Action Scenes: The Basics

Action is often at the center of important story points and should grab the reader’s attention with realistic description and exciting actions.

The Purpose of Action

An action scene isn’t really about the action. It’s about how the character’s experience the action and how they are affected by it. Focusing on the sensory and emotional information of the action taking place can help you avoid tedious recounting of every movement.

An action scene should move the story forward. Action for action’s sake get old very quickly. It begins to fill like filler very quickly and can bore the reader. Always consider what the action is or needs to accomplish when writing an action scene.

Whether the hero wins of loses, he/she should learn something important from the experience. This may be actual information, understanding something out his or her self or the antagonist, or a skill or talent revealed (particularly in non-realistic storylines).

Action scenes should improve characterization. Consider why the characters are engaging in this action and what their feelings are about the encounter. Did they enter willingly, reluctantly, under duress, etc. What are their reactions during the experience and how will it affect them once the action is over, including long term?

The reader should learn something important about one or more of the characters during or as a result of the action. What does the character’s motivation to be involved in the action say about him or her? Similar questions help the reader become more personally invested in the story through their connection with the character.

Action scenes should help fulfill the purpose of the book. This relates to action needing to move the story forward, but it goes deeper. It asks that action scenes relate to the overall purpose of the book. Is that purpose to fulfill a quest, reveal hidden abilities, understand the self, etc.? Action can easily become an easy way to provide momentary excitement in an otherwise slow section, however, it will lack depth if that is its only purpose.

Action Basics

Action is often movement, though not in every situation. When writing action scenes such as chases, fights, combat, etc., it is important to balance describing movement with story needs. Avoid writing an entire action scene as blow-by-blow description. This quickly becomes tedious for the reader, and if the reader is not familiar with specific terminology it may be skimmed and important information might be missed. It also slows the pace of the story progression. Intersperse movement description with other story elements to keep the focus on the overall story as well as the immediate action.

When writing action scenes, strive for clarity. If the reader can’t understand what’s going on because it’s too chaotic, they will likely miss the point of the scene. Be specific on what is happening, but don’t overdo it with technical terms or pack in too many movements with little or no explanation on what is actually happening.

Focus on the experience, not the individual actions. Give the reader periodic breaks from the action with glimpses of what the characters are experiencing. These may be thoughts, emotions, observations, sensory input, etc.

We’ll cover show vs. tell later in this series, but keep in mind what the purpose of the scene is and write in a way that fulfills the purpose.