Danger has stalked your characters, and now it’s ready to pounce. A hurricane bears down on their damaged boat. The loan shark’s enforcers knock down the apartment door. A Sumerian god of death has taken his true form in the ghost world and has a sword that can condemn phantoms to the Void. What happens next? Most likely a desperate fight for survival, whether that consists of running off, buckling down, or kicking ass. Your characters have to act.
You, then, are faced with two questions. 1) What do they do? And 2) How do you put it on the page?
Let’s tackle the second question first. The key tool in the author’s kit when describing action is what my dad, a writing instructor of moderate renown, calls “moment-by-moment narration”. That’s exactly what it sounds like – narration of events that goes into the detail of each individual moment. This is opposed to “list-of-event narration”, in which events are listed. (Not too cutesy with the nomenclature, my dad). The reasons to prefer MBMN over LOEN for action scenes should be clear: we need tight, focused details to be engaged with the action on a visceral level. To just list the events of an action scene — She ran away. He got stabbed. — is like reading the shot list instead of watching the movie.
But that need for detail can create a perverse effect. Because the bandwidth of the English language is limited, the faster your action is, the more you have to slooooowwww dooooooowwwwn to get all the details across. For that reason, spectacular action in fiction cannot focus on the same aspects as the movies.
Imagine trying to capture the most violent five minutes of a John Wick movie in prose, detailing every beat of the action. Up on screen, where we can revel in the athleticism of the stunts and the visual rhythm of the kills, those long-take fights work like gangbusters. On the page, though, even the most gifted stylist would run out of ways to say “and then John shot the thirteenth Russian goon in the head, after doing a sick judo move on him that chucked him into a pillar”.
What makes action scenes boring is lingering too long in any one status quo – describing all thirteen shots, or every uppercut and haymaker the Hardy Boys throw, or every thrust and parry of a protracted sword fight. Unless they’re changing something meaningful (see next section), these are things that should be summarized, not explicated. They are just beats, not proper moments.
To resolve this conundrum, we have to think hard about what our moments actually are. An action scene of any duration will consist of periods of punctuated equilibrium. It is film’s privilege to wring spectacle from the equilibrium. Written action, though, must be all about change. John’s first thirteen actions, because they take place during a status quo of John shooting goons with his handgun, constitute a single moment. We can describe them as a group action – “John emptied his pistol before the first body hit the floor, swiveling his torso with gyroscopic precision to take split-second aim at a dozen other assailants’ faces”. Thirteen shots, one sentence; a brief status quo established and closed out all at once, and now we’re onto the next thing. Let’s say John can’t reload. “Out of ammo, he hurled his empty gun into the fourteenth goon’s nose. It connected with a crunch, and John lunged forward to grab the man’s Uzi as he crumpled.” Two whole sentences just to cover two actions, but also a change in the status quo: New weapon. New situation. New moment.
BUILDING THE FIRE – GOALS, GEOGRAPHY, AND POWER
What constitutes a status quo, then? Action scenes are all about goals, geography, and power. When any of those things change, that’s a change in the status quo and a moment to focus on. Unfortunately, nothing slows down an exciting scene faster than have to explain, either through narration or dialogue, why a change that just occurred is significant. When you feel an action scene coming on, you should make sure to have established those three key components so well that the reader need not be reminded of them. If you’ve taken the time to lay out the kindling, the fuel wood, and the logs, then the spark of action will quickly light to a roaring fire. If you haven’t done the work, and have to explain every beat as it happens, then you’re just lighting matches one by one. There’ll still be light and heat, but it’s much less impressive.
Goals – and the conflict they lead to – should be the most obvious component of the action scene. Your protagonist’s goal is the whole reason you’re writing it in the first place. If it’s not, then the action is simply gratuitous. John wants to kill the organization that killed his dog. The sailors want to survive the storm. The tenant wants to escape the enforcers with her kneecaps intact. The ghost detective and his ghost friends want to kill the Sumerian god of death before it can double-kill them. Likewise, the opponents (save for the hurricane) have countervailing goals.
Every action taken by every character should be in pursuit of their goals, whatever they might be (even if another potential move might be cooler). If the reader knows the characters’ goals on a deep, unthinking level, then all of their actions in pursuit of those goals will make intuitive sense – no need to spend valuable words explaining motivations for particular moves. And if you find yourself having to explain why a character did something, that might be a sign to reconsider whether they should do it at all, or if their reason for doing it needs to be better-established earlier. Likewise, the goals should be so clear that any obstacles placed in the protagonist’s path shouldn’t require any additional explanation to be recognized as frustrating or even devastating.
