Five Tips for Writing Action Scenes

Action sequences can make or break your book. We live in a world of action movies, but that doesn’t mean that our writing has to become one giant action scene. So, here’s a little checklist to make sure you don’t go overboard with your action scenes.

Consistency – Your characters need to stay true to themselves during action scenes. That’s not to say your hero can’t rise up to the conflict, but they shouldn’t develop any secret superhuman powers in the middle of the action (unless of course, that IS the story.) While in action scenes, your characters should still act and speak as they do throughout the rest of the book. A good way to check yourself—pull out dialogue from the first couple of chapters and compare it side by side with dialogue during an action scene toward the end of the story. You instantly see if there is a difference between the two.

Brevity – Break up your action scene. Even if the scene is an ongoing war between good and evil, don’t just describe the action, break it up with dialogue, your characters need to breathe, too!

Clarity – Keep the scene in check. Did your car chase scene involve fifteen vehicles that don’t matter to the story while taking the action three miles from where you started? Did the reader follow all of that? You would be surprised to learn that many readers skim the action to get back to the real story. Make sure it’s clear and concise.

Sentence Variety – Don’t get stuck in the … He jumped … He climbed … He kicked … He slid over the hood. You get it. It’s difficult to write good action scenes because there is a lot of telling, not showing. Make sure that you incorporate a lot of structural variety in your sentences. A good way to do that is to add in dialogue as noted above, and to intersperse narrative on what’s happening around the action. Is the action isolated or in a busy downtown area. What are the people doing around the action? Are they running for cover or gawking at the scene?

Safeco Field

Believability – This is probably the worst part of summer action movies. The action scenes are rarely believable. Unless you’re dealing with a superhero or the paranormal, make sure you don’t defy the laws of physics. You can write excellent action scenes without having your character perform impossible stunts. While writing The Card, the main character climbs the steel girders of a stadium while being chased by the antagonist. I studied the construction of the stadium in order to confirm that the path our hero takes was doable. I also took pictures so that I could refer back to them while writing those scenes. Take a little extra effort to make it real; the readers will appreciate the writing much more.

Go ahead, have some fun with your action sequences. Who knows, maybe you’ll get optioned for the next big summer blockbuster screenplay!

What are some of the tricks that you do to “keep it real”?

Author: Jim Devitt

Jim Devitt’s debut YA novel, The Card, hit #1 in three separate categories on the Kindle Bestseller list in early January and was a finalist in the Guys Can Read Indie Author Contest this past summer. Devitt currently lives in Miami, FL with his wife Melissa and their children. Learn more about Jim at his blog and his Amazon author page.

18 thoughts on “Five Tips for Writing Action Scenes”

  1. It can help to make it cinematic, but remember a writer’s tools can also be used slightly differently. Now, movies are visual, and we can exploit that aspect, for sure, but we can also describe how it feels to be there using all our senses. We don’t just see the blood, we taste and smell the blood. In that sense, writers have an advantage.

    1. Great comments David, I totally agree. That’s what makes it fun and what makes a good action scene. In the end, it’s not really about the action, but what and how your character experiences the action.

  2. Jim makes great points. Let me add this: In a sustained action scene, such as a lengthy battle, show the evolution of the characters as they adjust to the noise and danger, as real people often do. During the Battle of the Windmill I describe in my novel Counter Currents, the first thudding cannon balls scare the bejessus out of the protagonist. By the second day, he hardly flinches.

    1. Ah yes, I remember that one. I should have cited in my post above. I think that it is essential for authors to experience or at least have near experiences to what they are writing about. Not to say that if you are writing about space, you have to go there, but at least talk to someone who has.

  3. (raises hand) Action-sequence skimmer here. My “let’s get back to the story” habit has made it a little harder for me to write a decent action sequence, tho — so Jim, thanks for the tips.

  4. It’s not uncommon to find paper maps and sticky notes all over my desk when I’m writing an action sequence. Sometimes it helps to know where all the characters are (especially when dealing with up to 13 of them) and what they are doing at a certain moment in time. I use Google maps to locate my “battlefields” here on earth, or, as in my Space books, I created an entire galaxy of which is posted on a big piece of a cardboard moving box. Believability- amen!

    Great post!

    1. Thanks Kathy. Yep, that’s the fun stuff. If I’m writing about a local area, I’ll go and observe the surroundings at the time the action is supposed to be occurring, I want to be able to get the shadows, sun, smells and even noise as realistic as possible.

  5. Thanks for a great set of tips.

    I close my eyes and picture what’s happening as well as mimic the actions I’m thinking.
    I find it useful for the first draft of the scene so that the movements are in place. Then I dress the scene with emotional reactions. And the last pass is for the pacing.
    This layering works for me in all aspects of my writing, because I get overwhelmed trying to get it all right all at once.

    1. PA Wilson, I love the layering concept. I think that is a great way to approach it. I think a lot of people out there in the IU world will benefit from your process. I know I will give it a try.

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