How to write a killer action scene

Fights, chases, time bombs… wanna know how to write them? Me too!
Image (c) sinbad9 via

I’m writing an action scene at the moment for my book, and I’ve mostly been just going with my gut and writing what I can see in my imagination, but today I thought ‘hey, there are probably some tricks to writing a great action or fight scene that I’ve never heard of. If I knew about them, I bet they could rock my world!

I duly trawled the internet and found some great resources from knowledgeable authorish types – and I’ve compiled, for your reading and learning pleasure, 10 hot tips on writing a great action scene. I reckon I’ll be referring to these a lot from now on.

So here, in no particular order, is the ‘gospel according to the interwebs’ (all tips below are direct quotes; all sources credited).

If I’ve missed a great one, make a comment and let me know!

1. Make it count

“The fight scene should be put into the plot not only to liven up the action but also to move the plot forward. Figure out what is at stake for the viewpoint character and the other characters. Make the possible results of the fight, beyond dying, as dangerous as getting killed” …says Marilynn Byerly here.

2. This isn’t Hollywood

“Action scenes in movies are eye candy, designed to give the viewer a visual ‘Wow!’ at the awesome feats.  But all these action scenes flash by in just a few seconds.  The viewer doesn’t have time to even think about how impossible that stunt is.  In a book, the reader is with that scene a lot longer.  She [or he!] has more opportunity to say, ‘Wait a minute. They can’t do that.’ And the moment she does, you’ve lost her [or him!].'” …says Linda Adams here.

3. Read, dammit, read!

“I pay attention to strategies used by authors I admire. How do they get action across? What kinds of verbs do they use? What kind of descriptions? What gives these scenes a feeling of momentum? What kinds of sentences do they use in the faster scenes? Do they use more modifiers, or fewer? And while keeping plagiarism in mind, note what phrases they use in describing certain kinds of action. It can help guide you as you revise those scenes.” …says Ginny Wiehardt here.

4. Short is sweet

“Write in short snippets as much as possible. Action scenes are not the time for long internal dialogues by characters. Think about a time you were involved in a high adrenaline situation. You didn’t have time to take long pauses for deep thinking. You had to react and do so quickly and so must your characters. The same is true of long speeches. People tend to be interrupted in speaking by the need to act or react. So dialogue and even action should be described in short spurts. If you have more than four sentences to it, think twice about whether it should be split up” …says Bryan Thomas Schmidt here.

5. No time for chat

“There is no dialogue while fighting. It never goes like that. You don’t have time, although there may be a few sharp words but no conversation. An experienced fighter will have a bit more time for internal dialogue but all a novice will do is not think or panic thoughts. There is very little coherence” …says Alan Baxter in this interview with Joanna Penn. (And he should know, as he does a lot of martial arts as well as a lot of writing.)

6. See it

“If you, the writer, can­not visu­al­ise the fight, expect the read­ers to have trou­ble as well. Visualise how each moment of the scenes will take place” …says J.B. Lacaden here.

7. Show, don’t tell

“Each moment should feel immediate so beware those anti-suspense phrases which telegraph how things end up before you get there: ‘He didn’t think he had the energy but…’ ‘The first two ax blows barely made an impression on the armor but…’ ‘Only when he was down to his last bullet…’ These are lazy phrases which effectively skip over time and ask the reader to pretend it was all gripping. Either make us experience each stroke, each shot, or leave them out” …says A.J. Hartley here.

8. Justify

“Make sure the stakes justify the action. It is easy to go over the top when writing an action scene in an attempt to be more thrilling.  Your main character should not go around killing hundreds of people just because he is hungry and doesn’t have money for a peanut butter sandwich” …says Kathy Temean here.

9. Learn new words

“Descriptive nouns and verbs are your friends. Adjectives and adverbs aren’t. Much better to say that he hurled the spear into the mass of orcs than to tell me that he swiftly threw the sharp, deadly weapon into the mass of orcs. I don’t have time to ‘see’ all those silly details. Compact them, make them quick!” …says V.J. Chambers here.

 10. Get up close and personal

“Pull your camera in close. Let us taste the blood at the corner of the lip, feel the pain of the broken bone, hear the whistling of the blade, smell sweat, see eyes wide with shock, the beads of sweat on upper lips. Sense details create a sense of immediacy and urgency, and make a scene feel faster” …says Holly Lisle here.

Thanks to all the gurus whose posts I’ve scoured for these great tips! All these posts are worth reading in full, by the way – there are more than 10 ways to skin an action cat…

Now back to the drawing – er, writing – board. (The writing board? Really? Is that the best you can d- the writing board? Oh dear… *sighs and slithers quietly back to her writing board*)


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