At BestSelling Reads, this month is known as May-hem! The focus in on thrillers and books with lots of pulse-pounding action, the kind of story that keeps your breathing shallow, your muscles tense, your throat dry and your fingers flipping pages. What will happen next?
Writing this kind of action is not simple, though. What does it take to write really gripping, thrilling action scenes?
I try to make it as realistic as possible, and as I prepare for it, I imagine each scene on the big screen and describe it as simply as possible.
What I won’t do is introduce distractions, like mention someone’s back story while he’s in the middle of a bar room brawl, or say how he delivered a Ning Chang move to the temple followed by a low Kurizaka to the knee. Just tell the reader he punched him in the head! They can picture that. You don’t want them putting the book down to go and research martial arts moves on YouTube!
Let the action flow and make it something that sweeps the reader up and drops them in the middle of the scene.
Not only do you have to think about physical moves, where you’re basically a choreographer, but also how the person feels in their body and mind. Breathing, sweat, how adrenaline effects them but also the fear, exhilaration, rage, everything else that happens in a fight.
Regardless of the genre, it’s important to consider each character’s strengths and weaknesses when writing action scenes. It can be tempting to give characters abilities or instincts in the moment that aren’t true to them.
Also, don’t forget the environment of the scene. Incorporating a character’s surroundings will often give an action scene more depth.
When writing historical fiction/thrillers, often it is the scene and the knowledge of the historical facts behind it that spur the final outcome of an action. For example, I wrote what I thought was a great action scene with people lined up with a few cars and horse and wagon. WWII in Norway. German check point, someone trying to escape.
Then I learned that there were no cars on the island. None. I had to rewrite it, same moves that worked well.
When writing action, I try to stay focused on the purpose of the scene. Endless chases, punches, and sword forms get boring very fast and readers start skimming. Every element of action should contribute to moving the story forward.
Action scenes are always fun to write. With so much going on—physically, emotionally, mentally—the writer has so many things to choose from in crafting the scene.
One of the best pieces advice I’ve come across—for writing in general, but action in particular—came from super-agent/writing teacher/author Donald Maass. He teaches to look beyond the obvious. Of course, the participants in the scene are scared, or have an adrenalin rush, but what else is going on for them? Of course getting punched hurt, but what other detail can you insert to draw the reader completely into the story? It’s these extras that set a great scene apart from the good ones.
I have one rule in writing action sequences: think of every possible conclusion for the action, then toss them all out. Then think of something totally unexpected. That’s the winner.
I try to avoid too much dialogue to keep the action going as quickly as possible. Everything to move that scene along and incite emotion without jarring the reader out of it by a random musing or conversation.
I come from a background of critiquing screenplays for a living. I still do it, in fact. A golden but not spoken-of rule is to start a story mid-action. I do that in some way in all my books.
The thing to avoid is over-describing characters, clothing etc. in those sequences. Definitely, never, ever, have your character look in a mirror as a way of describing him. Unless he/she is examining a black eye, punched-out teeth…and then only describe those injuries. Don’t mention clothing brands etc. And keep dialogue to a minimum.
That’s how I was taught to approach these scenes and I stick to it!