Cranking up the action…

Posted May 18, 2012 by kate in Action, Resources for Writers, The Writing Process / 0 Comments

As those of you who’ve been following for a while know, I used to blog under a pseudonym, but when I began the transition from pre-published to published author, I discontinued that blog to launch this one. However, because some of the issues for writers are the same regardless of your publishing status, I’ve decided to re-post excerpts from a few of my old articles.

With only a few chapters to go before I finish the first draft of my current WIP, it seemed like a good time to revisit my favorite tips for cranking up the action. I learned a couple of these things the hard way through trial and error, and others are the products of very helpful feedback I received from other authors. Although you might’ve seen these tips before, I think they bear repeating. And, who knows? Maybe one or two of them will work for you!

Tip 1: Keep it tight.

I blame my literary background for my struggle with this one. Seeing as how I spent the vast majority of my two degrees in literature focusing on the Neoclassic, Romantic, and Victorian eras, it would’ve been surprising to come out of it without a penchant for complex sentences loaded with clauses. So it was no surprise when the first feedback I received suggested I cut out unnecessary adverbs and break up lengthy sentences to liven things up. Although the advice was very kindly worded, the message was clear: Save the flowery crap for the love scenes.

Point taken.

Sometimes just replacing a wordy description of physical action with a single powerful verb can really ramp up the energy of a sentence. One approach that seems to work pretty well for me is to write the scene then go back the next day with “fresh eyes” and cut the word count by around 10-20%. This exercise forces me to tighten up the narration and dialogue so that the scene has a lot more punch.

Tip 2: Set it up.

Don’t wait until you’re in the middle of a fight scene to launch into a detailed description of the setting. This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to get in the middle of writing a scene and suddenly realize you need a massive boulder for your hero to dive behind for cover. However, if you’ve set the scene adequately before the action breaks out, your readers will make informed assumptions about what’s in the room/street/desert, etc., and you won’t bog down the action with too much description.

Tip 3: Shut up and fight.

Monologuing has its place, but if it’s only there because you don’t know how else to fill the page, ditch it. STAT. Ditto for prolonged internal ruminations. If there’s a big reveal of some sort during the scene, let the character have an initial reaction — a short exclamation or burst of internal dialogue, maybe, that lets the reader know something big just happened — but leave the musing for later. It makes sense that your heroine would pick up on something crucial in the thick of things, so she should react in some way, but she probably wouldn’t be waxing philosophical while she’s trying to take out the bad guy.

Tip 4: Step back and regroup.

Sometimes the words just won’t come. When I have moments like these, I get the creative juices flowing again by trying to find a visual representation of the kind of scene I want to write so that I can get a feel for the physical action I need to describe. For me, this usually involves putting on a movie, but it could be watching a boxing match, a cage fight, a martial arts competition, etc. Whatever works. For example, if I need to get the feel for a kick-ass sword fight, I’ll put on Rob Roy with Liam Neeson or Equilibrium with Christian Bale. Having a visual helps me better describe the heft of the weapon, the way a person’s muscles bunch with each movement, the distinctive sound of clashing swords, the glint of light on polished steel… You get the idea.

Tip 5: Learn from the Masters.

One of the best ways to figure out how to write successful action scenes is to read examples of successful action scenes. We all have authors whose work we admire — pick one or two of these folks and read/reread some of their most rockin’ action scenes to get the feel for how it’s done. When I need to recharge my action batteries, I grab a copy of something by Lara Adrian, J.R. Ward, Lisa Jackson, or Jim Butcher. Each of these authors gets my pulse racing!


Well, there you have it — the top five techniques that work for me. If you were to ask another writer, she’d no doubt offer you a few tips of her own. There are a few standard rules to live by, like keeping sentences tight and hard-hitting, but the rest is about finding your action groove and figuring out what works best for your own creative process. Most importantly, have fun with it! Action scenes can be a blast once you really get going. 🙂

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