How to write fights, games, races and chases – in three easy stages

Action scenes can be tricky to write. Here’s
a three-step plan to nail them

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!

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  1. #1 by Tony McFadden on November 8, 2010 - 10:35 am

    I had to write a couple of fight scenes and you’re right. They tend to plod. The 1st draft is sitting in a virtual bottom drawer while I NaNo. When I dig it out again, probably over Christmas, I’ll keep these points in mind.

    Thanks

    • #2 by rozmorris on November 8, 2010 - 10:44 am

      Hi Tony – I remember being surprised how tortuous these scenes were to write. But now I know it’s par for the course. As always, there’s so much we fix in the editing.

  2. #3 by Laura Pauling on November 8, 2010 - 1:30 pm

    They can be hard for sure. I think it’s important to bring in the other elements if possible – dialogue and show how the main character is reacting to the fight through his reaction or thoughts. Just slam bam action does get boring.

    • #4 by rozmorris on November 8, 2010 - 1:33 pm

      Reaction is key, isn’t it? An action scene has to be an experience as much as any other scene is.

  3. #5 by last_lines on November 8, 2010 - 1:30 pm

    Thanks for the great post Roz! Yes fights scenes are hard to write in prose…it is also true what you say that prose is more about the internal conflict or emotional conflict…Great food for though. Thank you for this.
    -Kim

    • #6 by rozmorris on November 8, 2010 - 1:33 pm

      Glad you liked it, Kim – thank you!

  4. #7 by fictionwitch on November 8, 2010 - 1:36 pm

    I am dreadful at fight scenes so tend to avoid them like the plague, because as you say they are hard to write, and then it’s a matter of laborious distillation. Did one the other day, and I can’t say I’m thrilled with it – but managed to get in one detail that pleased me and I thought made it come to life. (see http://wp.me/p12Lj5-5X and feel free to critique) But on the whole, not my favourite thing at all, so very grateful for this advice!
    Very glad you make the point you don’t have to show everything. It always puts me off a book when you have a really graphic, laboured ‘blow by blow’ account of a fight. Fights are similar to sex scenes really – they can interrupt the action instead of moving it forward if not very carefully handled.

    • #8 by rozmorris on November 8, 2010 - 11:18 pm

      Great point about sex scenes, Harriet! I hadn’t thought that, but of course the problems are similar (as well as a few more particular problems). And you’re right – you don’t want any scene to interrupt the action. All scenes should take the story forwards.

  5. #9 by Elisabeth Black on November 8, 2010 - 2:57 pm

    Great post, thanks. I love writing fight scenes.

    • #10 by rozmorris on November 8, 2010 - 11:18 pm

      Way to go, girl! Good for you.

  6. #11 by LCthulou on November 8, 2010 - 10:46 pm

    Thanks for the timely post, Roz!

    I Knew nano wasn’t the best time to try an Adventure novel- action scenes are hard enough to draft without rushing through them. This helps.

  7. #13 by Prem Rao on November 9, 2010 - 1:30 am

    Thanks for some interesting tips. My take is that these action scenes must stay ” in character”. It’s tempting to ask your characters to chase, fight and so on in ways which don’t come naturally to them! They are who they are. They aren’t the world’s best fighters. Often, they fight to protect themselves or someone/some thing very dear to them.

    • #14 by rozmorris on November 9, 2010 - 10:08 am

      Good point, Prem. You can’t force action of any kind on a character – whether it’s a fight or having a cup of tea.

  8. #15 by pibarrington on November 9, 2010 - 5:31 am

    I find that when I’m writing fights, chases, anything fast paced it is much better when I describe the action itself in sparse, direct terms rather than fill it with adjectives or too much descriptive prose. For me, less is more. I’ll describe two men with guns drawn angled at each other’s temples rather than describe that the guns look like cannon barrels. Also, I like to build scenes that build and culminate in a surprise action or at least a surprise to the villain. I find that direct simple description of action works best for me. JMHO.

    • #16 by rozmorris on November 9, 2010 - 10:09 am

      The telling detail is definitely the better option. That’s why I like the Fleming example. And surprise – of some kind – is essential.

