1. Write first, fix the pace later
‘He stepped back to avoid the fist that came at him like a sledgehammer. Then he grabbed the arm and twisted, but his opponent had already recovered his balance and the teapot was whizzing towards him.’
Writing action is slow. Dead slow. When you’re plodding through every blow, twist, feint and reaction your exciting scene becomes a dire trudge. But you need to get the details down because those are your raw materials.
I remember in one early thriller I wrote there was a cliff-top chase, which culminated in the MC diving into the sea. It was supposed to be spectacular but dear me, it crawled. In desperation, I took out every other sentence (yes, that’s how much I had to cut). Suddenly it had the pace I wanted – the slick, breathless scene I imagined when I put it in the synopsis. Now I could see what speed the choreography should be, I checked the details, swapped some in and out – and it worked.
2 You don’t have to show absolutely everything
You don’t have to show the scene blow by blow. You can give a sense of what the scene feels like without showing every step, every blow, every thrust and counter-thrust. As with every kind of description, telling details that give the emotional feel of the scene are the most important. For instance, this excerpt from Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger:
‘Ten yards away, Oddjob hardly paused in his rush. One hand whipped off his ridiculous, deadly hat, a glance to take aim and the black steel half-moon sang through the air. Its edge caught the girl exactly on the nape of the neck.’
3 Make it more interesting than just a fight or a chase
Prose is an internal medium, and is much better for internal, or emotional, action. A scene that is just a set of physical instructions is never going to be as interesting as one with significant character interaction, or humour, or a development that matters to someone on an emotional level.
Screenwriter Jane Espenson said she always found it hard to write the fight scenes in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. So she would design the scene about something else – an argument or a revelation between the characters. When that was established, she slipped the fight in around that.
Thank you, Simon Wicks on Flickr, for the photo
Do you find action scenes easy to write or hard? Do you have any tips? Share in the comments!