I love writing action scenes. In my mind, I visualize them on the big screen – spaceships firing at one another in hair-raising battles, or my beloved main character fleeing through a busy marketplace, pursued by a fearsome enemy. But how do we translate the heart pounding, edge-of-the-seat, adrenaline rush that we get from watching a scene to the pages of our book?
As an avid reader, I think a lot about the action scenes in my favorite stories. How does the writer pull me in, keep me engaged, and leave me breathless at the end? And when I do it, what are the fundamental writing techniques I use to do the same? Here are five suggestions for creating intense action scenes that will keep readers turning the pages:
The stakes have to be high.
There are a couple of things to think about here. If a book begins with an action scene, readers don’t have an emotional attachment to the characters yet, therefore, the action itself has to be compelling enough and interesting enough for readers to stay engaged. Once readers have made a connection to the characters, and care about their well-being, then a real threat with real stakes will keep them reading.
Build tension through your writing choices.
Show don’t tell. This expression is certainly worn-out and yet still quite useful! Good writing can include beautiful, lyrical prose and a good bit of telling, but action scenes aren’t the place for this. Also, pay special attention to pacing within an action scene. You can show the action and keep the pace of the scene moving by choosing powerful action verbs, using active versus passive sentence structure, and by providing information to your readers in real time – as your character receives it.
Characters won’t notice the myriad colors of the sunset when they’re racing through a canyon chased down by a dragon, and the writer shouldn’t take time to point them out! Unnecessary or lengthy descriptions thrown into an action scene will break the tension and pull the reader out of the story. Stick to the most important descriptions only – things that are important in the moment and relevant to the action at hand.
Consider the dialogue.
While running for their lives, characters aren’t going to engage in deep, meaningful conversations. They’re going to communicate only what’s absolutely necessary, using language that reflects their emotions and furthers their immediate goals. Speech might feel abrupt or sharp, depending on the situation. There may be some colorful language involved! When I’m writing an action scene, I’ll often try to imagine myself experiencing it. What would I be thinking in that moment? What would I say and how would I say it? I always read dialogue aloud to see if it sounds authentic.
Show your character’s behavior under stress.
Give readers a peak into the character’s mind and allow them to feel that character’s mental or physical stress. Are they near exhaustion? Are they afraid or angry? What quick, potent language can you use to describe those feelings? Under stress, a character’s decision making will also be impacted. Decisions will be from the gut, not carefully measured. Often, these decisions, made in the heat of the moment, will reveal something interesting about that character – maybe a strength or a weakness.
In the context of your whole story, action scenes should have a major impact on the characters involved, and they should serve to move the plot forward. A well-written action scene will also keep readers turning the page and eager to find out what happens next!