Top Ten Tips for Writing Effective Action
Disclaimer: I despise writing action. I'd much rather do what Shakespeare did e.g. "They fight. Tybalt falls" (spoilers?) and move on. Unfortunately, stories require action scenes to connect the slow-burn romance, longing and plot together. Some require long ones. And thus, I have to write them.
Despite how much I hate them, however, I find myself getting weirdly into them once I plan them out appropriately.
Here are my handy tips on how to write effective action:
Find an ex-military chap to raise you for a couple of decades and bore you stiff with ridiculous tales of near-death experiences, daring escapes, and impossible circumstances that all seem to start with nearly getting eaten by a crocodile/barracuda. Occasionally listen.
If step one is impossible, see if you can watch a similar clip on YouTube for the scene that you want, and mind map your verbs. You're doing a chase scene? Look one up. Look at the actions, but also the details and the surroundings. Yes he's running (hurtling, racing, sprinting) but the sweat is also clinging to his skin, his mouth is dry with panic, the dust stings the air around his feet, his soles skitter across the rough floor... or maybe it's slick, wet, steely... As with writing description, remember your textures.
I also find bullet pointing your scene before you go in helpful, something like:
The alarm goes off
Guard reaches for her
Punches his middle
Hits his back
Again, this is easier with a bit of YouTube research beforehand.
4. Alongside texture, think of other sensations or experiences. E.g. coppery tang on her tongue, teeth grinding, dull pain spreading along her side. Action isn't all about movement; it's about what a character experiences.
Clubs and fists swung through the air. Leo could barely dodge them. The air was thick with punches. Green, blue, brown, all the colours of the forest were reduced to mere snatches. The grey of the ogres’ gigantic forms dominated every flash of vision.
Note how, in this extract, it's not a blow-by-blow account of what's going on. In the midst of a fight, you aren't going to remember every detail, but you will remember the feel of it.
5. Remember your onomatopeia! In an actual fight, the sounds tend to be a bit more muted, but there’s something very visceral about “crack” or “dull, heavy thud.” Slammed, smacked, clanged, snapped… get them in there to really bring a scene alive!
6. Visualise your settings. You don’t need to waste time sketching them out or even describing them in too much detail, but try to think “door left, window right—where are they escaping? How?" Use the surroundings too. It’s sandy? Throw it in someone’s face. Use that desk for cover. Fling that chair at his feet.
7. Don’t over describe. We don’t want a lot of superfluous detail in an action scene. Sensations, yes, but don’t stop to describe the pattern on the chair that’s burning. (I have genuinely read this) Just kick it and move on!
8. Know approximately how many people are in the room if it’s a small-scale fight. If there are two guards, what’s the other one doing while your MC beats up their buddy? This is a pet hate of mine from films. Maybe your MC feels them hovering nearby, waiting for an opening. Maybe they run for help. Maybe they’re too nervous to shoot because they don’t want to hit their colleague, or are reeling from another attack.
9. Leave a little up to chance. Recently, I had an MC being held by one guard while the other went to lock the door she’d just opened. It was imperative it remained locked. She wasn’t very strong, so overpowering them wasn’t an option. Luckily she managed to kick the key free with her foot and send it spiralling under the desk, giving her a few much-needed seconds.
10. Finally, limit connectives. Action scenes don’t use a lot of for/and/nor/but/or/yet/so (FANBOYS!). They tend to rely on short, simple sentences, or complex ones—commas, in an action scene, can really speed up the pace.
I’d love to hear any of your tips for writing effective action, or share some snippets below!