One of the things I notice when beta-reading for new writers is how they approach action scenes. They either increase the tension up to where a fight should be inevitable and then back away from the potential fight or they engage in the fight and it’s a mess—the reader can’t figure out what’s going on between the combatants.
Writing a good action scene is like paying attention to a musical score during an action scene. In most movies, you will hear two types of musical scores with actions scenes–the heavy, fast-paced, furious score designed to get your blood pumping (about 95% in all movies), or the soft, opera-like singing that indicates a potential tragedy in the making (5% in all the rest).
We’ll focus on the 95% of a typical action scene as the tragedy action scenes are a bit more complex and we’ll save it for another blog post.
So what does a good action scene have in common with a good musical score?
- The notes are fast and furious and that’s the core of how your actions scene should flow – fast and furious. A great way to do that is to shorten your sentences. Deliver with strong verbs.
For example, instead of writing: He ran as his lungs burned, his legs tiring, sweat pouring down in rivulets into his eyes.
Try: He sprinted despite his burning, tiring muscles, eyes blinking from sweat.
- You can feel the music and a good action scene describes the flow with strong, active verbs. Never use any passive verbs in your action scenes unless necessary.Here is an example:
He screamed as he was struck from behind with a sword, running through his chest.
Try: He screamed, a sword running him through.
- Just listening to the music alone without the movie sends your imagination running. A good action scene will always convey to the reader where all the players are, what they are doing, and bring an incredible amount of tension to each scene. What’s a good way to do that? Use the environment!Here we go with this:
Raven swung her sword in a wide arc, striking all three guards’ blades. They tried to counter, but met air where she once stood.
Yawn. Why? Because all we imagine is a woman named Raven swinging her sword against three guards also armed.
Raven jumped atop the table, kicking a plate of rotten food into the face on the guard to her left while swinging her sword low into the blades of the other two imbeciles. They tried to counter but met air as she jumped off, somersaulting over their heads.
Though, be mindful of things like physics and such. If you’re writing epic fantasy, your reader is going to love this. If you’re writing a Game of Thrones clone, they are not going to be impressed with your Princess Bride moves.
- A good action scene uses a seesaw effect. The hero makes a gain, the enemy pushes back. The hero makes a gain, the enemy pushes back again. Sometimes, you want to use this effect and add a “one square forward, two squares back” so that when the hero makes a gain, the enemy pushes back and now the hero is in a worst position than before.
Let’s try out this example:
Raven parried the Count’s blade aimed for her throat. The bastard swung too hard and she moved in for the kill, bringing her own weapon down to his head. He deftly dodged, his thrust aimed straight at her eye, but she jerked her head.
Decent, but let’s up the stakes a bit:
Raven parried the Count’s blade aimed for her throat, but the tip of his sword bit enough for her to feel the sting. She backed a step, cursing as the bastard swung too hard, the opportunity lost. She brought her own weapon down, trying to draw him in. He deftly dodged, his thrust aimed for straight at her eye, but she jerked her head, the edge of his blade slicing across her cheek deep. He chuckled.
In that example, we’re painting the Count as kind of a better swordsman against Raven. So while she’s holding her own, she’s making mistakes and getting nicked for it. This increases the tension (drastically if your story is grim and dark).
There are many ways to write good actions scenes, but a quick method is to picture them as a good musical score and understand how that score handles pacing, tension, and power.