Writing action scenes can be downright murderous. A million things are happening at once and we have to tell it all word by word by word, left to right across a blank page. Unlike TV and the big screen, we don’t have music, lighting, camera angles, or audio to delivery our action. We don’t have movement, costumes, or set designs like theatre has. We don’t have differing brush strokes and a palette of colours like the painter. We have words. Words and punctuation, and if we have a magnanimous editor, perhaps the odd bold or italic and maybe even an exclamation mark.
So how can we effective transcribe an action scene?
Tip #1: Use short sentences. I was surprised to learn this. It goes against instinct.
If a million things are happening and everything is quickly changing as one thing is leading to another and then he grabs her and next he throws her onto the bed while her friend runs for help—an author can’t help but want to get it all down without stopping and breathing….
A million things are happening. He grabs her and tosses her to the bed. Agatha runs for help. The short sentences speed up the writing. The periods add punch. There is no doubt in the reader’s mind that this page has action.
Tip #2: Within sentences, write things in the order they occur. What this does is allow readers to form continuous streams of visual images from your words. If the reader has to go back and correct their mental images to add new information, it slows the pace of the story and may become so distracting that readers will abandoned your story.
The lead pencil broke because she was pushing so hard on it.
She pushed so hard on the pencil, the lead broke.
The dog barked and barked and barked as soon as the coyotes started howling.
When the coyotes started howling, the dog began to bark (and bark and bark).
Tip #3: scrap the words “then” “as” “next” “while” to indicate the order of action. If you diligently follow tip #2, this tip will be easy to follow. Readers will get used to your rhythm and understand that things are following chronologically. You therefore don’t need those words.
He grabbed her and then threw her onto the bed after she said, “I don’t love you.” Meanwhile, Agatha ran for help.
“I don’t love you,” she said. He threw her onto the bed. Agatha ran for help.
Tip #4: To keep your writing tight, the action moving, the emotion intense-- watch diligently for repeated words, unnecessary words, “ing words”, and clichés.
He threw her [down] onto the bed. Then bend[ing] [down] over her, he said [as cool as a cucumber], “I don’t love you, either.”
He threw her onto the bed and bent over her. His eyes narrowed. His brows lifted. His lips slowly parted. “I don’t love you, either.”
Tip # 4: Choose your point of view and stick with it—if not for the entire scene, at least for a reasonable amount of time. This will allow your readers to create those continuous visual images and also encourages your readers to connect deeply with the character through which they are experiencing the action.
She stared into his eyes, terrified. He was wondering what he should do next. Agatha was sure the police would arrive to find blood.
Terrified, she stared into his eyes. She thought she saw a flicker of uncertainty behind the blue. Perhaps, she wasn’t going to die.
If you have an action scene as your opening chapter, boy—do you have your work cut out for you!
Coming next…the challenges involved in writing an opening chapter.
Eileen Schuh,Canadian writerwww.eileenschuh.com