Lights! Camera! ACTION!

To you who are competing in NaNoWriMo, congratulations on finishing more than two weeks! I’m rooting for you! If you have a minute, tell us your obstacles and triumphs. Questions are welcome too.

On January 24, 2020, Pleasure Writer wrote, I have a really hard time writing action scenes. They turn out so awkward and most of the time I feel like they’re boring to read, which is obviously not the goal for an action scene. Any suggestions on how to better engage my readers in the story?

Two writers responded:

Erica: For me, a good part of what makes action scenes exciting is the vocabulary. “He looked around at” is much less exciting than “He caught glimpses of.” As a general rule, use fewer, vivid words. Also, you might need to adjust the amount of showing vs. telling. I think there is an old post about how to write action scenes, but I don’t remember what it was called.

Christie V Powell: For action, you want shorter, simpler sentences, and shorter paragraphs. It makes it faster to read, and it also creates white space.

For example, the writer I edit for had a sentence that reads: “The outline of a man holding a knife in the air sent her screaming as she struggled out of her bed and ran out of the bedroom.”

I changed it to four sentences: “A shadow crossed her chest of drawers: a man with a knife. She screamed. Her feet tangled in her covers and she struggled out of bed. Somehow she made it out of the bedroom.”

Nice edits! I especially like the last sentence and the humor tucked into it.

A fundamental strategy for action scenes is to make sure the stakes are high, that the reader cares about the outcome. A reason for this is that we give up the tools we usually use to draw in the reader in favor of action. We’re not charming the reader with character development, dialogue, thoughts, emotions, or setting, though we may sneak in a tiny bit of these. In an action scene, we’re probably not going to reveal that our MC loves dogs. No one will give a long speech. Thoughts and feelings will be uncomplicated and limited to what can be conveyed quickly. The setting will be only what’s needed to make the action visible and possible.

An action scene is mostly physical, and the physical alone is just moving body parts and possibly weapons–not inherently interesting. Think of watching a sport or a game. If we don’t know the rules, don’t know the teams or the players, or haven’t placed a bet, we see just movement and aren’t engaged.

Imagine, though, that we’re watching a baseball game and a runner twists an ankle on the way to first base. We don’t know what is going on since we don’t understand the game, but we see he’s trying to get somewhere. We’re a little more interested then, because we want to see how the wounded player does. Not much is at stake, but it’s a beginning. We may put off going to the kitchen for ice cream or to another room to read.

That means everything has to be set up in advance. The poor reader has to be induced to care about the MC and the characters she values. He has to be made to hate or fear the villain or the antagonist, which might be something in the natural world–a wildfire, a storm, a bear. We can do this quickly if we decide to start our story with an action scene: “Mom!” I yelled. “Back away!” I ran toward her–what I told her not to do. Didn’t she see? Didn’t she hear the branches breaking? I vaulted the fence.

We care about this POV character because she’s trying to save her mom. We care about the mom because the narrator seems to love her. And the questions about seeing and hearing make us begin to fear the peril, even if we don’t know exactly what it is.

Once the danger is over, we can add more to reveal who these people are and what the problem will be.

If the reader cares about what’s at stake, he’ll read intensely and quickly. He won’t want character development or any of the other things I mentioned because he has to find out fast! how it turns out.

That’s where the short sentences come in. The reader is stressed out! Long sentences are too complicated. I’m thinking like a reader here. When I’m reading an action scene, I’m going so fast I’m almost skimming. I don’t take in a sentence with a lot of clauses. My eyes will jump thoughts. Is the MC okay? Is the villain getting away with it? Will the trapdoor work?

The reader has to care, which we set up with a relatable MC. Whatever is at stake has to do with her, not that she has to be at risk. In the battle scene near the end of The Two Princesses of Bamarre, for example, the MC’s sister Meryl is the one the reader worries most about.

Once we’ve written a draft of our action scene, we can make it more concise so that it moves faster. We can make sure it’s clear what’s riding on the outcome.

Here are three prompts:

• Continue my beginning: “Mom!” I yelled. “Back away!” I ran toward her–what I told her not to do. Didn’t she see? Didn’t she hear the branches breaking? I vaulted the fence. Write the scene or the whole story.

• Snow White realizes that the evil queen wants to harm her and refuses to open the dwarfs’ door. Undaunted, the queen goes through a window. The poison in this apple is so potent that Snow White doesn’t have to bite or swallow. If it so much as touches her lip, she’s a goner. Write the action scene in which the queen, wielding the apple and possibly a weapon, chases Snow White through the cottage, which can be as big or small as you like.

