Ask Bobduh: Writing Action Scenes

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.

Fights usually don't offer time for pose-striking

Fights usually don’t offer time for pose-striking

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.

Please do not do this

Goddamnit Kirito get down from there what are you even doing

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.

9 thoughts on “Ask Bobduh: Writing Action Scenes

  1. Definitely agree that over-telling is a huge danger here. It’s as though writing description of action motions follows a power law: you can get 80% of the action across with 20% of the writing, but the last 20% of the action would take 80% of the writing. That last 20% is simply not worth spending 5 times as long trying to get your point across.

    I think when there is a primary POV character for the scene, emphasizing that character’s tactile, visual, and aural sensations can help the writer stay focused on the character’s experience in the scene and how that affects his or her decision-making. As you say, the scene needs to follow a logical progression toward climax, and most of the time, the POV character should be instrumental or integral to moving the scene forward in that way, through decisions and actions that reflect on the character’s state of mind (as he/she experiences the scene) or set of beliefs.

    • Yeah, getting very specific with the POV character’s senses is definitely a very good strategy here. That’s really just generally useful advice – a new writer’s first instinct is generally to “visualize a scene” and describe what they see, but bringing in scattered details from the other senses can do tremendous work in making a scene real.

  2. Whenever the executions of actions scenes is brought up, I immediately go to this chapter of the webcomic Faans, in which they examine the same action scene as hypothetically executed by various comic artists, highlighting their different priorities.

    For writing only, the biggest thing I want is consistency in prose with the non-action scenes. This isn’t animation, I don’t want the equivalent of sakuga making this sequence stand out from what came before, I want to be reading the same damn writing style I’ve been enjoying up to this point. A comedic dialogue-heavy style should not turn into a blow-by-blow account, and a detailed puzzle-thriller should not gloss over the actions for waxing philosophical.
    Unless the shifts serve a thematic purpose, of course.

    I personally like the William Goldman “Princess Bride” school: if in a hypothetical future “Good Parts” version your action scenes are abridged in favor of snarky parentheticals, you’re probably doing it wrong.

    • I agree with you that style in general shouldn’t change, but I think it’s perfectly reasonable to assume the way a character processes the world would change somewhat if they’re put in an immediate, high-stress situation. Even someone who’s the constant snarky commenter will probably be somewhat more brief in their thoughts when they’re running for their life, for example.

      • Yeah, it always comes back to purpose. If I can see that the shift in style has a point, I’ll be less likely to begrudge it.

        On the other hand, I might still skim over it to get back to the parts I like. But that’s on me, not necessarily a reflection on the writing quality.

        Especially for fanfiction, in which stories are generally meant to sate only one or two specific desires, (“I want more awesome/sex/angst/crack/etc.”) the consistency of style is key to my consumption, compared to original fiction, where I’m more open to the author’s vision spanning wider ranges.

  3. Oh geez, wordpress ate my comment. It had a link in it, which is probably why, so could you check the spam/junk folder for it?

  4. Hey, it’s my question. Neat.

    Excellent advice. It’s pretty close to what I vaguely imagined I want my action scenes to be. It’s incredibly frustrating reading or watching narratives trying to map out every detail of a move within an action scene because of how counter to the goal immersion it is. Our minds process actions in real life based on our senses, but it certainly doesn’t inform us of them through exposition. There are obviously exceptions, but I imagine the general rule of framing an action scene is framing it as decisive. Decisiveness is purposefulness.

    • It’s such a natural instinct to screw up your own descriptions, too. It’s like the superfan of some show trying to sell you on it by over-describing every cool thing they love about it – they’ll never convince someone else that way, but they do it anyway.

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