Action scenes used to be the hardest thing for me to write. I think partly I had trouble with them because I tend to work stories out visually first, almost daydreaming my scenes before or while I write them. When the action is high, though, there’s too much happening too fast to write a play-by-play the same way I would with, say, a scene of dialogue between just two characters. Bad enough to write a dialogue scene including six or seven people, which can get just as jumbled and messy as any climactic battle!
Over the years, though, I’ve gotten very comfortable with writing action sequences. I still get anxious when I’m coming up on one, worrying if I’ll pull it off or if it’ll be a worthy payoff after a big lead-up – but once I get into the action, it’s almost always smooth sailing.
So how do you control the chaos of an action scene well enough to let the reader follow clearly what’s happening, but keep the feeling of chaos and speed?
Some of the things I try to do –
- Keep your sentences simple and on the short side. It doesn’t have to be Hemingway, but it just makes sense that it’s easier for people to keep up with complex action if your sentences are easy to follow.
- Make your details count. In fight-or-flight mode, our senses are heightened, but we also orient toward and lock onto the source of threat. It’s built into our systems. So with that in mind, are your characters going to notice the beautiful old oak trees in the background, or the tendons of an enemy’s arm clenching as he prepares to lunge forward with a knife? Maybe there’s a vivid blur of green behind them, giving a sense of the lush forest surroundings, but a ‘vivid blur of green’ gives a lot more of a sense of (a) motion, speed, (b) heightened senses, and (c) the irrelevance of the world beyond the immediate confrontation.
- Make your details COUNT. Cliche details won’t get you anywhere with readers. They’re already filling in stuff about the character’s heart pounding in her ears, because they’ve read it a million times. So assume they know the character’s heart is pounding. Great. You get a freebie. Now come up with something more personal, more telling, and use that as your detail.
- If too much happens at once, let it be a little confusing. Let the character or the narration describe the disorientation of being in that moment, but keep it in that moment. You can explain what happened later.
- Don’t spoil your action by telling every little step blow-by-blow. Action scenes would be pretty boring if I had to read through every thrust and parry of a swordfight. Give the highlights, the turning points, the moments of terror and the moments of hope, the instant the stakes get higher, and the moment of triumph or defeat. Everything else is irrelevant, like having a vital exchange of dialogue interspersed with an unrelated conversation about so-and-so’s cute new shoes floating over from the next table. Sure, maybe it would be there in real life, but that doesn’t mean it should be there in fiction.