, when I wasn't sure the proper way to run while carrying a knife, I looked it up in a military training manual. Descriptions based on real life practicality go a long way in grounding your fight scene and engrossing the reader. After that, using your character's unique personality to drive the action choices (do they run screaming, do they throw things, do they try to break fingers and noses, etc) will provide for a unique and unpredictable, exciting fight.
Step 2: Keep It Short(ish)
If there's one complaint I've gotten on my fight scenes it's that maaaybe they run a tiny bit too long. Know when to get in and get out. (Trying to practice what I preach.)
Don't overly describe every movement. A good fight scene shouldn't read like a technical manual. Tell me she popped him in the mouth. Not that she slowly cranked her arm back until her elbow was perpendicular to the ground, held steady half a foot from her body, then lips twisted in a grimace, she shot her hand forward until knuckles crunched against his nose causing blood to spurt hot against her skin.
What should a fight scene be doing? *Note: not all of these need to be accomplished, any or some will suffice!
When you need to move the reader along, shorten your sentences. When you want to draw out their anticipation or make them hold their breath, lengthen them. Similarly, when the actual physical action speeds up (punch, punch, block, kick), shorten your sentences. If a moment stretches (she sucked in a breath as the car skidded along the railing, tipped over the edge, plummeted--heart in her throat before it caught with a jarring shudder and hung, etc) lengthen them.
Step 3: Use Action Verbs
Things should be getting "wrenched, yanked, dragged, ripped, snapped" and so on to keep the pace moving quickly. Some sprinkling of "to be" (was, were, is, am, etc) is good for variety, just don't over use it. Or try to use it when you want the moment to feel more introspective and slowed down. Tight action will speed up a scene while looking/noticing/feeling and describing something as its state of being will slow it down. Use this to control the pacing within the scene. For example, you could start the scene off with more "to be" verbiage and as it ramps up, transition more and more to using action verbs before ending with "to be" verbs again.
Step 4: Clarity is Key
Err on the side of clarity. If your reader can't picture the scene exactly, they'll get lost. Nine out of ten times I'd say it's better to flat out state something "she slapped him" or "they are dancing in a club" etc vs. sprinkling word clues that a reader than has to use build a puzzle picture in their mind. After you clearly establish "they're dancing in a club" then you give us the swiveling hips, the sweat, the beat vibrating the floor.
Step 5: Details, Details, Details. I love sensory descriptions!
Okay let's revise that "keep it short" rule. The shortest possible sentence is not always the best. And I'm definitely not a minimalist style writer. We DO want to paint a picture in the reader's mind. So yeah maybe we add back in that bit about blood spurting hot against her skin. Sounds, scents, feel, taste -- all good in a fight scene.
Step 6: Include Internal Thoughts and Reactions from Your Character
What keeps someone reading? An emotional tie to your character. Including internal thoughts, emotions, and reactions from your character during the action sequence will keep readers hooked and avoid the scene reading too much like a straight up cinematic script. Is your character afraid, energized, feeling cocky, thinking about how what's happening ties into their backstory, making self-deprecating jokes in their head? Sprinkle it liberally throughout! Just try to avoid larger chunks of exposition which can slow down the scene.
Step 7: Revise, Line Edit, and have some Critique Partners Weigh In
Did they enjoy it? Were they able to picture the action clearly? Did they feel like they were RIGHT THERE in the scene? Did they worry for or root for the character? Did it feel boring at any point? Sometimes the only way to know for sure is to hear directly from the mouths of readers.
And that's it!
Thanks for reading my post about writing kick-ass fight scenes.
Here are the promised excerpts. The first showcases one of the most exciting car chases I've read in a paranormal romance novel. I thought about this scene for months after I had finished reading the book, it was that memorable for me. The female protagonist (human, or so she thinks) and the love interest (a demon) are speeding through a swamp at night in a beat-up old truck. They're trying to outrun some armed cultists who want to sacrifice the girl in a dark-magic ritual.
Excerpt from Chapter 4 of DARK DESIRES AFTER DUSK by Kresley Cole:
And here's my attempt at an action scene with the opening to HOUSE OF ASH AND BRIMSTONE. It starts slower on the first page, and ramps up as the chapter goes on:
This blog post first appeared on The Ruby Slippered Sisterhood on 06/25/18