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Writing Action Scenes That Come Out Swinging

come out swingingA novel without a few punches, kicks, bloody noses, broken ribs and scraped knuckles just doesn’t ring true. To hear me talk, you’d think I was raised in a dojo, but perhaps it was the absence of violence in my childhood that makes me hunger for it now.

To be clear, I’m only into fictional mayhem. I can watch wrestling every Monday and Friday night with a bowl of popcorn and a six-pack of beer, but turn on UFC and I become a cowardly mass of trembling flesh.

I don’t like it when people actually get hurt, but fake it and I’m captivated for hours.

Anyway, portraying action scenes on film might be difficult, but it isn’t nearly as much of a challenge as writing fight scenes in a fiction story. Action scenes are a lot like sex scenes: It’s all in the way body parts connect and how characters react to the same.

A Touch of Witty Banter

Sometimes action scenes are more about the pre-game festivities than the main attraction. If your characters engage in witty, intelligent banter before they fight, you generate suspense and leave your reader wondering what might happen next.

The tendency here, however, is to slip into trite, clichéd attempts at humor that just annoy the reader. Think exaggerated threats and corny one-liners—they insult your reader’s intelligence and send them searching for another book on the shelf.

Instead, try to imagine what you would actually say to someone who wants to kick your ass. How might you stall for time, for example, or psych them out? Would you jump straight to the kicks and the punches, or would you give yourself a second to prepare? These questions make writing fight scenes far less stressful.

A Dash of Anatomical Description

When writing action scenes, try to remember that your readers are picturing every punch, jab, elbow, kick to the shins and feint you put on the page. Words flow across your computer screen, but the scene comes to life in your reader’s mind. This means that if your action scenes don’t make anatomical sense, your reader is going to take a step back in confusion.

For example, I once read a short story where the main character (a human, with no super powers to speak of) kicked a bad guy with his left leg, back-kicked him with his right leg, kneed him in the back, planted an elbow in his chest and head-banged him all in one sentence, sequentially, and in the space of a few moments.

What disturbs you about that action scene? Obviously, the main character was airborne for part of his attack on the bad guy, and his body can contort in ways that make Walter Wentworth cringe.

Pay attention not only to the sequence of attack when writing action scenes, but also to the ways in which the body moves. You have more freedom if you’re writing about Superman or Wonder Woman, but don’t give your average Joe abilities beyond the human construct.

The same goes for action scenes that don’t include hand-to-hand fighting. For instance, if you’re writing a car chase scene, keep track of the directions in which your characters are heading. It is impossible to turn from an east-west street onto another east-west street, just as cars cannot flawlessly pass through brick walls.

A Hint of Pain

Most action scenes, whether involving hand-to-hand combat or not, involve some sort of physical pain. Perhaps it is the burn of the chest as a character runs for his life, or maybe it is the searing agony of a sword through the hand. Whatever the case, your reader should be intensely cognizant of your characters’ pain.

Most people, when they are hit in the nose with a fist, do not simply shake their heads and surge forward on counter-attack. It smarts. It more than smarts: it HURTS. Your characters should feel pain in the same way real people do.

This isn’t to say they cannot shake off the pain to save the day. It wouldn’t be a great story if they didn’t! But give your characters obstacles to success, physical pain that blurs their vision and numbs their extremities. Make them fight for whatever goal they eventually reach.

You can also write about other types of sensory perception in action scenes. How does the pavement feel when your character crashes into it; how does sweat taste as it drips into his mouth from his forehead; what does it sound like when a car hits a brick wall; what does leaking gasoline smell like?

A Bit of Rage

In the same vein, characters in action scenes will feel intense emotion. Fear, anger, jealousy, contempt, disgust, frustration, despair. All of these emotions might occur to your characters at the same time, or they might emerge over the duration of a fight or car chase.

Pausing to describe your characters’ emotions will not staunch the suspense or the pace if you do it artfully. Take a moment when your character is regrouping to describe how he is feeling or what he is planning to do next. Give him a process and let your reader work through the problem simultaneously.

A Modicum of Conflict

Action scenes don’t just happen in fiction stories. There’s a reason behind the madness, a driving force that propels your characters to act. As you are writing the nitty-gritty aspects of fight scenes, remind the reader on occasion what your characters are fighting for.

Is it to save the girl? Rescue the holy grail? Bring peace to all nations? Defeat the evil scientist? Stop a madman from escaping prison? In many cases, your characters will have multiple reasons for engaging in action scenes, so bring them all together through prose.

Similarly, give your characters choices as you are writing action scenes. Should he go left or right? Use his fists or his feet? Run away or strike back? Let your characters weigh their options, then create believable consequences for those choices.

A Recipe for Action

All of these components will help you craft engaging, exciting action scenes, but don’t let my advice inhibit your creativity. Every writer has his or her own style, and you should develop it with vigor.

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