Actions, big and small, mold the path of your novel. But when we hear the word “action,” it’s easy for our minds to go to cinematic extremes. We all know the thrill of an action scene: a high-speed car chase, a sword fight, or a lover’s quarrel ending with possessions hurled in a fit out the window. Not all actions, however, need to be such dramatic displays.
Because so many of us associate action with grandiose events, and because actions contain specific movements, beats and layers of meaning, action scenes can be tricky to write. You want to relay a lucid account of what’s happening. You also want to spark an emotional reaction in readers. The most effective action scenes relate the impact of what’s going on while ramping up tension. Remember: Clear action is as much about what you leave out as what you put in.
I’ve collected a few common mistakes I’ve seen first-time authors make over and over in their action sequences. Consider them to craft the most impactful action writing you can.
3 things to remember when you write an action scene:
1. Trim the fat.
Sometimes, authors drag readers through every specific step of an action sequence, giving a play-by-play that’s so detailed it’s cumbersome and confusing. Too many details bog down a scene. I’ve often read scenes where authors relay a tedious amount of what’s going on and who’s doing what that it feels like the writer is blocking a play, not telling a story. Instead of every action having meaning behind it, we get the full picture of what’s going on.
For example, instead of, “He sat at the bar and scrolled through his ex’s Facebook profile on his phone,” we get something closer to, “He sat at the bar and adjusted his seat, resting his feet on the footstool below. He ordered a beer and, when it arrived, took a long drink. He blew his nose. Then he unlocked his phone and logged on to Facebook…” See what I mean? In the first example, it’s clear that the point of the sentence is to show the character snooping on his ex. We don’t need all the nitty gritty details.
Ask yourself: What might be going through my character’s mind in this scene? What’s my character’s attitude or priority while doing this piece of action? Answering those questions can help you drill down to what’s essential.
2. Don’t stop to “smell the roses.”
Cluttering up the action with description is a typical mistake in first drafts. You’d be surprised how many action scenes I’ve read that, for example, show the protagonist in hot pursuit, mere footsteps away from nabbing the very killer she’s been hunting for ages, when all of a sudden the author slips in a quaint description about the park the characters are in, or a tangent to describe what color jacket she wore that day.
Interrupting the action with meaningless internal thought is a mistake if the character’s thoughts intrude—not clarify or enhance—the action.
Ask yourself: What’s more vital to this scene, what’s happening (the action), or the environmental impact on the character (description)? Does what I’m adding on to the action clarify the action, or simply interrupt? If the action is more essential, omit most of the descriptive prose—leave in only what’s key to understanding the scene and its influence on the character. It could be as simple as: “She sprinted after him through the park.”
3. Vary your sentence structure.
Action passages with repeating sentence structures can quickly fatigue readers. An example is writing entirely in the subject-verb sentence structure: “He smelled smoke. He plodded down the hallway and grabbed the pictures on the wall. He snatched his passport off the dresser. He ran out the front door. He called 911 outside.”
Think of the sentences in an action sequence like notes in a song; when you vary it up—throw in a “key change,” if you will—the reader stays engaged.
Ask yourself: Can you find other ways to begin sentences—with gerunds, for example? Can you switch up the order of clauses? Can you vary short, choppy sentences with longer, more stream-of-conscious sentences for greater impact?
Do you have specific questions about writing action scenes in a novel? Ask me below!
These tips were adapted from my award-winning book, The Novel-Maker’s Handbook: The No Nonsense Guide to Crafting a Marketable Story.