Focus on the Fight: Writing Action Scenes That Land the Punch

Having trouble writing action scenes that work? Check out these tips fron Diana Gill to learn how to write action scenes that are better, faster and stronger.
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#DVpit, the Twitter pitch event for marginalized creators, is returning for its fifth run this April. In preparation for the main event, Writer’s Digest is hosting a guest post from Tor/Forge editor Diana Gill as part of the #DVpit blog hop!

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"A picture is worth 1000 words."

"Han shot first."

These are both true, and show the same thing—how much easier & better action scenes work on screen than the page.

This is why most editors say to avoid starting with an action scene—even the best written, exciting action scene may not catch the reader, because we don’t have any context, and if you don’t know the characters, it is hard for you as a reader to be invested. It’s easier on the screen, but even there it can fail often/easily—the last several action movies that were not, say, Black Panther disappeared quickly because nothing stood out about them versus other recent action movies.

So how do you write strong action scenes?

As with all writing, think about plot/pacing/tension, or as I say over and over—characters, conflict, and consequences. Action scenes should ideally work to develop those things, not just be their own shiny diamonds, so if most of your fabulous rock-climbing or ballroom dancing or whatever action scenes don’t advance the story as a whole, take them out.

Not sure how to write a fight scene that works? (I’m using fight scenes as a stand-in for action scenes as a whole, as they’re the most common). First, think about what the fight scene does. Does it advance the plot? If so, how, and why? You don’t want this to feel like a Mortal Kombat game, where you’re just progressing through bigger and bigger fights until you can fight the Big Boss at the end.

Or does it show us the character(s)? And if so, how? For example, think of the classic Raiders of the Lost Ark scene where we’re set up for a big sword fight, and Indiana Jones just shoots the other guy, or as already mentioned, the Cantina scene in Star Wars. Both scenes show Indy/Han as someone who is quick to action, wants results, and doesn’t necessarily care about niceties to get the results.

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The action sequences in The Hunger Games are strong, but they’re always about the larger story, whether it’s Katniss and Peeta creating a truce with other tributes or showing how much the Games destroy people and the districts.

Or consider any of the many Jack Reacher fight scenes in Lee Child’s bestselling series. They all work at a technical level, but they also reinforce Reacher’s character—how he is always analyzing and planning before the fight at an almost subliminal level, because he can’t not do that. (Child’s op-ed on creating suspense is absolutely worth a read as well.)

Action scenes need a point beyond flying fists or explosions: The Terminator’s big plot goal is to stop Skynet from destroying humanity, but in the meantime, there’s the unstoppable killer robot chasing Sarah Connor…. Make sure that the action scenes work with the story as a whole.

This is just as true for sex scenes as fight scenes, by the way—tab A into slot B is not particularly intriguing. But if you’ve watched the love interests smolder with tension for 100 pages first…. Sarah McLean’s written about this, as have numerous other romance authors. And look at Jacqueline Carey’s fabulous KUSHIEL’S DART, where sex is an integral part of the story, and the sex scenes have far-ranging consequences beyond pleasure (and pain).

 Make a Scene. Revised and Expanded Edition By Jordan Rosenfeld

Make a Scene. Revised and Expanded Edition By Jordan Rosenfeld

How not to write a fight scene?

When needed, try to block out the action to make sure it’s at least somewhat physically possible (or not utterly improbable, if the story is not set in the real world). As per the above, really avoid just having a list of actions and responses, strikes and blocks, etc.—I’ve actually edited karate texts, and a string of moves is completely boring on the page compared to a gorgeous kata seen in action.

Consider, is the move in character? Again, Han shooting first and Indy shooting the swordsman both fit the characters. Besides the humor, it would have felt weird for something long and involved and complicated.

Like the long hallway shot in Daredevil season 1, try not to break the action! I remember reading one submission where vampires are pouring into the room to attack the main character… and then next scene was a flashback that defused the tension completely for me. Similarly, the ’24 hours earlier’ trope is very tricky….

If you’ve done martial arts or boxing or MMA or SCA or fencing or SCUBA or whatever, great! Use that to make sure the scenes work and aren’t physically impossible. Then watch out for opposite issue, aka geeking out about techniques and subtleties in too much detail. A high-level Gracie jujitsu or kendo match is riveting if you know what the combatants are doing. If not, it’s two people rolling around on the floor or mostly staring at each other.

Words are hard, I need pictures:

The fight scenes in John Wick use actual judo/jujitsu techniques to great effect. Contrast those with the fight scenes in another Keanu Reeves classic, The Matrix. Still good fight scenes on a technical level, but with a completely different feel. Equilibrium has great ‘gun-fu’ scenes—stylized, but a good representation of a future, stylized technical shooting might look like.

For more realistic fighting, watch a boxing match or a UFC match, for a sense of what is really possible/works, or one of the ACLKnights melees.

Also remember that fighting is TIRING. Even athletes in the best shape can’t spar/compete for more than a few minutes at top speed/power, and more so if there are weapons/armor. One thing the recent Atomic Blonde did well was how one of the biggest fight scenes ended with the two combatants lying on the floor utterly exhausted, and the winner managed to move first.

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I’m a writer—I still need words:

For an opening with a fight scene that works really well, try the prologue to Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister, which is a prologue and a fight scene—both things I tell writers to avoid as much as possible, and yet in this case also completely captivating.

L. Huang’s upcoming Zero Sum Game is a near future thriller, and the author has worked as a stunt and markswoman and as an armorer, so she knows action. But even in the opening scene, the action is still about the story and character:

I trusted one person in the entire world.

He was currently punching me in the face.

(The action scene continues from there, but I was already hooked….)

When in doubt, reading the sentences out loud works just as well for action scenes as it does for dialogue—if you get stuck, the reader probably will too.

Action that's exciting? Seems like a given, but it’s definitely not! These are great notes for making sure the action in your novel is keeping readers on the edge of their seats, and definitely check out the rest of the blog hop (links on the resources page)! #DVpit’s pitch day for children’s and teen projects is April 25th and adult projects can be pitched on April 26th. #DVpit was created by Beth Phelan in 2016. Please visit www.dvpit.com for more information.

Diana Gill is an Executive Editor with Tom Doherty Associates, publishing books for Tor, Tor Teen, and Forge. She’s worked with numerous bestselling and award-winning authors, including Susan Dennard, Charlaine Harris, Kim Harrison, Richard Kadrey, Brom, Eric Van Lustbader, and many more. When not at the office, she’s spent 20+ at kokushibudo.com (and yes, has strong opinion about fight scenes).

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