Writing Action Scenes

I find writing action scenes one of the most difficult and rewarding scenes to write. They’re difficult because all the elements of a story–character, setting, and plot–have to be in correct balance so readers can be carried away with the action, living the scene with the main character. It ruins the scene if the reader is racing through this exciting passage and trips over something that doesn’t work.

Such as:

“Hero grabbed a lamp and hurled it at Villain.”

READER: Wait a minute. I thought they were fighting in the kitchen. Where’d the lamp come from?

Analysis of an Action Scene

When I write an action scene, I want to plant my readers firmly in the head the main character (MC). Here’s how I wrote the beginning of an action scene from my YA mystery A Shadow on the Snow:

  • 1. At the sidewalk, I glanced up the hill. And dropped the bags.

MC commits an action that immediately tells readers something surprising or shocking has occurred.

  • 2. A figure, backlit by the streetlamp, stood at the corner. 

Readers learn what has shocked MC. Explanation is short because action scenes should read fast to build excitement.

  • 3. Spinning, I fell to my knees. I snagged the bags and, stumbling across the lot, reached the guardrail at the opposite side. 

I use specific verbs and nouns so readers can imagine what MC is doing and where she is.

  • 4. I scrambled over it and fell five feet down the retaining wall into the little yard behind an empty building. Panting, I raised myself into hunched stance and ran, scrambling over snow-encrusted chunks of crumbling asphalt. 

More specific verbs and nouns to make scene vivid.

  • 5. Please, Father. It can’t end like this. 

Now readers are inside MC’s head to know exactly how she is feeling and thinking.

  • 6. Behind the deli, I slipped, and the urn rolled out of its bag. I squinted against the flakes. No silhouette. Nobody. 

Scene description to orient readers in the setting. Also show what MC is doing–looking for her pursuer.

  • 7. I needed to get out on Main Street and head for Mal’s office. I slapped piles of snow until my palm smacked the urn. I shoved it into a bag and ran into the alley beside the deli. A streetlight illuminated the end that came out on Main Street, welcoming me like a lighthouse. 

The first sentence is a thought. Then action and description to keep the scene moving and readers grounded in it.

  • 8. Bent under the weight of my backpack, I struggled toward Main Street, gripping and regripping the sagging bags. 

“Bent”, “struggled”, and “regripping” convey MC’s perception of scene.

  • 9. A figure ran across the entrance to the alley. 

Report of what MC sees, which orients readers to where MC and pursuer are in the setting.

  • 10. My throat closed as my feet froze to the icy pavement. 

Reaction that reveals the MC’s feelings.

  • 11. What … what do I do? 

MC’s thought, so readers are living the scene with the MC.

  • 12. Wheeling, I fell against the deli’s rough brick wall and glanced back. 

More action, keeping it short and to the point.

For more tips on action scenes, click here for my previous post and this one from author Michelle Griep.

What are the best actions scenes you’ve read? What advice do you have for writing action scenes?

2 thoughts on “Writing Action Scenes

Add yours

  1. I think getting the timing right for an action scene is important, though I’m not sure I have advice on the topic. Including enough details so the reader experiences the adrenaline is important, but sometimes I get too bogged down in that, and my beta readers remind me that maybe the life-or-death moment is not the time that the main character will start pondering some irrelevant thought. I think you do a great job with action scenes!

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