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Expert Tips for Writing Action Scenes

Think “action scene,” and you probably think of the Hollywood version: A character is thrust into high-stakes, physical drama (a gunfight, a daring rescue, a desperate escape) that changes her in some important way, and moves the action forward.

Action scenes serve the same function in your fiction, but they need not be over-the-top to be effective. A surprise phone call, an unexpected visit, or an ill-timed delay will force your character to respond quickly (rather than reflect), and allows you to advance the plot without miring it in long descriptive passages and explanations.

The key to writing action scenes is to make sure that somethinghappens that impels your protagonist to act, reveals her capacity to deal with problems, and affects future events in the story. “The only requirement of an action scene is that it rely in part upon physical movement through the space you’ve created, and evoke a sense of time passing,” says Jordan E. Rosenfeld, author of Make a Scene. To make your reader feel like he is part of the action, try these techniques from the book:

  • Ensure that the events unfold in “real time,” allowing the reader to feel he is participating in the events of the scene.
  •  Make the pace quick, and include some kind of physical movement.
  • Force the protagonist to make quick decisions or react—to run on instinct rather than intellect.
  • Create unexpected consequences for the protagonist to heighten the drama.

As you write action scenes, keep in mind that it's easy to go overboard, says Rosenfeld: "This scene type will certainly drive the reader forward, but be warned that people have a tendency to skim action scenes, driven forward with their urgency, so you will want to balance them with other types of scenes."

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