Writing Action Scenes

This past week I’ve been working on some scenes that lead to the climax of my WIP, and since it is an adventure story…well, that means a lot of action.

The Challenge of Writing Action Scenes

I think it’s pretty well-known amongst writers that when you’re writing an action scene you want to avoid using long descriptions (and words).  This creates the feeling of snappier pacing, mimicking the inherent swiftness of action sequences.  The challenge, then, comes in relaying necessary information that gives the reader a clear picture of what’s going on…without getting terribly wordy about it.

Easier said than done!

When I write I see everything as a movie, full color ‘n’ all.  I have this saying: if I can’t see it, I can’t write it–’cause it’s true!  I can also be very detail-oriented, zooming in on certain aspects in attempt to render full three-dimensional imagery, so it’s been challenging for me to weed out less-than-critical details during action sequences when my narration pacing feels like it’s starting to drag.

For example, the other day I was editing a scene that involves four of my main characters who were…well, violently engaging four antagonists, heh.  (Let’s just say there were both conventional weapons, like guns and knives, as well as magic involved.)  Most of everyone was doing something in the scene and it took place in a relatively confined area.  My POV character was in a position to see most of all that was going on, so I wanted to reflect that in my writing, mentioning only what he would likely notice.  Also, sometimes he likes to check on his team members by flashing a quick look over his shoulder or whatnot, so then there was that.

That’s a lot of information to juggle, when you think about it.

As far as I see it, the more props and actors (so to speak) that you have in a scene, the more difficult it’s going to be to clearly communicate what’s happening.  As such, you have to be strategic in what you focus on in your narration, which is usually (though not always) anything dealing directly with the POV character–unless you’re writing from an omniscient viewpoint… o_O

As an example, it might be tempting to launch into description as to what your character’s opponent(s) looks like, but unless something about that person’s appearance hinges on an earlier plot point or provides necessary context for the current situation–oh look, it’s that man with the good-looking smile who you thought was actually a good guy!–it maaaay not be the best idea to include that kind of detail.

This is what I’ve realized over time, anyway.

Linky Linky!

Not long ago, when I was tweeting about working on an action scene, fantasy writer Lindsay Kitson shared with me a link to some articles with advice on writing fight scenes.  The author, Marie Brennan, mentions having some martial arts training (fencing and karate, it looks like).  In any case, you might find the link worth a look!

What do you do to make writing action scenes easier or flow more smoothly?


15 thoughts on “Writing Action Scenes

  1. The part that was a breakthrough for me when I read the Marie Brennan posts was the first one or two, where I came to understand you don’t write every move out, you focus on the game changing bits. That means the bits where one character starts winning, or the tables turn, or someone’s distracted by another plot element and gives someone the upper hand, the moment someone’s meaningfully injured, the moment someone whips out a “I win” weapon (ie: whips out a knife in the middle of a fist fight), the moment someone else joins the fight to even the odds, or tip them.

    I came to understand that the things “happening” are not strikes and blocks – it’s the meaningful stuff that you need to get in the story. Strikes and blocks are boring unless they mean something, just the same as any other story element is boring unless it matters to the story.


    • Oh that’s very good advice. I’ve always had trouble with scenes, but I like that; the actions that change what’s happening.

      I also try to incorporate the internal state as well, what’s running through the minds of the people involved, what might increase tension/emotion.

      I’m not sure if I write good ones though. Mine need work!


      • I have a love-hate relationship with action scenes, lol. It really depends on who I’m writing about…

        Also, I find incorporating a character’s internal state to be useful in creating tension, as well–or sometimes just ironic humor that only the reader gets to see, heh.


    • Well said, Lindsay! That’s essentially it, right there.

      I still wanna look through the rest of Marie’s posts in that link ’cause I’ve only looked at a few, heh. Thanks again for sharing it, btw.


  2. The main advice I have about writing action scenes is to have fewer people in them. 🙂 I can’t omagine writing an action scene with eight people in it. The big fight scene in my last story had only three people (with a fourth occasionally helping out).

    And I do think a litlle humor can really help — a lot of movies do this. But the other lesson we can learn from movies is how difficult this actually is, even in a medium where you can show multiple actions simultaneously. One of my biggest complaints about action movies is how many directors can’t actually stage a fight scene so you can tell what the heck is going on.

    My writing professor in college used to say that the most difficult thing to write is a party, because there are a lot of different things happening at the same time. True of fights, too (the books he was using as examples mostly didn’t have fights in them 🙂 ).


    • Well, it’s like imagine you’re writing about a war or something. How do you cover the entire thing? You don’t; like Lindsay was saying, you just focus on the highlight moments from a limited perspective. (Hmm, this is starting to sound like journalism or something…)

      Though, it really is a whole lot easier to just write about two or three people versus hordes, lol, and those are the type of action scenes I prefer, I’m realizing, because they allow for a bit more space to explore character and whatnot.

