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.
23 thoughts on “5 Tips for Writing Action Scenes”
I was always worried Meela was a bit overpowered so I made her lose or unable to do things occasionally, such as almost getting fatally stabbed in a melee while defending the walls of a fortress. Also having to seek a healer was a nice side-quest.
The healer side quest was nice. I think part of what might have made Meela was OP was the contrast with the love interest (name eluding me – Caitlyn?). She wasn’t as obviously powerful, so Meela chapters were so much more hardcore action. Their power was different, but Meela’s was more “masculine” and thus traditionally more “valuable”. It worked out, but that’s just 2 cents.
It was quite fun to write with the contrasting activities of the main characters. While Meela was getting involved in battles and sieges, Caelynn was skulking around the palace and getting involved in intrigue. Yes Meela is definitely more butch than Caelynn…
Your comments in point one about a powerful protagonist reminds me of the comment my first critique partner said about Kerrid, that she seemed super-powerful, so where was the story. To which came my reply, that while Kerrid can kill with a thought, to zap everyone who’s against her wouldn’t lead to a very satisfying life. In fact, throughout the five books, she resists that easy zap, which in itself is a challenge.
I think Kerrid’s real struggle is one of “Who do I want to be, and how do I get there in a society that doesn’t want me to be that person?” That’s not a story type appealing to everyone because the problems are quiet and internal. Kerrid could solve all her external problems through murder, but that would send her down a path she doesn’t want to tread. It’s up to you, as the author, to make the decision if it works.
And as you know, I made the decision. And in the end (Bk 5) she does come through… BIG TIME
Will get there eventually! 😉
I know, they’re not short books. Don’t know how to do short… unless it’s micro
I think short stories are hard – as hard as novels, in some ways!
Because I tend not to read short stories, I tend not to write them. Yea, I can throw out a micro-prose but seldom does the micro contain a proper story i.e. a change in the protagonist
Micros are different beasts. I find it hard to have a self-contained story, but then again I’m pretty sure you can’t do that well in micros.
I don’t aim for a story structure with micros, more an anecdote, an observation or idea
Great tips, HRR. Fight scenes are interesting animals and practice writing them definitely helps, as well as reading them and studying what works and what doesn’t. And great point about skills and power. If it’s too easy, its boring. 🙂
Overpowered characters are one of the most common problems I’ve noticed. But they’re hard to fix once discovered – I know I’ve put too much of myself into overpowered characters, and I just have to shelve the book for a while until I can get over it.
These are good tips, H. Thanks for sharing.
No problem! Action scenes can always be improved.
At least I’ll be brave to write action scene. That’s more need long to think such as how I punch enemy or defense from beat even avoid the hit. You make those simple and easier to create great example but I still struggle to write action scene, that’s the hard one
Yeah, fight scenes are hard. Reading different fight scenes – good and bad – can help you define what you want to do.
Kevin mentions a Mary Sue whenever I complain about weak female characters and/or romances. I can open my own jar of pickles, you know. 🙂
The tips are great!!
I am so, so not a fan of romances. I’ve liked a few books with romantic subplots, but only really Pride and Prejudice (spoiler for tomorrow, ahem) in terms of pure romance. I’ve recently had a person ask me to review their romance self-pubbed book, and I’m like, “uhhhh, I can, but… you sure, brah?”
My neighbor’s mother churns out several clean romances a year! We read one for book group -I *tried* to read it. It was like chewing week-old Cream O’Wheat with an unnecessary cup of sugar and unexplainable cup of Unicorn Lucky Charms thrown in.
Hahaha, toss out the cream of wheat and chug the sugar!
My mom liked clean romances a lot and once told me that she was reading a fantastic book. I picked it up when she was done, and I swear I’ll never look at a woman picking apples from a ladder without vomiting in my heart ever again.