Welcome to the Witty Nib Writing Club, where we study all things writing and look to hone our craft! This week we look at the excitement of action scenes as I compile some of the best advice I’ve found and accumulated during my quest for exciting books.
5. Give Your Hero a Chance to Lose
The first step to determining this is to think of your character’s and villain’s powers. Is your character so powerful that there’s no reason for them to lose? Is your villain and their henchmen so comparatively weak that their winning wouldn’t make sense?
If your character is too powerful and the outcome of the fight is foregone, the fight is going to have less importance to it. If a reader can start reading the fight, skip the details, and get to the end without feeling like anything unexpected happened, the fight might not be done right. Consider which you might be able to do: take away your character’s powers, or add powers to your villain.
Sometimes, your answer might be “no, my character is not overpowered” even if it should be “yes”. In this case, you may have accidentally created what some people call a “Mary Sue”. This isn’t necessarily bad – Breq from Ancillary Justice and the rest of the Imperial Radch trilogy is most definitely a Mary Sue, but the story is interesting enough that Leckie mostly gets away with it. If you’re worried that your character might be a Mary Sue, this is a fairly good test that may help you figure out if your character really is overpowered (as long as you have a reasonable view of your character and aren’t too close, and yes, I realize the person who made this test no longer believes in it).
*Note: You may not have as much a problem if, by winning/losing a fight as expected, unexpected consequences occur. Such as, if your character just straight up ganks a villain, what happens mentally? What if it breaks them somehow, and it becomes a major plot point or character growth moment? These sorts of things can help, but it probably means the fight needs to be over fast.
4. Vary the Techniques
“And Batman punched the guy with the left. Then he gave a right hook. Then he punched him repeatedly with his hands. Then he punched with a left.”
How did that read? Pretty crappy, right?
“And Batman punched the guy with the left. Then he backed up, tossed a bat-hook into a beam in the rafters. He held onto the cable of the bat-hook, and swung into the guy.”
Both are written crappily, but the second one is more fun to imagine. The first is a repetitive set of circumstances which grows old quickly.
The difference between them is that the second takes two totally different methods of beating up the bad guy. Unless you’re reading a book about boxing, just punches and kicks aren’t going to keep as much interest as something with greater visual interest.
3. Shorter Sentences and Paragraphs
Something soothing deserves words that are long, flowery, and quiet. It deserves sentences that meander like a long river, as slow as the Mississippi though with high informational flow rates. Purple prose has no purpose in fight scenes and should be avoided at all costs.
Fights are visceral, punchy, tight. Character thoughts are jarring and can fly anywhere. Short sentences raise tensions, and good use of verbiage makes better images.
Shorter paragraphs can also help – a shift in the battle can cause a shift in the paragraph, a shift in how the narrator reacts. Keep an eye out for any point where you think a paragraph should begin and end, and keep the action moving with the changes.
2. Feel More than Think
I’ve seen multiple articles out there about “correct” representations of martial arts, or bows, or shooting. And yes – if you’re going to have fight scenes wherein you’re using a weapon or fighting style, by all means look those up. Learn as much as you can about techniques, training, whatever you can.
But remember, nuances about a fighting style aren’t going to be interesting to a broader audience. Sure, you may know every part of a cannon, or you may want to show that you’re informed about flintlock pistols, but people don’t care about those things. You’re not Herman Melville, and you don’t have a publisher who’s willing to overlook half a book detailing information relevant to his characters’ day jobs.
What makes a difference in the flow of a fight scene is how the character(s) feel about developments in the fight. How does this last punch change everything? How does hanging off the edge of a cliff change the hero’s fear levels? Can – or should – the reader feel these things with your character?
So look up all these details, but be careful not to come off like a know-it-all just trying to brag on yourself. Use knowledge to be complete, but use your feelings to make that knowledge really count.
1. It’s Not About the Action
An action scene in a book (and, let’s be honest, movies too) is merely a vehicle for change. Much like sex scenes, a fight is just an adrenaline rush with no purpose in and of themselves.
It’s what happens around the fight that must support a fight.
If you write an absolutely garbage fight scene, you can still have it work out if the bones surrounding it gives 1) good reason for there to be a fight and 2) a plot- or character-important result of said fight. It also helps if the result of your fight makes sense, but even that can be forgiven (as long as it makes even a shred of sense – Bambi’s not taking out Skeletor).
So get people to check over your fight scene just as you would get people to look over any other scene. For people who read your entire book, I’d suggest paying attention to whether or not their attention seemed to flag across the scene. Together with the #2 suggestion on this list, you’ll be able to make a more enduring scene than a 20-page, action-packed, “high-adrenaline” fight scene extravaganza.
If you want to know more, this is the best YouTube video I’ve seen on the subject. Though a lot of the advice relates to film, it’s rather fantastic for novelists too.