Geography is a bit trickier, but no less crucial. For action to be clear and compelling, the reader needs to be able to form a mental image of what’s going on, and that requires knowing where everything and everyone is in relation to everything else. Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid boring sentences of setup like “The goons surrounded John in a semicircle that spread across half the dance floor” or “Some fifty feet from Al a huge, smoking crater marred the ground of the ghostly cemetery”. If your action scene takes place somewhere the readers haven’t seen before, that kind of place setting is inevitable. A sentence or two is fine. If they start to grow into paragraphs, that may be a sign your setup is too complex for its own good. Just try to get as much of it out of the way as you can, as organically as you can, before things pop off.
When things get really fun, though is when an action scene takes place in a well-established setting. Say the tenant in the apartment has walked past her massive bookshelf every time she enters her bedroom. It’s been mentioned incidentally throughout the story, always in the background as she worries how she’ll pay back the loan shark. When enforcers knock down the door and start sweeping through the house in search of her, she can knock the shelf over onto them and it will be a visceral, satisfying move because the weight of the shelf, and its position in the apartment, have already been built up in the reader’s mind. Clever use of the established environment is a hallmark of good fictional action. Of course characters are going to make use of their surroundings in pursuit of their goals – it only make sense, and it prevents all action scenes from feeling like they happen in the same featureless void. Knowledge of geography can be one resource that gives characters power over their opponents.
That’s the last crucial element of a good action scene: a real feel for power dynamics. Everyone involved should have consistent, well-established capabilities, whether physical, mental, or otherwise. Nothing creates tension better than a protagonist who we know, on a gut level, is overmatched by the situation; one whose raw power cannot compete with the raw power of the enemy, or the storm, or the Sumerian God of Death. The fun comes in figuring out how they win anyway, or how valiantly they fail. Is it through allies? Through knowledge of the geography, like our tenant with her bookshelf? Is it through the possibly hackneyed but oh-so-satisfying use of Chekhov’s guns, little elements dropped early in a story that come back when you least expect them? Think about what kind of soft power your characters have, and how they can use it in surprising but internally consistent ways to beat back hard power, overcome obstacles, and achieve their goals against all odds.
So, to sum up: the best moments to focus in on are ones that meaningfully affect one of these three components. Your character’s goals change, or circumstances change in such a way that those goals become harder or easier to achieve. The geography of the fight changes, or the geography is used in a clever way by the characters. Or the power dynamics change in some way. An action scene where every sentence or two brings one of these shifts will feel taut and exciting. But if the relevance of too many beats to these core concepts has to be explained, or even worse, if that relevance just plain doesn’t exist, the scene will feel flabby, superfluous, and dull. The key to good action scenes, then, is the same as to all good fiction: Make sure each sentence has something novel and important to say.
- One of the best and easiest ways to differentiate your action from everything everyone’s seen before is to have a cool setting for it. Everyone’s seen a brawl… but what about a brawl in a used book store? Everyone’s seen a chase… but what about a chase through a County Fair? Everyone’s seen a ghost detective fight a Sumerian god of death, but what about that happening in a phantasmic version of New Orleans? Put your characters in interesting places and interesting action will follow.
- About Chekhov’s guns: when overused, or obviously grafted into the early part of a story just to justify their later firing, they can feel trite and cliche. But there really are few things more satisfying than an organic setup you didn’t even realize was a setup paying off down the road. Think of the reappearance of the power loader in Aliens, or 75% of the things that happen in Die Hard. In the Sumerian God of Death example (which as you may have guessed by now I’ve actually written, in collaboration with a bunch of students in a summer program several years ago), we ended up firing a whole arsenal of Chekhov’s guns that had been set up throughout the entire story, including a dead, flaming skateboarder completing his ghostly ‘business’ of landing the jump that killed him, a ghost chainsaw designed by a half-dead Russian scientist, ghost John Lennon driving a VW Beetle, and a ghost dog completing his business of catching a stick, which endowed it with supernatural powers. And it was awesome.
- What you can get away with in an action sequence is determined largely by the tone of your story. If you’re aiming for verisimilitude, action will likely be quick, brutal, and decisive, and nobody will be composed enough to come up with a witty one-liner afterwards, nor will they have time to employ very many clever tricks. The more heightened the tone, the more ridiculous swashbuckling, crazy payoffs, and dialogue (witty or non-) you can stuff in there. For example, in addition to everything already described, the Sumerian God of Death scene is perhaps too chatty for its own good. But the concept of having dialogue in that scene works because every other element is so heightened. Villainous monologuing and heroic catharsis are no more ridiculous than a ghost chainsaw. The tenant fighting to escape her apartment, however, probably won’t say a word.
- Regardless of tone, beat up your characters! Break their stuff! Make them bleed! For years I struggled with the instinct to be too nice to my characters during action scenes, and it made them feel weightless and fake. Now I have learned to be cruel.