Hello wonderful people of internet land! I am currently reading Winter by Marissa Meyer, the amazing final book in the Lunar Chronicles. And while most of this series has been out of this world, I was taken aback to find myself bored to death in the middle of an action sequence that happens early in the book.
And I sat there, sighing, because scenes with fighting and shooting and running are supposed to be EXCITING. But unfortunately, this one scene just wasn’t. It got me thinking – what exactly does make a good fight scene? Or a bad one? So, without further ado, here’s my list of how to NOT fail at writing an action sequence.
1. Remember that you’re not directing a movie.
A common mistake I see (and am tempted to make) is that writers want to record every single action. Almost like you’re choreographing a dance. But if you’re recording every hand movement, every strike, every shift in weight and every thought, you’re doing it wrong. The reader gets bogged down in details and actually has a harder time visualizing.
2. Include the important details – ONLY the important details.
This goes along with #1. Obviously, you need to describe what’s happening. But sometimes, it’s okay to gloss over a bunch of action with a single sentence. Sum up an entire minute of fighting with “He hit Jamie over and over again, until the blackness crept in and Jamie welcomed it.” Okay? We don’t need a description of each blow. Just the important stuff.
3. Remember that your writing style conveys the action as much as your words.
Which of these feels like it’s happening faster:
“He quickly raised his fist and launched it towards my face, and before I could even blink, I was hit with the force of a cannon ball, right beneath my eye on my left cheek. I reel backwards, my feet snagging on the ground, and I work to gain my balance. Black clouds seem to be gathering in front of my eyes, but I try to blink them away so I can keep fighting.”
“His fist comes up.
Impact, knocking me back.
I try to gain my balance and blink away the black spots.”
I’ve generally found that by using shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, and less adjectives and adverbs, you can make your writing convey the urgency and the fast-pace you’re going for.
4. Let me inside the character’s head. (Also – show, don’t tell.)
A lot of times I’ll be very engaged with a story and a character, but a fight scene comes up and suddenly I have no idea what the main character is feeling anymore. So please, keep me inside your character’s head. Give me thoughts and feelings. (Best done in quick sentences, just like we discussed above.) Give me internal sensations – a thundering heart, shallow breathing, shooting pain, taste of blood, panic, etc. This will help you to SHOW, not TELL.
Instead of saying “I feel like I’m going to pass out,” say “The world spins, my chest burns for air, and the ground comes up to meet me.” Instead of “She began to feel tired,” say “Her legs seemed chained to the ground, and she couldn’t breathe fast enough.”
Try to avoid words like feel, hear, taste, etc. Just go on and describe what your character is feeling, hearing, etc.
5. Keep the stakes high.
Nothing glues the reader to the page like a stray thought of This is it. I’m going to die. Oh, mom I’m so sorry. If I as a reader am not genuinely worried about the outcome of a fight, I’m not going to read it. I’m going to skim.
6. Do your research.
Unless swords are magically protected (like in Eragon), they actually can’t take too much of a beating before they get chipped and useless (read this article). If you’re writing sword fights, research swords. A lot. If you’re writing about forests, research navigating a forest. If you’re writing about horses, research horses. You get the picture? Do your research.
What about you guys? What keeps you engaged in a fight sequence, or what makes you want to skim?
If you need more help with action scenes, here’s an excellent article that says much of the same thing.