Action scenes may seem like islands within the bigger storyline at times, but it is important to match the action to the overall story and to write it in a way that shows the reader what’s happening rather than telling them it happened.
Matching Action and Story
An action scene needs to fit the story’s overall tone and pacing. It will seem out of place if the majority of the story’s style is light and silly and the action scenes are dark and gritty. If the story is written in a direct and confrontational tone, it will likely work well in action scenes and may not need many adjustments. A conversational tone may require more adjustments, but action can still be described in a semi-causal style that will work well with the overall style.
Action is naturally faster paced than exposition, but should still be similar to how the rest of the scenes are written so the style of writing doesn’t feel completely new. Pacing can be adjusted by using different lengths of sentences and words that convey intensity while still maintaining the overall style.
Stick with vocabulary and syntax that is similar to the rest of the story in action scenes. It may be necessary to include terms specific to the fight scene, but don’t overload the reader with jargon. Keep your reader in mind when determining how much to change the vocabulary in a fight scene. Use terms you have already explained when possible to avoid inundating the reader with new information.
If the majority of the prose is simple sentences, don’t suddenly switch to mostly complex, multi-clause sentences, or vice versa. Again, consider that your reader has gotten used to a certain style while reading and does not want to be asked to get used to a new style for a short scene.
Character tone should stay consistent as well. A generally arrogant character may go through a fight scene with confidence and calm while a more flighty character may dart around frantically. Consider each character’s traits and what he or she would be most likely to do or think in a stressful or frightening situation. It’s also important to consider how you normally write a character’s movements, actions, or thoughts in a non-action scene and only make those changes that are necessary to make it clear to the reader that the situation has changed.
Keep the general writing style consistent as well by avoiding major changes in the balance between exposition, description, and internal dialogue. Adjust each element to fit the pacing and situation only as much as is required by the action taking place.
Show vs. Tell
Don’t talk to the reader about a fight or chase scene, show it to the reader as it is happening. Showing instead of telling allows the reader to better experience the fight rather than just being told about it.
Focus on what the character is experiencing more than each individual punch or crash. Use all five senses to describe the action when possible. Not every scene requires all five sense, but use as many as possible to set the scene well enough that the reader can picture the scene and what is happening.
Describing sensory experiences helps the character connect with and react to the devastation going on around him or her. If the character connects with the scenes, the reader is more likely to connect with it as well.
Have the character interact with the scene (using available resources, feeling textures, struggling to move around because of a lack of light, etc.). The fight or other action is not happening in a vacuum. Even if the main action is a heated argument, there are still sensory elements that can be noticed or interacted with, such as scents (smell of burnt dinner or roses brought by an unwanted suitor), textures (rough fabrics on a chair the character is unable to get up from), etc.
In expansive action scenes, use different perspectives to show what is happening in all areas. Each character involved will see, feel, and hear the scene differently. If you are working with an omniscient POV or multiple POVs, make use of that to more fully build the scene in the reader’s mind.
Avoid tell-y words like “felt” and show how it feels instead. For example, “He felt pain course through his arm” is less engaging than “Pain raced through his arm, stealing his breath.” Evaluate each sentence in an action scene for its effectiveness at communicating with the reader. If it is simply telling the reader that something happened, rework it to help the reader experience what the character did in that moment.
The same idea applies to character thoughts. Use internal dialogue for introspection or description of emotion instead of telling the reader how a character feels or thinks about what is happening. For example, “She was confused by his yelling,” simply tells the reader how she reacted while “His arguments bombarded her, loud and sharp, too many at once to make any sense to her” gives the impression of confusion and being overwhelmed more fully.