Circle Around Gloria
Transitions: In Writing, In Life

Breaking Down the Action Scenes

Lord of the rings actionHey, Writerly Women. your response to GLORIA'S piece was exactly the kind of feedback that makes a writer -- hopefully Gloria! -- want to get right back to the computer keyboard with fingers blazing. Your questions were insightful and thoughtful, and all were framed in positive "What I loved about it was ...." That's what a writer's group looks like. Gloria, were you pleased?

Later this week we'll look at a piece written by AMANDA. And of course, if you'd like to put your own work out there with questions you're wrestling with, please email me and we'll make that happen.

For those of you who missed that post -- in which case click here -- the excerpt we looked at was an action scene. Those can be some of the hardest to write. How do you get the thing so vivid the reader can see every move, feel every stab, slap and bite (yikes, we're a sadist lot, aren't we?). If we smear it, it's like watching a movie where the punches look fake and nobody believes anybody got hit hard enough to come out with that bloody nose. 

If your writing doesn't involve actual physical altercations, it still contains action (and if it doesn't, get on it, girl). Tension happens in concrete ways, whether it's a passionate kiss (doesn't get any more active than that) or an argument in a restaurant (which if it doesn't involve wine tossed or a glass dropped or a hasty exit to the restroom, should). It has to be every bit as gripping as a melee in Lord of the Rings, or your reader may just go "meh." Nah, we don't want that.

So how do we get there? Your questions for Gloria showed that you already have a clue to the answer. You asked about specifics. 

When I was teaching and directing theater for high school and college, several times I hired an amazing stage combat choreographer named Richard Lane, founder of the Academy of the Sword and author of the definitive book Swashbuckling. How awesome does that sound, historical and fantasy writers? He came in from San Francisco with his impressive collection of actual swords (the kind that clang and flash and make you certain someone is about to be impaled) for our productions of The Three Musketeers and Romeo and Juliet, and his considerable knowledge of hand to hand combat for The Outsiders.

ne of the things I remember most vividly as I watched him work with student actors (besides being absolutely convinced my Juliet really had stabbed herself -- it was that authentic) was that he kept saying, "This is going to feel like slow motion to you, but it will be real to the audience. Trust me." 

He taught them the slow-mo technique by breaking down every single move. How the attacker's arm came back -- and how the receiver of that attack reacted with a slow flinch (which sounds like an oxymoron, I know.) How the fist seemed to go upward into the rib cage -- and how the victim's entire torso seemed to fold inward. It could take two hours just to block one sword duel -- and several more to perfect it. The precision was painstaking. The results were gasp-worthy.(Do I even need to mention that he was smokin' hot?)

It's the same when we're writing. We want the scene to read at a breathtaking pace so that the reader is white-knuckling the book or Kindle, but as we're creating it, we have to take everything apart.

     * the actions

     * the re-actions

     * the thoughts (though we want to keep those to a minimum; mid-battle is not necessarily the time for deep reflection)

     * the emotions

     * the random details a person notices (ever been in a car accident? do you remember the song that was playing just before the collision or the way a Coke can sailed through the air?)

Let's use Gloria's full-of-potential piece as an example --


The soldier drew his weapon.


     Wilford swung his blade and the soldier jumped back easily.  Another swing, and the two swords met.


What would happen if we broke it down? My apologies to Gloria for taking some liberties, since I don't know the characters.


The soldier unsheathed his sword with the precision of one who had done much battle, and had won most. The silver point was inches from Wilford's chin before he had the wherewithal to swing his own blade. It seemed clumsy in the air compared to the soldier's easy parry. He jumped back so easily Wilford felt color rise in his face. He had to get on top of this, or he would soon be in ribbons. The words of (HIS TRAINER) flashed through his mind as the soldier waited, balanced on his toes. WHATEVER THOSE WORDS MIGHT BE. Wilford heeded and etc. etc. 


See the difference? The writing of it felt as if the details would drag the scene, but as I go back and read it, the action moves swiftly. And we're there IN it, rather than watching it from the outside. 


So be your own combat choreographer. Or get yourself a consultant. Whenever I have to write a scene that involves physicality, I hit my retired Navy SEAL husband up for advice. We have enacted scenes in the living room, clearing out lamps and furniture first, and then I have gone back and written them immediately. When I had to compose a fire scene for one of my novels, I sought the advice of our local firefighters who took me into the training tower and let me experience an actual conflagration so I could break down the action. Nancy and the FiremenIt was a real sacrifice, considering what that helmet does to your hair!  


Whatever it takes, make it real. Give us every detail with rapier sharp precision. You'll be sweating when you're done. So will the reader.


If you want to comment today, and I hope you do, tell us what kinds of scenes YOU have the most trouble with. The reflections? The transitions? The point where the protagonist "gets it"? If you're a non-fiction writer, what kinds of sections make you bite your nails at the computer? We'll see if we can't give you some help with that.


We're all in this together.



Nancy Rue           



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This is so helpful! I feel like I'm better prepared now to tackle action scenes! For me, I normally have the most difficult time with transition scenes; time passing, getting someplace, preparing for something etc. I always feel like it must be so boring to the readers, especially since I'm bored writing them!


I was very pleased! Like you said, I was pulling up my document and answering the questions as I got them. I hadn't thought about some things, like describing the screams. And now I have this post to top it off, I can't wait to make even more changes!

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