How to Write an Action Scene

I'm certainly not the expert on this topic. Well, I'm not an expert on any of the things that I've blogged about so far. But that's not the point of these posts, right? Our real purpose is to learn from the people who have a lot more experience than we do.

So let’s take a look at writing action scenes with Daniel Abraham. There’s a lot to be said on this topic, and I’ll include links at the end for further reading on the subject. These people know WAY more than I do.

For this topic, I’m going to focus on Leviathan Wakes, the first book in his science fiction series that he co-authored with Ty Franck under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey. (I mentioned this book in one of my previous posts.)

This post started out as “how to write fight scenes” but I quickly realized that the same principles apply to any action scene. Your character doesn’t need to be fighting a would-be assassin for the scene to be filled with high action and tension: he/she could be dangling from a cliff or escaping from a burning building. No matter what type of action scene, your writing should draw in the reader and help them see the action with as little effort as possible.

This can be very challenging, since you have to decide how to set the scene and how to describe the action. You want your reader to have the information they need to see the scene and follow the action, but you don’t want to bog down your prose so that the scene slows down.

I’ve copied a paragraph from Leviathan Wakes to illustrate a few points. In this scene, Holden and his small crew have been detained by a Martian spaceship (Martians are humans, not aliens, just to clarify) and locked in a holding cell. Meanwhile, an unknown ship has started firing on the Martian ship, and an armor-piercing has just punctured the ship, killing one of Holden’s crew and leaving a gaping hole for their oxygen to escape into the vacuum of space. Two of Holden’s remaining crew, Naomi and Amos, are trying to patch the hole with random items from the room. Everyone is rushing around as the air gets thinner and thinner:

Holden yanked the gun free from the bag of patches and threw it at her. She ran a bead of instant sealing glue around the edge of her three-ring binder. She tossed the gun to Amos, who caught it with an effortless backhand motion and put a seal around his dinner tray. The whistling stopped, replaced by the hiss of the atmosphere system as it labored to bring the pressure back up to normal. Fifteen seconds.

Whew! I don't know about you, but the idea of all the oxygen escaping into space gives me the creeps.

One of the key elements of a good action scene is the types of verbs used in each sentence. Look at some of the verbs used in this paragraph: "yanked," "threw," "ran," and "tossed." These verbs are all short, one-syllable words, and they all carry a connotation of speed. When I think of an action associated with "yank," I picture a quick burst of action. There are other words just like it that Abraham could have used as well, such as "jerked" or "snatched."

Also consider the use of "ran" in the second sentence. It's true that the verb "to run" is used for putting down material, in the sense of "running a line of paint down the street," but using it here also gives a sense of immediacy to the action. Naomi wants to seal the hole as soon as possible, so she applies the sealant as quickly as she can.

It's also important to note that the verbs are all active rather than passive verbs, and the sentences are constructed to put the verb and its subject right next to each other. For example, "Holden yanked" and "she tossed" have no adjectives or any other modifiers between the subject and verb. By writing it this way, the reader is carried effortlessly through the action, from sentence to sentence.

I've included another passage below. This is an actual fight scene. Holden and his crew have been ambushed in an apartment complex lobby by a death squad that immediately starts firing on them:

Holden grabbed Naomi by one hand and dragged her behind the check-in desk. Someone in the other group was yelling "Cease fire! Cease fire!" but Amos was already shooting back from his position, prone on the floor. A yelp of pain and a curse told Holden he'd probably hit someone. Amos rolled sideways to the desk, just in time to avoid a hail of slugs that tore up the floor and wall and made the desk shudder.

Another key element of action scenes is the ability of the reader to visualize the scene and the movements of the characters. Abraham manages this scene by keeping the characters' actions fairly simple and easy to follow. Holden and Naomi duck behind the desk. Amos is on the floor, we assume nearby, but also ends up behind the desk. By clearly stating where each character is located, Abraham helps us to follow the scene more easily, thus drawing us in and holding our attention.

This scene also illustrates the way you can use more than just the sense of sight to lend power to the action. Abraham brings in various sounds. The yelling of the attackers and the cry of pain from the wounded help us imagine the chaos of the scene. We can also imagine the way that the desk shudders when hit by bullets. Engaging more than just the sense of sight makes your action more immediate and tangible for your reader.

There's a lot more to be said on this topic than I can cover in this post. As I mentioned, I wanted to share a few extra resources on this subject from people who know more than I do. Fantasy-faction has quite a few articles on this, including this one, this one (which is written from an editor's perspective), and this one.

Another writer who does this well is the too-little-known Dorothy Dunnett. She has some great action sequences, especially in Game of Kings. Tor published a good article on the things we can learn from her.

Happy writing, Stoners!

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