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Writing a Novel – Action Scenes

Last week we had the last of the Editing Samples, and so I’ve gone over the First Draft, Second and Streamlining. As mentioned in those articles, I skipped ahead a bit. Those scenes could’ve done with considerably more effort, but it was enough to demonstrate how a prose might evolve through several editing passes.

As I promised, after finishing up with the different stages of the novel writing process, I would turn to guiding your through specific genres and scenes. The first I’ll be exploring are Action (and/or Combat) Scenes.

It doesn’t matter what your novel’s genre is, it may have one or more action sequences. I know ‘action’ makes people think of fighting or a life-or-death moment, but action can be any tense or high-speed situation. From a high-speed driving sequence and a fight to running away from a pursuer, these scenes are all about grabbing your readers and give them a jolt of adrenaline.

The first thing you need to remember about writing Action scenes is BREATHING. An action scene where your character ends up breathless should leave your reader breathless as well. You do this by concentrating chunks of action in a single paragraph. Think of paragraph separation as breathing in and the next one as blowing all that air out and push through. If it’s a gunfight scene, the paragraph will have the characters dodging, rolling, firing and doing everything they can to survive. The paragraph end when they reach the next cover and reload. The tension isn’t gone but you, much like the character, now have a moment to breathe and assess the situation.

When describing, you need to keep the action flowing, so you have to be cautious when going into specifics, especially when describing fights. If it’s a short bout, then every jab, cross and uppercut can sound cool and bring the reader in, but if it’s a drawn out fight, it can get tedious so you need to focus on the overall flow of combat instead of the individual actions. Only mention attacks with a direct consequence, and not the flurry that preceded them.

Same with gunfights and chases, you shouldn’t focus on every fire shot or every lane change or car weave.

In short, only keep the important bits if it’s a long sequence. Shorter ones benefit from close examination, while longer ones need a ‘panoramic’ view so to speak.

While you shouldn’t focus on the specifics in a long scene, you should always make sure you describe how the scene is affecting your characters and the environment. Maybe someone burst a sewage pie and now the place stinks, or the character’s arm burns from a bullet grazing them. It’s always a good idea to engage your readers’ senses, but in action scenes it’s double important. Think of a film and take away the music or sound effects, does it still work? I’m thinking it doesn’t. If it’s important in a medium with only 2 senses, sight and sound, then it must be paramount in one where you can connect and influence all five of them.

There is an exception to the description ‘rule’ I mentioned, and it’s in the case of mass combat, be it an all-out barroom brawl or two armies clashing. In these cases, treat the overall battle as the framework for the different characters’ action scenes. You can effectively have an overview of the battle while still having short and intricately described scenes of fights between your characters and the enemy forces. The difficulty in these is keeping the action flowing and convincing the reader of the battle’s chaos.

One way to handle this, in the bar brawl example, is to rapidly shift focus from one character to another. Imagine that someone throws a bottle, you can then tell how each of the characters ducks or gets out of the way, while the last one catches the bottle and breaks it over someone’s head. By doing this, you make the action hectic and bring the reader into the mess of crashing tables and bodies.

In terms of resolution, you should always try for your characters to get themselves out of trouble, or if some other agent is responsible, make sure it makes sense. If he’s having a drawn out gunfight, then the police coming in to break it off makes sense. If a secondary character comes in to save the day, you need to properly establish them earlier, even if it’s just in a passing reference. Otherwise, it’s saving by deus ex machina and that is just lazy. There is a golden rule when it comes to DEM: using Deus Ex to cause problems for your characters is ok, using it to save them is not! The villain retreating because the authorities are coming, or because he’s fulfilled his goal, is ok; but him sparing the character for no reason whatsoever is not. At all times, what you do and say in your novel has to make sense, even if that sense comes later on. I know I said you need to establish the saviour early on, but it can also happen afterwards, but you need to make sure that explanation is there. Otherwise, it becomes a Deus Ex Machina plot hole.

When handling multiple characters, you should always go for the most hectic option available to you. You can give each character their own different paragraph for their actions, or you can combine them into a single literary mosh pit. The latter approach is much more difficult and I recommend first writing their individual actions and polishing them before you attempt the combination. That way you know each of their separate segments work well. By combining them, you make it seem as if more is happening and that will give your reader a big adrenaline boost.

One last thing to consider is choreography. In the end, every fight is a scripted event, but you should take efforts into making it feel like a natural fight. If it starts looking too much like one of those drawn-out Star Wars lightsaber duels, then it’s time to revise the idea.

I hope you’ve found this article helpful. Next time I’ll have a few samples of each type of actions scene: combat, firefight and chase in long and short formats, to show what I mean with a panoramic approach. As you read this, you might wonder why I’m not posting them along with this and the reason is polish. I want you to have the best possible version of these scenes, and that requires a bit of time…and I haven’t written any of them…that might be another reason.

If there is another type of action sequence you want me to explore in these short fragments, please let me know in the comments!

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