  9. #17 by Bill Greeves on November 9, 2010 - 1:16 pm

    I love movies. In some of the scenes in my novel, I felt more like a screenwriter than a novelist. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I found myself pulling back a bit on the prose, like pibarrington suggests, because it was just too much detail. Although in other areas, I did try to be more illustrative using unusual metaphors (i.e. to a depressed man a rack of spices reminds him of shotgun shells, begging to be fired). My novel is a thriller (I think), not an action movie, so when I had to do a pivotal fight scene, it was definitely difficult. Just last night I posted an entry on how I had to use my son’s Star Wars figures to choreograph the action as I wrote it. (Okay maybe it was also a good excuse to play with his toys too). But it worked well in keeping order amongst the sequence of multiple skirmishes that ultimately merged into one.

    • #18 by rozmorris on November 9, 2010 - 1:43 pm

      Ha ha, Star Wars figures, that’s great! And you ask a good question in that post about fiction versus non-fiction.

  10. #19 by Kevin McGill on November 9, 2010 - 2:07 pm

    I got a great tip from a lit friend. She reminded me that in narrative, action scenes use shorter, punchier sentences to convey adrenaline.

    Great post as always.

    • #20 by rozmorris on November 9, 2010 - 2:32 pm

      Adrenaline, surprise and confusion! Essential point, Kevin.

  11. #21 by Alexander M Zoltai on November 9, 2010 - 4:23 pm

    Delightful image🙂

    Deft quote from Goldfinger!

    As always, you nailed it!!

    • #22 by rozmorris on November 9, 2010 - 8:18 pm

      Thank you Alexander/Sena… You can’t go wrong with Ian Fleming… and a pillow fight.

  12. #23 by Terry Odell on November 9, 2010 - 5:06 pm

    My daughter choreographs my fight scenes. She’s a Jujitsu black belt, and she can give me blow-by-blow moves. I then “translate” them to writing, which generally is about 1/3 of what she gave me (and that includes the characters reactions to the fight.)

    For other action scenes, I try the ‘keep it short, choppy, and don’t forget emotional reactions.’ I’ve read several action sequences that should have been exciting but they were flat because there was no empathy for the characters.

    (And, btw, I submitted a draft action scene to a website where the owner critiques them. If you’re interested in seeing it and what he had to say, you can find it here.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    • #24 by rozmorris on November 9, 2010 - 8:21 pm

      Terry, that is so cool. Do you join in the choreography too? Your fight scenes must be a cut above. I sometimes enlist Dave to help with mine as he used to do karate, but I don’t often have call to write martial arts scenes.

      But as you say, empathy is everything.

  13. #25 by James Killick on November 9, 2010 - 9:16 pm

    Interesting post on something that is rarely addressed in the writing blogosphere, Roz. Good tips. My take on it is that you have to have the scene tightly choreographed in your head, then lock the POV tightly into one character. There might be a Burt Reynolds style bar-room brawl going on, but keeping a rigid POV makes it personal, affecting, pacey and digestible.

    • #26 by rozmorris on November 9, 2010 - 9:49 pm

      Hi James! Yes, I think I have to have the choreography first, which I work out on the rubbish draft. Then I find the way to make it matter.

  14. #27 by Jonathan Moore on November 10, 2010 - 9:20 am

    Hi Roz – timely post. I’ve got some fight scenes coming up in my NaNoWriMo, and have struggled to find some good examples. So many fights err on either side of the too detailed, too impressionistic divide. Must go back to my Robert E Howard and see what he did…. Not too much as I recall. In fact, I’m often surprised by how little actual fighting goes on in supposed action novels.

    (Lagging behind slightly on the old word count, but not panicking yet)

    • #28 by rozmorris on November 10, 2010 - 8:14 pm

      Keep going, Jon – you’re a third of the way done!

  15. #29 by Elle Strauss on November 10, 2010 - 7:11 pm

    It’s true that if you want to speed things up, you have to slow things down!

    • #30 by rozmorris on November 10, 2010 - 8:15 pm

      So true, Elle. I think there’s a song in there somewhere…

  16. #31 by amanda on November 12, 2010 - 4:56 pm

    Hi Roz — found you via Erika Marks. Great tips! I really enjoy writing action sequences because you are allowed to be abrupt. To the point. Exciting! You can’t waste time describing every flower, every color, and show every (sometimes tiresome) writerly trick up your sleeve. Can you get your meaning across with fewer words and power-packed descriptions while still holding onto your reader? That is the answer to a successful scene.

    • #32 by rozmorris on November 12, 2010 - 8:11 pm

      Hey, Amanda! Nice to see you’ve come from Erika – I love her blog. ‘Fewer words and power-packed descriptions’… sounds like a good principle to me. And one Mr Fleming would have agreed with, I think.

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