Actions speak louder than words – until they don’t.
“Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say.” ― Alan Watts
When it comes to writing action sequences, many writers are either at a loss for words (ironic, isn’t it?), or they say so much that they inadvertently punch themselves and their captive audience right in the face with them.
Compared to exposition or even dialogue, action sections or “scenes” are temperamental as hell. Think of writing one in much the same way you would go about diffusing a bomb. You can’t move too fast, but you’d better not take your sweet time, either. Manhandle it, and you’re not long for this world. Treat it too lightly, and you won’t figure out how it works and successfully disable it before the big bang.
Because action can be so difficult to get down on the page, it’s one of the areas I hear the most complaints about from my fellow writers: that and romance. To be honest, I much prefer writing action to romance, but generally speaking, I can see where these writers are coming from. It’s a tricky balancing act, but if you keep a few simple rules in mind as you write – and definitely when you’re chugging through some self-edits – then I can promise that editors like me won’t need that red pen as much when we read about your main character’s high-speed chases, duels, or rowdy bar fights.
Boom. Whack. Clang. We’ve all heard of onomatopoeia, or words that, when pronounced out loud, mimic the sound of the action or thing they describe for rhetorical effect. If you ever read comics or watched early superhero cartoons, these words pop up during every fist fight, every showdown with the big bad (“Holy alter ego, Batman!”).
But you don’t have to confine yourself to these words, or clunky adverbs, to get your point across in an action sequence. In fact, your readers will thank you to limit their use in what should be quick, snappy selections of your story. While both of these devices certainly have their places, it isn’t when your character is battling for his or her life, or throwing punches to win the title, or contending with Mother Nature out in the open sea.
Instead, stick to active verbs as much as you can. Kick. Grab. Throw. These are what carry your action sequences forward and help keep your reader as invested in the story as you were when you wrote it. And above all, remember the wise words of English teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society.
“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.”
Have you ever read a section of a book that should have had you on the edge of your seat, but instead you found yourself drifting off or mentally adding things to your grocery list? Or, on the other hand, maybe the author did all the right things to build up to the action, but then it all happened so quickly that you’re left feeling a tad cheated.
Both of these letdowns occur because of faulty pacing and poor sentence structure within a novel. Just like exposition and character backstory can drag on or leave the reader wanting, so can action sequences. It’s all about finding that sweet spot, that perfect structural balance between too much and too little. You might think this is all a matter of opinion, but while preferences will differ from one reader to the next, that magical formula does exist and it does define a healthy range within which writers of fiction should operate if they want to keep readers bouncing on the edge of their seats.
Whenever you finish writing an action-packed selection, stop, walk away, and do something else for a few minutes. When your mind is clear, come back and read what you wrote with fresh eyes. The idea is to approach it like a casual reader, not the writer. Are you bored yet? Are you so ramped up with tension that you’re worried about the state of your nail beds? Does the conclusion of the action make sense, set you up nicely for the next plot point, and does it coincide with the level of intensity you used to build everything up thus far in the manuscript?
If your sentences are long and winding, find a way to rephrase them so that they convey the immediacy of the moment. “Short, sweet, and to the point” should be your mantra when you write sentences for action sequences. No one wants to read in which your main character ran from one end of the hall to the other, then looked over his shoulder only to find that he was about to tumble down a partially concealed staircase that he never would have guessed was there, and… See what I mean?
If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’re more than familiar with the concept of showing rather than telling. When it comes to sensory details in action sequences, this is absolutely crucial. Your readers want to know what’s going on as well as what it all looks like, smells like, sounds like, etc., but not at the expense of the events themselves.
Again, it’s all about balance. As the knight scans the battlefield, he might internally compare the soldiers in the invading army to ants, might note the smell of rain in the air, might describe the sounds of his men’s murmuring like the buzzing of hornets anxious to burst out of the nest, might liken the color of the stone wall behind him to a stormy sea. But when he’s out there kicking ass and taking names? Our bold knight needs to keep his focus on what he’s doing. Mention the clanging of swords meeting armor, but don’t wax poetic about it. Instead, take us through his movements, tell us how quickly his foes fall with a flick of the wrist or a strategic lunge forward. If he’s wounded, maybe he has to limp across the battlefield and it slows him down, leaving him vulnerable and open to further assault. Unless you mean for him to die in this battle, there will be time afterward to paint us a picture of the aftermath, to show us what his world looks like once the action is finished.
Most importantly, don’t overwrite or overextend your words during action sequences. Often, less really is more. If you’re not sure you agree, recall what you can of the last high-stakes sequence of events you actually experienced. I’m willing to bet that, in the moment, you weren’t considering the changing fall leaves or narrating what was going on using the fanciest words you could come up with. Chances are, you remember the key facts, maybe a stray sensory detail here and there, and a running list of colorful cuss words (the length of this list will have depended on the severity of the situation, of course).
Ready to dive into the fray? If you’ve given it all you’ve got, but you’re not sure your action sequences are quite up to par, it’s time to find yourself another set of eyes. Let a trusted reader tell you if your punches break any noses, if the arrows hit their targets, and if the action leaves them just as winded as if they’d run the damn marathon, too.