• Sleeping Beauty has an enemy in her castle, who wants to kill her before she falls asleep, when she’ll be safe from him for a hundred years and forever. You decide who he is and why he’s her enemy. He doesn’t have to be human. Write the action scene in which she is trying to get to the spindle and he is trying to get to her.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Beth Schmelzer says:

    This latest blog is the best yet! My writing journal is a full page of notes on action tips.
    But…I just heard from publisher and editor Kiri, at MG Chicken Scratch Books, that you shouldn’t start with an inciting incident in the first scene or chapter, but you should ground the reader in the MC’s “normal.” What do you all think?
    She analyzed Dan Gemeinhart’s SCAR ISLAND with the 3 Turning Points on a webinar with the SCBWI Montana chapter last weekend.

    • The first scene doesn’t have to be the inciting incident, but it still should be an interesting hook, something crafted perfectly to show the character’s character. KM Weiland calls it a “characterizing moment”. (https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/multi-faceted-characteristic-moment/)

      In my Mira’s Griffin, I opened with the main character climbing a cliff, being startled and falling off, and being rescued by a strange creature which turns out to be a griffin. Then she goes back to her normal world for a chapter and a half. The inciting incident is when she is captured by griffins. So the opening is still exciting and hints at the conflict to come, but the II isn’t until chapter 3.

      I pulled another book off my shelf. High Sierra by Adrienne Quintana. The opening is when the main character arrives at a cabin and realizes her mother sent her to a “wilderness therapy” program. She’s judgmental of the “problem kids” and of her surroundings, but she’s relatable because of the conflict with her mother. The inciting incident is when their van sets out to drop off their group in the wilderness, and she meets their attractive wilderness guide.

      My kids were just watching the movie Newsies in the car. It opens with setting up the setting, and introduces the main character “Jack” as someone who’s tough, respected by the other boys, and stands up for others. He speaks out against a bully, starts a fight, and manages to get away without punishment. The II comes a bit later, when the newspaper owner increases the prices the boys have to pay for newspapers.

      • Here’s a fun example for this blog:
        Ella Enchanted: The characteristic moment is when Ella describes how she got her curse (this is also the Key Event, but that’s another subject). The Inciting Incident is when she meets Prince Char after her mother’s funeral.

        Story structure is somewhat instinctual. Often stories, including both books and movies, will follow it even when the creator(s) didn’t use it intentionally. Personally, I find that when I use it in the planning stage, I write faster and cleaner (the book needs less editing). But yeah, it’s very much a personal choice.

  2. I was wondering if anyone had any tips on editing your story. I’m almost finished (one more chapter) and I was just wondering if there was a trick to editing and revising. If you have any tips I’d love to hear.

    • I agree. Also, follow Ms. Levine’s advice and save what you write. My first drafts tend to be long and filled with way too much background information, but when I need to look up, say, a description of Heather’s garden, I can find it instead of having to rack my brain for the information and eventually giving up and making something up. When you’re editing, look very carefully at description and backstory, and keep an eye out for infodumping. For me, those are the things most likely to throw me out of the story. Plus spelling and grammar, of course, but you don’t have to look for that on the first go-round.
      One last tip, if you’re working with Word, you can right click a word and at the very bottom of the sidebar (is that what you call it?) that pops up, there’s an “Insert comment” button you can use to make notes to yourself, and if you send the document to other people, they can add their own notes. Very handy for beta-reading.

    • I start by making a list of scenes, and then put them in the right order. This helps me figure out what still needs to be added and what can be cut.
      Later, for proofreading, printing the story out and looking at a physical copy is a big help for catching things you missed previously.

  3. Writing Cat Lover says:

    Mrs. Levine,
    Do you think you could write a blog post of poetry? Specifically free-form?
    Does anyone here have any tips on that?

    • I just finished a Poetry 1 class, and these were some of the things I learned.
      1) Lines of poetry are not sentences. Don’t try to make them be. (This is one of the hardest things for me.)
      2) Sound is very important. Assonance and alliteration can make or break a poem.
      3) Syllable count is important even in free verse, to make sure the poem flows naturally.
      4) Always read poems out loud and, if possible, have someone else read them to you. You catch all kinds of mistakes that way.
      5) Word choice is critical. Always look for specifics, and avoid cliches and overly “tidy” or sentimental endings.
      6) A line should end on a strong word and be “a world in and of itself” unless you have a very good reason for it not to be.
      7) Find poets you like and read as much of their work as you can find. This will give you not only a better feel for their work, but a sense of what you want to do with your own.
      If you have any more specific questions, feel free to ask, but this should get you started.

