As an enterprising writer, I’d like to ask… how do you go about crafting action scenes?
Action scenes are really tough in prose – never is a picture more worth a thousand words than when those words are turning a series of dramatic actions into a dry recitation of motions. There’s a variety of ways to tackle the problem – you can make quick poetry of it, you can make it matter-of-fact and let the reader paint their own emotional picture, you can frame it from a secondary/adversarial character’s perspective to actually give a better perspective on your characters’ actions. But you’re asking me, so I’ll tell you what I do.
I try to stage my action scenes from as close inside my characters’ heads as possible. Make it small, make it claustrophobic, make it just what they see and know and oh god what’s happening and what the fuck am I gonna do now. The number one inspiration to me in writing action scenes is William Faulkner – in fact, I’d say he’s my biggest inspiration as a writer altogether, but it’s in moments of intense action where I most heavily lean on his stream-of-consciousness style. Faulkner understands that the space inside your head is cramped and immediate and never beholden to the beauty of narrative logic – and that’s how my action scenes tend to work. Life is a mess, things happen fast, our thoughts are messy and sudden and blunt.
Don’t tell the reader everything that’s happening. Don’t describe everything you see in your head. Describe what the characters see and feel in their immediate moment, and do it in as few words as possible. The time it takes to describe a moment should not last much longer than that moment itself. Trust your readers – block out the entire scene in your head, and know every detail of what’s happening, but don’t tell the readers all that. Let it happen in the natural flow of the character’s moments and then holy shit it’s over and that actually happened.
I’ve said it several times already, but seriously, seriously, seriously – DO NOT OVER-TELL. Nothing kills momentum like over-telling. If the scene you’ve plotted in your head is exciting, you don’t have to bludgeon your reader over the head with it. Make it personal and fast and dynamic and done.
Incidentally, action scenes also have their own internal structure. It shouldn’t drag on as an even series of dramatic events – it should have rising action, suspense, climax, release, etc. Like the overall scenes in a story, each moment of an action scene should arise from the one before and necessitate the one that follows, and it should all have momentum. The base variables need to be used in interesting ways. The trick that resolves it should be foreshadowed or a satisfying play on those base variables. Etc.
Action scenes are hard! Like anything with writing, you’ll have to practice your way through a lot of bad habits to get to something that works for readers. Think of the most exciting action scene you could imagine, write it, read it, show it to other people, feel embarrassed about it, read it again, set it aside, rinse, repeat. Scrap “exciting” and try going for “purposeful” or “deliberate” instead – write an action scene that tells you something about a character, write an action scene where everything is somehow foretold, even if it’s not graceful. Go back to writers whose scenes you’ve enjoyed, and see exactly what they do – not just what they’re describing, but exactly how they choose to illustrate every piece of information they decide to show you. How do they generate tension? How do they describe a complicated situation, and how little of it do they actually describe? How much did they force you to interpret, and what word or phrasing choices gave you an incentive to do so? The role of an author is often just to get out of the way of their own story, so that the reader is experiencing it as directly as possible. There are a thousand tricks for doing that, but finding your own path to expression will take time, practice, and a whole lot of learning from the best.