Learning how to write action scenes is a technique that will serve most writers, whether you write adventures stories, scifi, or in other genres. I found this post by Michelle Griep on Inspired Prompt extremely helpful. It confirmed some ideas I had already formed about writing action scenes and gave me additional guidelines to make them more effective. Ms. Griep lists seven points. I list three that I’ve found most important.
Use short sentences and paragraphs.
Ms. Griep only advises to use short sentences, but I think short paragraphs are important, too. The brevity of each device speeds readers through the scene, making it more real. Short sentences and paragraphs act like the literary equivalent of rapid-fire editing in movies.
It must have emotional impact.
I’m combining two of Ms. Griep’s points here. An action scene only works if the reader cares about the main character (MC). I’m sure we’ve all sat through a movie in which a long action scenes unfolds with many explosions, breathless escapes, and near-miss catastrophes and yawned all the way through it. Why? Because we didn’t care what happened to the MC.
One way to make readers care is to make clear the consequences of the MC’s success or failure in the scene. In my WIP, A Shadow on the Snow, my MC, nineteen-year-old Rae Riley, is being stalked by someone who hates her late mother. The harassment goes from nasty notes to breaking and entering. While walking home from work in the middle of a snowstorm, Rae is chased by a shadowy figure.
Because I’ve established who Rae is and what her problem is, the reader, hopefully, will care that Rae succeeds in eluding or beating her pursuer.
No time for reflection.
An action scene is no time for the MC to reflect on how he got in this fix or philosophize about the course his life might take. The MC has the mental capacity to act and react and that’s it. I know this from hard-won experience.
Last summer, my husband and youngest went kayaking on the river near our home. It was the highest level of water they had ever tried to kayak. As they attempted to make it back to our bank, my youngest had trouble fighting the current. While assisting our son, my husband was paddling against the current too. I was afraid both of them would tip and be swept downstream.
I had to make an instant decision and waded into the river to help my son because he needed me more. After I secured his kayak on the bank, my oldest yelled that my husband had overturned his kayak, and the river was carrying him away. I ran down the bank, fell into the river up to my neck, climbed out, and kept running with the idea I’d get ahead of my husband and wade out so he could grab me.
It turned out the river wasn’t as deep as I thought, and my husband had no trouble making it to shore. During the hair-raising few minutes this all occurred, my mind was completely occupied with quick decisions and actions. I had no time for questioning my husband’s judgement about kayaking under these conditions. Of course, once everyone was safe, I told my family that as long as I lived and until the day I died none of them would ever again kayak when the river ran that high. EVER.
Writers, what advice can you give on how to write actions scenes? Readers, what are some of the best action scenes you’ve read?