      But that’s funny you mention watching movies and observing how they handle action and fighting ’cause Marie Brennan said the same thing! I just think about huge, epic battle scenes like in LotR or something…and I don’t envy the director’s responsibilities there at all, haha. God, could you imagine trying to manage all those extras???


  3. I did go pretty much blow-by-blow with my fight scene, but the fight wasn’t that long, and most parts of it had injury implications for the protag (though very much in the realm of “You should see the other guy!” 🙂 ).

    Interesting that you should mention the battle scenes in the LoTR movies, since i just wrote about them on my blog. 🙂 (I think a lot of those extras were digitally-created, though.)


  4. Well, I think there are different aspects to writing action scenes. Pacing becomes much more important than other considerations once you hit the action scene. I’ve noticed in my own writing that I switch to “action mode” almost without thinking when I start on an action scene. Even so, action scenes shouldn’t be paced at a single, frenetic break-neck pace. There’s room for variation, for moments of relative calm amid the action for reflection and description. The trick is finding the right moments for those lulls.


    • And if I may speak a moment about epic-sized battles – armies clashing and whatnot – the secret there is, I think, that the epic battle is not the point of the scene. How it is effecting your characters is. The epic battle is backdrop to whatever battle is going on with your character – whether that’s the POV character in a boss-fight, an internal conflict, or whatever. But it’s external context for the more limited, character-focused aspect you want to show. In a way, it’s a metaphor.

      That’s something I’ve learned from movies, too. Epic battles looks like great eye-candy, but you don’t stay zoomed-out for the whole shebang. Eventually, the camera always zooms in on a POV character.


      • “Even so, action scenes shouldn’t be paced at a single, frenetic break-neck pace. There’s room for variation, for moments of relative calm amid the action for reflection and description.”

        Oh yes–kind of like dynamics in music! Sometimes I get so carried away with the action that even I eventually start to get fatigued while typing away. Those lulls are necessary every now and then.

        Hmm, the whole movie thing reminds me of something else…

        From a three-dimensional standpoint, if you will, one of the things about larger/epic battle scenes that’s always a challenge for me is trying to avoid any disconnect between “the larger picture” and what’s happening from the POV character’s perspective. Like I don’t want “the rest of the battle” to be just a backdrop but also something that the character(s) is actually involved in or in the middle of. I’m trying to think of an analogy…

        Ok, so like an actor in front of a green screen. Of course, we all know they’re using The Green Screen in the background, but we don’t actually want to be reminded that it’s there like, “Oh haha! Look–there’s The Green Screen part…” *snicker snicker* The two have to interact with one another and just blend together into a believable reality.

        I think the same challenge exists with writing. I’d like to avoid coming across as, “Ok, so here’s the part where I zoom out and remind you there’s a larger battle going on… Now, back to the important stuff.” lol

        I guess sometimes that’s unavoidable, like if your characters are inside some place and there’s a battle going on outside that they can’t exactly see. Though, incorporating reminders every now and then to create a sense of urgency and/or danger can make it feel more real–i.e. if there are bombs being dropped outside, there are going to be tremors, rattling walls and objects, etc.


        • Yes, as you say, that’s all true. And of course that takes skill. As I said, I think it’s like a metaphor (itself a metaphor): and for the metaphor to be effective, the object and it’s metaphoric representation need to interact or relate in some way.


      • I just wrote about that on my blog, that what I remember best about the LoTR movies is the conversations, not the big battles (and the tight-focus moments within the battles, like Eowyn and the Witch-king).

        And, to Tiyana’s point, dynamics is a great analogy. When I was in bands, we realized very quickly that what separated the amateurs from the pros, more than anything else, was control of dynamics.


  5. I hate to admit this…but I have been in a group rumble before.

    And I’ve had the opportunity to work with war veterans in the martial arts world too and I always ask them all kinds of specifics about their state of mind while in combat – as I want to make my fight scenes as realistic as possible.

    The truth is, even the leader of a group during a real dangerous fight might take the chance at glancing at his buddies. But they focus on the enemy they themselves are engaged in. You get this tunnel vision when someone wants to take your head off (or put a bullet through your heart).

    So if you’re writing limited 3rd POV (or 1st person), you just have to be very careful about what details your viewpoint character is sharing about his/her allies. Me personally, I didn’t stop to look at my friends until the fight was pretty much over. I had enough to worry about during the melee.


    • Thanks for the tips, Jay! Good stuff. 😀

      I tend to only use the “glancing around” thing if there’s a decent lull in the combat, but I will definitely be more aware about how much my VP character does this now, heh.


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