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Writing balanced action scenes

Writing action scenes can be extremely challenging due to their chaotic nature, the pacing, and the possible lack of firsthand knowledge. It’s also very easy for action to overtake a scene to the exclusion of the characters and story. Below are some tips to writing strong and balanced action scenes.

Man with Sword

Do NOT write an entire action scene as blow-by-blow description

This becomes tedious and confusing for the reader and slows the pace. Action must be balanced with description, exposition, internal dialogue, and emotional reflection.

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. Use simple language and shorter sentences. Be clear about who is involved, where it happens, weapons/powers used, risks involved, and consequences.

Focus on the experience, not the individual action

Use all five senses to describe the action. Don’t rely solely on visual and physical elements. Tastes, smells, and sounds are important factors in action scenes. Make the character connect with and react to the devastation going on.

Know the purpose of the scene and write in a way that fulfills the purpose

Why something is happening is just as important, or more important than, what is happening. Makes sure the WHY is clear during an action scene so the reader knows what to pay attention to and absorbs information relevant to the purpose.

Pointing a gun at someone

Avoid the passive voice

The characters are involved in the fight scenes, it’s not happening to them as passive bystanders. The scene should be told through the character’s experience. For example, “Alan was punched by Greg” is a passive description while “Greg punched Alan” is an active description. In the first example, something HAPPENS TO Alan while in the second description Greg actively TAKES action.

Use action scenes as opportunities to explore a character’s motivations and goals

Why do they fight or make the choices they do in the scene and what is the source of that action or decision? Guns are pulled at pointed at people for no reason. It may be a panicked reaction in the moment, or a lifestyle that breeds that type of reaction as instinctual. There are also consequences to taking action. Does the character consider the consequences first, or are they too in the moment to think beyond it?

Make action unique

Use different settings (going into a gunfight from a stairwell presents different challenges than bursting through a window). Vary the number of people involved (a one-on-one fight will play out much differently that two groups battling). Change the tempo (a chase scene has different pacing than a single explosion). Give them different weapons (a spontaneous fight using items lying around has a very different feel than fighters trained to use particular weapons). Create different goals for each scene (rescuing someone requires different types of action than wantonly killing everyone in the room).

Integrate action into a story to drive the plot forward, improve characterization, and provide excitement.