3 Tips for Writing Action Scenes

Lights, camera, action.

It’s time. You’ve written your novel almost to the end. You’ve ramped up the tension and excitement, and the fate of the entire world is at stake. The audience is waiting with bated breath for what’s to come. All that remains is to write the final showdown where your heroes vanquish the great evil and save the day.

It’s going to be awesome.

Only, as you write it, it’s not. It’s not awesome. In fact, it’s a bit dull, and you’re not enjoying it.

You’ve got all these powerful heroes with their amazing powers. You’ve got evocative similes to describe your special effects, and you’ve got a battery of snappy one-liners for the heroes to fire off as they foil the carefully laid out plans of the villain.

But, it’s still boring…

At least, that’s what it’s like for me.

The first draft of any action scene I write is just plain dull. It’s not until the second or third version that it starts to get interesting.

There’s a saying about how the first draft is just about telling yourself the story. Remember this and keep it at the top of your mind, both for action and for writing in general.

The first draft of an action scene is little more than a chronological list of the events taking place at the time. It’s necessary to write it though, or you won’t have anything to spice up for the second draft. It’s so you know what happens.

Done? You’ve got your first draft? Cool. Let’s look at a few tips to make it more interesting.

1. Utilize Pacing

Action is fast.

To reflect this, shorten your sentences. Don’t use complicated words. Use full stops. Often. And then hit your reader in the face with a real long sentence to shake them up a bit and break the monotony.

Think of each full stop as a signal for your reader to take a new breath. When the breaths come fast and often, it helps simulate the excited breathing of an intense action situation. Just don’t overdo it, or your scene might become difficult to read – not because your prose is complex, but because it’s too simple.

Breathe some life into the prose by giving the reader a moment to catch their breath and gather their thoughts.

Then hit them again.

A similar principle applies to paragraphs. When a paragraph ends, it gives the reader another opportunity to process what they’ve just read. A paragraph is like a unit, focused on one thing. I like to keep them relatively short, and then mix it up with a quick one-line paragraph – a single sentence all on its own.

When the eye sees a short sentence on one line, it’s almost like a headline. It signals that whatever is being said is important, so put your big revelations there.

2. Include Timers

Detonation in ten, nine, eight…

An action scene can be over in moments, but for the characters involved, the struggle can seem to last for ever. Depending on your style, it may also be that the scene itself is quite long, with a lot of text. It will probably take longer to read than for the action to play out.

If there’s a lot going on, it can potentially be difficult for a reader to keep track of how much time has passed in the scene.

One way to avoid this is to include some kind of timer. It doesn’t have to be an actual clock, but it can be – like the countdown timer on a bomb. Another example is an oncoming train, or a dragon about to wake up, or a guard doing the rounds.

It can be anything that shows the progress of time.

In one of my stories, the main character estimates the seconds from when an alarm went off to try and gauge when reinforcements will arrive. It’s simple, but it had an interesting side-effect I hadn’t anticipated.

At first, keeping track of the time was easy. Three seconds, then eight, then twelve, or maybe fifteen – each count interspersed with a few paragraphs of activity. After a while though, the more time passed, the more uncertain the estimates became, and this uncertainty added to the tension.

How much time had really passed? When would the reinforcements arrive? Were they even going to show up at all?

The counting didn’t just add to the sense of time passing, but the uncertainty of the count increased the tension in the scene.

3. Use Pauses

A book is not a movie.

Even then reading a book is often described as having the story play out like a movie in your mind – but it’s still not an actual movie. As readers, we translate the words on the page into experiences that our minds take part in. As writers, it’s the other way around – we translate the ideas in our minds into words, and we hope they will translate back into experiences for those who read them.

So what does that have to do with writing action?

The things that impress us when imagined in our minds, aren’t necessarily the same things that impress us when we watch them on a movie screen. We need to figure out what to focus on, and what has the most impact on the reader.

Explosions on screen are cool, and in a movie theatre with a good sound system, they can be very impressive. However, when reading, perhaps it’s the heat of the fire that’s most important. The shockwave that pushes the hero over the edge of the platform. The ringing in their ears, and the thoughts racing through their head, as they hang on by their fingertips.

Often in movies, action is broken up by short pauses where nothing much happens. The hero just catches their breath, or groans in pain after receiving a particularly nasty blow. Just for a second, or even less, and then it’s back into the fight again.

Maybe we get a close up on the heroes face and we see the pain in their eyes, or the rage. Perhaps they’re bleeding. It’s a moment of stillness before the explosions and lasers and fireballs and dragons start going off again.

These are the moments where the written word shines.

Don’t take out the explosions or the lasers. They’re important, but put some focus on the tiny breaks between the punches. This is where the hero feels the pain, and when they have time to reflect on the consequences of failure. It’s where they finally push through their doubts and fears and open up the biggest can of whoop-ass anybody ever saw.

It’s where you make the reader care.

Because, if the reader doesn’t care, then what’s the point?

So pause the action for a little bit. Step away from the fighting, and give the reader a chance to connect with the hero on an emotional level. Yes, right then and there in the middle of the battle, with blood-thirsty orcs howling all around. Let your reader experience the struggle within your hero, and not just watch them from a distance.

Then let them kick ass.

Final Words

To sum things up, I had three pieces of advice:

  • Mind your pacing. Use short sentenced to increase tension, and then break it up with a long one to let your reader catch up.
  • Keep track of time. Show the reader that the clock is ticking, both to help them get a sense of how much time has passed, and to give them a sense of urgency.
  • Books aren’t movies. Use breaks in the action to bring the reader closer to the hero, to remind them of the stakes, and to let them share in the pain and the triumph.

What are your best tips for spicing up your action scenes and making them more exciting to read? Do you have any recommendations for books where the action is done well that you’d like to share (including your own)?

Nils Ödlund

3 thoughts on “3 Tips for Writing Action Scenes”

  1. I wrote one action scene that I like (and many more that are not as good) where the protag begins counting down from 60 (out loud when they can.. so it skips when they can't talk due to intensity of the fight.. so plays with pacing etc) as the fight starts… the "villain" in this particular case does not know why they are counting down but it was a fun way to push the tension of the timer mechanic onto the antagonist. So it is they who feel the pressure to end it before the protag hits 0 – even when they are not sure why.

  2. Have you read The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett?

    The action sequences in that book are captivating. He makes use of both pacing and timers in several memorable scenes. The primary timer is actually central to the story’s plotline: when the sun goes down, the demons arise. That’s a pretty powerful motivator to fight your way indoors.

    • I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard about it.

      Having the setting sun as a timer sounds like a great move. It’s the kind of thing you can’t delay with clever tricks, and it happens at the end of every day – and then maybe one day it’s raining and clouds cover the sky and you can’t tell for sure how late in the day it actually is, so you get trapped outside.

      I’ll have to look that up.


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