  4. I saw a quote once and it really inspired me. I’m going to post it here, and I hope it inspires you too. Just so you know, I have forgotten who said it.
    Quote: When something unexpected happens, yell “PLOT TWIST!” and move on.

  5. Troubleshooting question:

    I’m trying to write a story for an anthology with a deadline of next month. I keep getting started, chugging along…and stalling out. The characters make idle chat that never gets to a point. Any actions I think of feel boring or contrived. Anyone know some good tricks for finding out where the problem lies?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Which character interests you most? Which one do you care most about? What is that character’s problem or terrible circumstances or challenge? Maybe the answer to one or all of these will get you there.

    • And you don’t have to look just at the characters. Maybe you have a really interesting setting that you could explore, or even a plot idea lurking somewhere down the road. When all else fails, write lists.

      • I vote for the sports car, because to me motorcycles have a bit of the “Are you TRYING to get yourself killed?” vibe to them. But that’s probably just me.

        • The person that the M/C is trying to get in/onto it would probably love the motorcycle, but I thought of something that might make the sports car work better.

          Whatever it is, it’s a magic vehicle that makes the driver tell the truth. So if it’s a car, the person the MC is trying to catch in a lie can fill it full of people he’s trying to impress, strap himself in, turn on the car…and the radio blares “THIS GUY’S A LIAR!”

  6. Hi.
    I’m new to this blog so is there a set day when you put out new posts so I can read them quickly or is it just whenever you feel like it?

  7. Writing Ballerina says:

    Been a while since I poked my head into this corner of the internet! Hello again, all :D.
    I’m doing Nano, and in the disaster that is all first drafts – but particularly this one – I find myself at a loss for how to fill space between important plot beats in a way that’s not boring, and specifically not repetitive. This is a problem because I can’t just say ‘and then a few months passed’ because the things they’re supposed to be doing – training, strategizing, developing relationships, healing, etc – are important — but I’m running out of ways to make such scenes fresh. Any tips?

    • Honestly, for NaNo, a lot of times I’ll make a heading that says “Get to Know You Time” or “Traveling chapter” or something like that. Then I’ll jot down a couple notes and move on. Often, as I’m writing the important beats, I’ll realize a scene or conversation needs to happen, so I’ll go back and either write it or describe it in that filler chapter.

      I just crossed the 50k marker, but I haven’t quite reached “the end” yet. Two big “chapters” to go.

    • I’m in the same boat with one of my WIPs (not my NaNo one, but one I’ll go back to when November’s over). I know that the two main characters develop a relationship and that one of them has a lot of learning and settling in to do, but I don’t know how to write it in a smooth, flowing way without any action building up.

      • You can still have some action, even if it’s not a major plot point. It just won’t be as impactful.
        Have you tried a brainstorming list? My lists usually turn into stream-of-conscious brainstorming as I try to figure out what interesting scenes can accomplish what I need to had happen. I also discuss things with my husband, who sometimes has good ideas (buried under a lot more stream-of-conscious brainstorming 🙂 )

        Brandon Sanderson lists out what plotlines he has, and then writes down the necessary steps. For example, one can be “main character learns to trust”. He then puts down things like: “learns to care for another person” or “another person does something selfless for them”. Then when he’s writing, he’ll look at the lists to determine what comes next.

        KM Weiland’s method is to look at the relationship between the Lie the character believes about the world, and the Need/Truth that will fix it. The character is “punished” by consequences for acting with the Lie, and “rewarded” for moving towards the Truth.

        You can take some time to look at a different aspect of your story. For instance, they can learn a bit about the setting–like when Ella meets the elves. If they’re traveling, they can explore a new city or learn about an old legend. You can find a creative way to reveal some backstory that fleshes out the story, even if it’s not crucial.

  8. Life Means Books says:

    Well, If I reached a boring part where you want time to pass, I would build up some conflict. But it definitely depends on the story. If a war is going on, I would have a small attack, or if you want to build maybe a romantic relationship, have one of you characters try to alert the object of love that they like it. Then have it go terribly wrong.

  9. Life Means Books says:

    Besides, I’m at the exact same spot as you. I know where I am, and I know where I want to go, but I don’t quite know how to get there

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