Mistakes to Avoid when Writing an Action Scene

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Creating a dynamic action scene can improve the pacing and excitement level in your story. However, there are a few common mistakes you might want to avoid so you don’t leave your readers disappointed or worse, totally confused.

There’s No Build-Up to the Action Scene

There’s a lot to be said about creating tension that boils over. Spielberg understood this so well when he created his iconic shark scenes in Jaws. Take the Get Out of The Water scene at the beginning of the movie. 

Chief Brody is visibly nervous as he keeps watch over several kids playing in the busy shoreline. The tension rises and falls as different locals stop by to chat, blocking his view of the swimmers. More children enter the water. A teenager calls to his missing dog. Then, an underwater view of youthful kicking legs. This is all a build-up to poor young Alex’s demise. 

Having your characters experience danger before it the action kicks in will branch over to your readers. You can jump straight into the action, but even then, be sure to show, not tell how the clear and present danger is felt by your characters. 

Underutilizing Your Setting

Hopefully, you’ve taken the time to create a fantastic setting for your characters to live and breathe within. Then why not take advantage of it when you write your action scene? The waters of Amity Island in Jaws are murky. Both Spielberg and Peter Benchley knew that and they used it to their advantage. 

Look around the world you’ve built before you write an action scene. What can you use to turn up the tension? Think about the lighting, the objects–natural or otherwise, the way the terrain plays out. Try to envision the area and see it as dangerous. Then, have your character interact with this environment as much as possible.

Overdone Dialogue or Descriptions

I always loved the scene in The Incredibles where the villain, Buddy aka Syndrome, goes on a rant about how he became a villain. He goes on and on and on, and then he says, when I unleash it, I’ll get… You sly dog! You got me monologuing! I can’t believe it!

It was a lovely meta-nod to overdone dialogue in action scenes. This is a prime example of info-dumping at the absolute worst time. Readers are all excited for whatever action is coming their way and then the writer has a character pontificate on something that should’ve been woven into the story.

Beware of this and beware of becoming too wordy during an action scene. Once you really get into the action, try to keep your pacing quick and rapid. For more information on pacing, click here

Confusing Stage Directions

Lastly, try not to confuse your readers. If your characters have too many directions, gestures, or locations, it will be difficult to understand your narrative. To avoid this mistake, consider drawing yourself a map or acting out your scene with another person or persons. Your characters need to get to one place or another in a logical manner. They also need to, in most cases, obey the laws of physics. Maybe you’re expecting too much of your characters and you need to slow it down. 

It’s common to have your characters popping in out of places, or having a strange limb going in an unexpected direction. I get it, there’s a lot you want to relay to the reader, but make sure you’re being as clear as possible. Also, make sure you read your work out loud or have someone else take a look at it to check for clarity.

Writing an action scene takes a lot out of you. You need to have spatial awareness skills, showing not telling aptitude, and a penchant for utilizing your awesome setting. But fear not, with a little bit of practice, you can do this! 

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


About Author

Heather Rigney is a fiction writer, blogger, journalist, and art teacher based in Rhode Island. Author of The Merrow Trilogy--a dark, historical fantasy novel that deals with homicidal mermaids, the colonial suppression of women, and a present-day alcoholic funeral director trying to make sense of it all. Her writing has been featured in Motif Magazine and Stone Crowns Magazine. By day she teaches art at an all-girls Quaker school and at night she tries to be creative while avoiding too many sweets. You can read more about Ms. Rigney on her website: www.heatherrigney.com

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