Wait. Where’d she get that dagger?
It’s not easy writing action scenes. From dialogue to dungeons to daggers, it can be hard to keep track of what is going on, and even harder to relate every action to your reader. But these scenes are climactic moments for your audience, and they are moments that matter. They can draw a reader in or make them set down your book. They can build character or weaken motivations. So, how do we, as writers, write action scenes that are easy to follow, but also build the characters and the storyline? How do we write action scenes that matter? It’s not easy, but I have five tips that will help you on your way to writing better action scenes.
Fights should have purpose
Unless you are writing a 1970’s Kung Fu movie, every fight in your novel should have purpose — each fight should advance the plot. Yes, it’s fun to distract your reader with a little swordplay here and there, but you have to earn that swordplay.
Your plot should build toward a fight scene as tensions come to a head and your characters become more emotionally volatile. Think about it in real life terms: we do not pull out a sword when someone yells out our name wrong at Starbucks or adds too much whipped cream on our mocha (is there any such thing?). There would have to be a stronger reason for our aggression, and clear motivations for whipping out a broadsword at a coffeehouse.
It’s okay if you want to use an action scene to show your reader that your hero has a really bad temper. But, as much as you can, you want your fight scenes to help advance the plot. Perhaps, while fighting her dreaded nemesis, Wendy the barista, our hero depletes her magic supply and finds out her husband cheated on her with a dragon? Those two consequences of the fight impact the rest of the story — they help your fight have purpose (as opposed to a random brawl over the coffee counter).
Geez, what kind of story are you writing anyway?
Consider your genre
When you readers pick up your book with the hero wielding a broadsword and staring down a fiery dragon, they have an expectation of what they are going to read. Your fight scenes should fulfill that expectation. If you’re writing epic Starbucks fantasy, that broadsword makes sense. But, if you’re writing Hard-Boiled Fiction, would your detective really be a good fencer? Would your readers just be confused by his penchant for melee?
With every fight scene, consider your genre, and what your readers will expect. That’s not to say you can’t bend the expectations in your genre, but you should be aware of them when you do.
Okay. You’ve decided you are going to write that epic Starbucks fantasy, and Wendy is actually an unimaginably evil wizard masquerading as a minimum wage worker. Here’s another tip to help you sculpt that fight scene:
Reveal character through action
As a former college writing professor, I told my students this all the time. Every one of your character’s actions should reveal something about their character.
For example, if your hero tries to clear out the coffeeshop before engaging in a skirmish, we know she is kind and considerate. She does not want innocent people killed. If Wendy, that epically evil mastermind, just starts hurtling coffee cups and shooting beans like bullets into the crowd, well, we know that she does not care who gets hurt. She’s just out for mayhem.
We won’t even have to think that big. On a smaller level, does your character punch or slap? Do they go for the face or the gut? Think of your character’s actions like dialogue. What do their actions say? The little details in their actions reveal who they are and ultimately, what they want.
Map complex scenes
When multiple characters enter a fight, it’s time to get out your scratch paper, especially as you revise the scene. Draw the room or space, and where each character begins, making sure to include their weapons (remember that random dagger from the intro?). Then read through your draft and draw the path of each character, including dropped weapons. Take your time and label interactions (Punch? Kick? Fireball?).
If you don’t have a draft yet, consider how the fight could progress and draw out the path of the fight.
This fight map will give you an understanding of what your characters are doing, and will also help you make sure you are not being too repetitive in your actions. Does you character punch too much? Do they keep drifting aware from the center of the melee? You should be able to track their actions on your map.
Check your pace
You not only want to track their actions, you also want to consider the pacing of your fight scenes.
All fights have a rhythm. Some are over quickly, but in longer fight scenes, your hero will face success and failure. They may wrangle a dagger out of the hands of the villain only to have it thrown across the room.
The rhythm of a fight comes from the back and forth of each punch and kick, each short sentence next to a long one. Short sentences imply that time is passing very quickly for your character. This is often the case in fight scenes. On that note, all fights scenes should be as close to present tense as possible. Your hero does not have time to ruminate on her past, or the last time she ordered a mocha at Starbucks…especially if Wendy is throwing an espresso machine at her face.
Fight scenes should move along quickly, and as we have seen, they should have a clear purpose. Scenes should match up with your genre, with pacing and complexity that creates a rhythm. If your fight scene isn’t working, try mapping it out, or checking your character’s actions. They should be consistent with your character’s motivations.
And, if all else fails, double-check where you left that dagger.
Kate Ristau is an author and folklorist. She writes young adult and middle grade fiction, along with grammar primers that won’t make you cringe. In her ideal world, magic and myth combine to create memorable stories with unforgettable characters. Until she finds that world, she’ll live in Portland, Oregon with her husband, her son, and her dog. If you can’t find her there, you can find her at kateristau.com.
Áine lives in the light, but she is haunted by darkness, and when her fey powers blaze out of control, she escapes into the Shadowlands. But she cannot outrun her past. Fire fey and a rising darkness threaten the light, burning a path across the veil. Her fiery dreams come to life, and with the help of Hennessy, an uninhibited Irish girl, Áine dives into the flames to discover who she truly is. Her mother burned to keep her secret safe, and now Áine wields the deadly Eta. She must learn to fight in the shadows — or die in the flames. This is not a fairy tale.
Buy a copy of ‘Shadowgirl’ at Amazon.