Who doesn’t love a good action movie? There’s nothing like watching an awesome fight, a thrilling chase scene, or an epic battle to really get the blood pumping. We live vicariously through the characters and feel like we’re along for the ride with them. It’s the reason big, dumb, action movies can make tons of money despite being narratively bankrupt most of the time. Many of us would love to put those kinds of fun, exciting action scenes into our stories, but it’s not as easy as putting it to film. All too often, action scenes in books can come off as overlong, not very suspenseful, or flat-out confusing. Well, they don’t have to be. Your written action scenes can be every bit as heart-pounding as those on the silver screen.
Literature, like cinema, is a visual medium, and not just because you’re looking at the words on the page while you’re reading. Those words conjure up images in the mind that, if written well enough, can be just as vivid as those on TV or in movies. Learning to paint a picture with words takes practice, but here are five tips you can apply to your writing to see some immediate improvement in your actions scenes.
1. Engage The Senses
Onomatopoeia. It’s fun to say, hard to spell, and is a powerful literally tool that’s underutilized outside of comic books. For the uninitiated, onomatopoeia are words that describe sounds by sounding like what they describe. They’re words like “boom”, “pop”, “splash”, and “click”. The list could go on forever. The very existence of words like that are to help put into the mind of the reader (or listener) exactly the sounds you want them to hear. If there’s a sudden explosion in your story, it’s more effective to write “BOOM!” than, “suddenly, the boiler exploded.” Even just now, you felt the onomatopoeia much more, didn’t you? What’s more, it also conveyed in one word what was less-effectively conveyed in four.
There are other words that have the same effect on the mind’s eye that onomatopoeia have on the mind’s ear. When your character is stabbed in arm, he bleeds. But how does he bleed? Does blood “slowly run down the knife” or does it “ooze” out of the wound. The word “ooze” sounds gross. It’s supposed to, because it describes something gross. Bones don’t just break, they “fracture”. Diamonds don’t shine, they “twinkle”. Bullets don’t just hit concrete, the “splinter” it and “embed” themselves in it.
None of the words being used here are huge or uncommon either. Choosing the right word is just a matter of thinking of what you want to happen and coming up with the perfect word to describe how it will look, feel, and sound.
2. Make It Quick
Good action is fast-paced, but it’s hard for anything to go fast when you’re reading it. That’s why writing action means making it closer to real-life action and less like movie action. Take a fight, for example. There’s one huge different between a real fight and a movie fight that isn’t often brought up in conversation: fights in movies are LONG. If you’ve ever seen or been in a real fight, you’ll notice that they don’t last very long. Professional boxers have to rest after three minutes of action. Compare that to your favorite action movie star, who can take a beating for eight minutes straight without breaking a sweat. Watch an action scene in a movie and try writing it out, beat-for-beat, with vivid descriptions. You’ll fill ten pages after two minutes.
When writing an action scene, start by setting a word restriction. I try to keep my fights under 500 words. I try to keep chase scenes under 1000 words, and epic battles can be no more than 2000 words. You don’t have to use these restrictions but putting a limit on the number of words forces you to keep the action quick. You can use previous words describing everything little thing, and you can’t drag the sequence out of twenty pages.
If you must write a longer action scene, have the action unfold in phases. Say, for example, your hero is chasing down two bad guys. In that case, limit the chases to 1000 words per guy. Also, one is a car chase, and one is a foot chase. Break up the action so it feels like you’re still moving the story along and not halting the narrative with a 2000-word chase scene.
3. Keep The Stakes In The Forefront
All too often, I edit a book with a cool action scene in it and I comment in the margins “cool scene, but what’s the point of it?” Action for the sake of action works in the movies (and only movies of a particular genre) because that’s what the audience came to see. No one reads a book for the action. That’s why it is important to keep the stakes of your action scene as the focal point, at all times. Having a ticking clock is the easiest way to create believable stakes. The hero has to beat the bad guy before _____
Keeping your reader’s mind on the reason your hero must succeed is the best way to suck them into your well-written action. Once you’ve got the reader sucked in, you can move on to the next tip.
4. Handicap Your Hero
You know why it was so satisfying to watch Neo take on Agent Smith in the move, The Matrix? It’s because the whole movie hyped up how ridiculously overpowered the Agents were. Up until the end of that film, everyone who had fought an agent had died. That left the question in our minds, “how is he going to beat him?” Compare that to The Matrix: Revolutions where Neo and Smith were both almighty gods on equal footing with one another. A fight that was supposed to be epic turned out to be quite underwhelming. We’ve all read enough stories to know your hero is going to win, so its important what we are forced to wonder how that victory will happen.
There are two ways of handicapping your hero, so we don’t know how they’ll win: nerfing the hero, or buffing the villain. Nerfs and buffs refer to weakening or strengthening a character, respectively. You can nerf your hero by wounding them, putting a psychological obstacle in their way (example: the enemy is their best friend being mind-controlled), or their having lost something they need such as a weapon or an ability. Buffing the villain usually is just a matter of setting up the villain as already being loads more powerful than the hero, or having seemingly already triumphed in their conflict.