Welcome back, novel enthusiasts, to the Column. Today, we’re exploring the most surefire distinguisher of a great writer—action scenes. Beautifully written battles, street brawls, assassinations, heists, emotional breakdowns, and daring escapes add zest and passion to the otherwise calm experience of reading. Hearts hammer, fingers rattle like leaves, and minds kaleidoscope in colorful impressions of dirty alleys and red.
If you’re good.
If you have no clue what you’re doing, none of that happens. Suddenly the reader yawns through another paragraph, not actually seeing any of what you’re saying. Sadly, the latter is more commonly found in your average novel, but there are many ways to beat the odds.
First, you have to ask yourself, does this action scene actually matter? The point of scenes like these is to facilitate change or demonstrate a situation and character. If you write your scene and find that if you deleted it, your story would be the exact same, then keep it deleted. Nothing smarts more than an overindulgent author that can’t stop showing off how their character has all these super cool power moves. If it doesn’t add or change something, it doesn’t matter, so don’t make me read it!
Now that that’s out of the way, onto the fun stuff. If you really want to make your scene come alive, research. Research, research, research! Nothing delights the reader more than when an author introduces a weapon the readers had never heard of, or a martial arts move that comes off as totally rad. On the same token, though, if your character is an assassin that’s been assassinating for decades, and they keep throwing their knives wrong, readers will know and email you sources. Don’t test them.
Not only will researching keep angry know-it-alls off your back, but you’ll also be able to write your scene easier. Most of us have never seen a man getting shot, or had to calm down a friend in the midst of PTSD charged mania. So, instead of guessing what it’s like, research and fill your mind with delightfully random knowledge that will surprise and draw in your reader.
However, avoid making your action scenes heavy. As a rule of thumb, in a time of suspense, try to keep sentences short, as reading it aloud naturally quickens the breath and heart rate. However, if your character is cool and calculating, they’ll think more rationally in a fight than a more hotheaded character. As a result, they may have longer sentence strings amidst punchy movement descriptions.
Use imagery to spice things up as well. What do they hear, taste? The woosh of the crematorium furnace they’re hiding in turning on? Their wife’s lipstick mixing with the metallic tang of the lockpick tools hidden in their mouth? Tell me, please! And add dialogue. Witty quipping, mouth-drying threats, pitiful prayer, and shocking realizations in an action scene? To die for! It’ll not only help you build character, but also give breathers in between paragraphs and paragraphs of action. My final piece of advice, if you look at a real fight or chase scene, they don’t last super long. Honestly, most fights don’t pass the minute mark. So if your one-on-one brawl is eight pages long, reconsider.
So happy writing! And keep in mind, if you’re not crying, sweating, or left dazed by an action scene you wrote; Do. It. Again.
It’s worth it.
-Chaunti T. Hatchett
Do you have specific questions about antagonists and character flaws that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Questions posted after 1/22 may not be included.