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!