One of the most common struggles I hear about new (and not so new) writers having, is the struggle of writing good action scenes.
Action scenes can be incredibly hard to write in a realistic but also easily readable way. It’s one thing to have everything perfectly choreographed, but it’s a completely different matter to still engage the readers. Action scenes very easily turn into a jerky list of ducks and physical movements.
And the problem is that you can know the name for every sort of punch and list how many times your character ducks and dodges and kicks, but it won’t make a good action scene. In fact, I would almost go to say that the more details of that sort you include, the worse the action scene is.
“Action, no matter what form it takes, must advance the plot and deepen characterization.”
— K.M. Weiland
Action scenes can’t just be thrown into your story for the sake of making action happen. It has to make the character deeper and it has to have a role in the plot, as K.M. Weiland says very rightly. Avoiding the jerky, flat action sequences isn’t as hard as it might sound, and there’s five very easy ways to instantly strengthen your action scenes. (Obviously there’s more than five, but I’ve only thought of five for you today, so you’ll have to do with that. 😛 )
1: A reason to care
The reader has to be invested in every scene, so in an action scene the reader needs to be right in the middle and rooting for your character. If you have a strong, unique character that they care about, it’ll lead to them caring about the outcome of the battle too.
If your reader doesn’t care about the character, they won’t care if Freddy loses or if John wins. They’ll be bored watchers on the verge of putting your book down without a second care.
As a side branch of that…give the character a reason to care. And not just ‘help, I’ll get punched up.’ Go deeper. Maybe they used to be friends with their opponent, so they’re torn between protecting themselves and other people and not wanting to hurt their old friend (think The Winter Solider). Or maybe their opponent is threatening someone they love and the character has to fight impossible odds to save them.
When both the readers and the characters are engaged and desperately rooted into the conflict, the tension instantly goes up 90%.
2: An extension of the inner conflict
The action has to be connected to the deep dilemmas and struggles the character is going through during their development arc. The standards and principles of your theme coming up against opposing ideals and the battle that ensues. If one character represents the deep-set lie, and the main character represents the uncertain truth, whatever battle they have will massively affect the main character’s arc. Most likely in a positive way, but sometimes negatively.
You can’t just have external conflict that isn’t related to the internal struggles, otherwise it won’t have any meaning or depth beyond the roundhouse kick and left hook.
3: Put everything at risk
Your action scenes need to make the reader and character worried. They need to see how much will go wrong if the main character loses the fight. Maybe if they lose, they die. And in that, they fail to protect a priceless treasure. Don’t just put the character’s physical well-being on the line, make there more consequences. Have people relying on them to succeed. Maybe balance the entire story goal on that one scene.
The more consequences there are, and the higher the stakes, the more edge-of-seat will the readers be, and the more engaged in the conflict. It’s similar to the ‘reason to care’ section, in that the readers have to care about how much is at risk here, and they should desperately want the character to win.
4: Make the character lose
Make the reader care. Make the stakes huge. Then make them fail.
*distant evil laughter*
Okay, but in all seriousness, your character can’t always win the conflict. They’re going to fail. They’re going to let others down. They’re going to compromise the entire mission. And it’s going to grow them. The guilt or pain or shame from their failure will grow them in their character arc and make that conflict deeper than ever.
Never forget to make your character lose sometimes.
5: Don’t focus on the action. Focus on the emotion.
It’s ironic, but action scenes—at their best—are more focused on the emotion than the action itself. Don’t tell the readers the sort of punch or kick your character is performing, show them the pounding in their chest, the cramping fear, their doubts of whether they’ll succeed or not, their motives behind what they’re doing.
In every action scene, the action should be secondary compared to the character. There should be far more character in the scene than there is action.
This is one of the most crucial aspects to writing strong action scenes. It’s not the quality of the fight. Not the realism of the actual action itself. It’s the character that comes through and the way that the character develops because of the action scene.
If you make the action deeply and emotionally connected into every aspect of plot and character arc, your readers won’t be able to help being engaged and involved in the scenes, they’ll be sucked right in.
What are some of your favourite action scenes in movies/books? Do you enjoy writing action scenes or are they the bane of your life? Hang out with me in the comments! 😀