Writing action scenes

Not all action scenes hold a reader’s attention.

Point in case: (And, shh, don’t tell my hubbie about this post) Hubbie loves war movies and action. He tends to roll his eyes when I bring home a romantic comedy from Red Box. Wanna know why? **giggling**

He usually falls asleep during “his” movies – a lot of running, great music, a lot of running, shooting, explosions, great music, dialogue, more running, shooting, great music, explosions.

**more giggling** And he stays awake during “my” movies – great dialogue, great dialogue, great dialogue, great dialogue, great dialogue. (note the emphasis on great)

So, on Friday night, when he stayed awake for the entire romantic comedy (and it was a tad bit cheesy), I thought about action in stories. And why it’s so hard to get right. And why it sometimes falls flat or the reader loses interest.

  • Action in stories can’t be just a bunch of punches. Or explosions. Or running. Those things are good, but not by themselves.
  • Action needs to show the character reacting to the punches, explosion, and running.
  • Action needs to move the story forward and be more than one escape attempt after another. Increased stakes. New revelations.
  • Action needs to bring out an emotional response in the reader. We need to care about the character.
  • Action needs to be sprinkled with our main character’s internal thoughts. We can’t lose touch with the reason our reader is reading.
  • Action, whether in the opening or in the climax, needs its own arc.
  • Action that doesn’t keep the brain working puts the reader (or viewer) to sleep.

I’m still figuring it all out. But there are action scenes where my heart pounds and there are action scenes I skip through to see what happens because most of it is filler.

What are your tips for writing riveting action? Do you have any good reads with great action?

20 Responses to Writing action scenes

  1. Carole Anne Carr September 13, 2010 at 10:03 am #

    I have many comments from children, and adults!, who say that they can’t put my books down, something is happening on every page and they have to find out what happens next. It’s hard to get this right. However, I find that if I constantly relate the thoughts and feelings of the person involved, (I write in first person so it’s easy), then I hold the child and adult’s attention throughout the book.

  2. Jody Hedlund September 13, 2010 at 10:49 am #

    All great points, Laura. I think when we “care” about a character and are invested in them and their lives, the action is much more moving. So I think it has a lot to do with character development.

    • Laura September 13, 2010 at 10:57 am #

      Carole – That’s wonderful you hear that from your readers! Keep it up!

      Jody – I’ve begun to notice in books that when original well done internal thoughts pop up – I love it! Esp. when I love the character. And that’s important throughout the action scenes. Hard part is they have to be done right!

  3. Benoit Lelievre September 13, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    Again a great debate Laura.

    You hinted at what I think makes a great action scene, “characterization”. Any idiot can get into a gun fight, but what does make somebody win one? The chaos factor. Everybody is different so you can’t know for sure how will somebody react to pressure. Hence the important of having strong characters.

    Look at Guy Ritchie movies for example. Always that same gangster pattern, BUT his characters are so strong and so unique every time that his movies stand out. No one could mix up Mr. One-Two and Turkish.

  4. Anna September 13, 2010 at 12:43 pm #

    I can’t tell you how often I zone out during action sequences in movies! When we went to see the second Iron Man movie, I spaced out for the entire dramatic final fight scene. Even though it was supposed to be the climax of the movie, I could not pay attention. It went on too long and there just wasn’t enough of what you’re talking about – a reason to care! It’s so tricky to get right, but when you have that balance, it’s so satisfying.

    • Laura September 13, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

      benoit – STrong characters are essential for a successful action scene.

      Anna – I’ll zone out during those scenes (but I don’t fall asleep). And yes, tricky to get right!

  5. Karen Lange September 13, 2010 at 1:10 pm #

    I think you’ve summed it up well. The key is a good balance, and you’re right, it can be tricky to attain this.

  6. Paul September 13, 2010 at 4:49 pm #

    Hi Laura,

    I think caring about the character is key for a reader to connect to an action-packed story. Without a compelling internal story the action is empty. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  7. Susan R. Mills September 13, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

    I think joining the action with the characters’ emotions is key. That’s what draws the reader in.

    • Laura September 13, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

      Karen – It is tricky. An aspect of writing I’ll always be working on!

      Paul – I love to pick up a story where I fall into the character’s world from the very start.

      Susan – I think you’ve mentioned what is at the core – emotion!

  8. Margo Berendsen September 13, 2010 at 6:20 pm #

    Oh man, this is so true! Action without some sort of emotional connection just causes you to tune out. You just made think of two action movies: the Island (Ewan MacGregor) got you to care so much about the characters, that the action scenes were absolutely riveting. Push (Colin Ford) didn’t make as strong an emotional connection with the characters, and after a while I started glazing over the action scenes.

    Too funny about your husband falling asleep during his action movies!

  9. Susan Kaye Quinn September 13, 2010 at 7:05 pm #

    I love what you’re saying about action having its own arc! I think there is a rhythm and tempo to any scene, action or otherwise, and you have to honor that. I’m still feeling my way through this, not necessarily understanding it, but finding it intuitively. Not the best method, I think, but it will do for now. 🙂

  10. Karen Strong September 13, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

    Great tips for writing action scenes.

    An author that always has great action scenes is Scott Westerfeld — especially his MIDNIGHTERS trilogy. Full of action scenes.

  11. Lisa Green September 13, 2010 at 8:37 pm #

    Great advice! I have a lot of action in my WIP and I worry about just that. I want to make sure that it is not only moving the plot forward, but is actually develop characters. Hopefully by the time I’m done with revisions, I will have succeeded! I do like action, but as you say, it has to be done right!

  12. Jackee September 13, 2010 at 9:06 pm #

    Wonderful advice! Thanks, Laura, this was just what I needed right now. I’ve been revising my action scenes and it seemed to lack something. Now I’m sure it’s MC reaction. Thank you!

    Have a wonderful week!

  13. patti September 13, 2010 at 10:19 pm #

    I’m not very good at action scenes but do try to break them apart and act out the movements.


    • Laura September 13, 2010 at 11:52 pm #

      Patti – I haven’t actually acted them out, but I’ve heard that’s a good thing to do!

      Jackee – It’s what I needed too!

      Lisa – That’s what revision is for!! 🙂

      Karen – Thanks! I’m sure there is more great tips out there too.

      Susan – Just like any scene should have its own arc. Things I need to focus on too!

  14. write-brained September 14, 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    hee hee that’s awesome about hubby! and your points are spot-on!

  15. Robert Guthrie September 14, 2010 at 11:08 pm #

    I zone out unless it’s character-driven.

    The last action movie I saw was Batman and I was so bored: 5 minutes of blowing up, chase, break, repeat. Yawn.

  16. Julie Musil September 15, 2010 at 12:27 am #

    When I first learned about writing action, I thought this meant the explosions, etc. I don’t write that stuff! Now I realize it means just what you said, moving the story forward, etc.

    I try to make sure that what I’m writing is moving the story forward, and not unnecessary fluff.

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