Regardless of genre, most novels have a few action scenes. They’re moments that get your heart racing. You know the stakes are high for the main character and the whole story feels like it could turn on a dime. Maybe you’re writing a novel packed with scenes just waiting to be put into a hit action movie. Or maybe the subject of your character-driven family drama needs to think fast in an unexpected crisis.
Whatever the situation, your action scenes need to strike just the right note with readers. You want the adrenaline to flow while still keeping the story believable. That can be a tall order! As you write and revise, keep the following in mind.
Match your dialogue with the action
Most of us speak very differently during a crisis or confrontation than we do under normal circumstances. As our thoughts become less organized, so do our words. We speak in short sentences. We forget our manners. If we don’t interrupt ourselves, someone — or something — else does.
Keep this in mind when you write high-intensity scenes with lots of action. Dialogue tends to be short and choppy. Sometimes in the heat of the moment a character will blurt out something they regret. If a character’s dialogue feels too calm and detailed, it won’t sit right with readers.
On the flip side, be careful not to use dialogue to amp up the drama. Overblown dialogue that doesn’t match the scene makes that character’s behavior look weird and inappropriate. The action should set the tone for your dialogue, not the other way around.
Narrow your focus and speed up the pace
Much like they won’t have time for long conversations, your point-of-view character won’t notice small details outside the action, either. Think of what people say after real-life crises: it all just happened so fast. I wasn’t paying attention to that, I was too focused on getting out of there. Now is not the time to develop your setting or fill in unnecessary backstory.
During an action scene, describe only what your point-of-view character would actually notice in that moment. Your primary goal is to keep the pace moving quickly and get readers’ adrenaline pumping. If you stop to examine the architecture of the surrounding buildings as your protagonist is sprinting away from an attacker, you’ll break the tension you’ve worked so hard to set up.
Keep it believable
Be wary of improbable victories and narrow escapes. We all have them once in a while, but no one gets lucky every day. You want readers to experience a thrill when your hero pulls it off — and that means your action scenes need to feel believable.
Act your scenes out — with dialogue! — if you need to. Prepare readers for these scenes with subtle details to avoid eye-rolling and accusations of deus ex machina. Enlist beta readers to tell you if the scene feels real enough.
If you aren’t writing from experience, seek out a knowledgeable source to answer questions and identify flaws. If your hero sustains a blow to the head, don’t ignore it and move on with the story. Do some research about concussions and work those details in. If you’re writing a barfight, consider chatting with someone who’s worked as a bouncer or bartender. Paramedics can tell you a lot about how people respond to trauma — including bystanders, not just those who’ve been injured. You’ll have readers who know your material. Make sure you do, too.
In the end, successful action scenes come down to pacing and believability. The events, actions, and dialogue all need to feel realistic and appropriate. Your prose needs to keep readers’ hearts racing without losing them. It’s a delicate balance, but the thrill of getting it right will be well worth the effort.