Steady Pace: Writing Action Sequences

I’ve recently worked on a long action sequence in “So Speaks the Gallows” and the effort made me think it was a good time to blog about writing action.  This is based on my own experience and in no way a “must follow” instructional.  Just some thoughts, ideas, and practices I’ve found myself able to explore over time.

Writing action scenes is not an easy endeavor to say the least.  When thinking epic fantasy, the images of epic battles similar to what can be found in the Lord of the Rings movies comes to mind.  Visualizing these sequences for the screen has its own set of difficulties (see the Appendices of the movies for further detail).  For novel writing though, it’s a bit different.  The action has to be described in a way that holds and maintains the reader’s attention without inundating them with any confusing language or unnecessary details.

This is a difficult part of writing.  I did not understand this in the beginning and actually prefer smaller scenes of action than large scale warfare.  There are writers that do both very well.  Brandon Sanderson (via the notes and direction of Robert Jordan) was able to do this in the final book of the Wheel of Time series, A Memory of Light, which is a massive final battle that has so many moving parts and elements that it’s amazing to read.

For myself, action sequences need to be treated in a way that moves and does not stall.  Characters are engaged in often life and death situations and have to act in order to survive.  Their choices should reflect this and if they make a mistake, then there should be consequences.  For myself, I don’t like it when the “heroes” are untouchable.  Emotions should be tugged on throughout action sequences both in the characters and the reader.

Something I try to keep in mind while writing action is forward progress and the toll taken on the characters.  Long fights where neither side gets tired is unrealistic (unless we are dealing with superheroes and/or ridiculous fights in the Matrix).  Two guys with swords fighting to the death are not likely to last more than a few minutes.  The best training in the world does not mean the body does not lose energy and grow tired.  And if and when one side suffers an injury, that has an affect on the body as well.  Loss of blood forces the body react in a way to compensate for the wound.  This is something I personally pay attention to while writing any kind of fighting scene.

Let there be a cost.  This is sort of my mantra whenever things turn violent in anything I’m writing.  Violence is a means of entertainment we find in all mediums but we are far removed from any ideology that the good guys never lose.  It’s difficult for me to write an action sequence and write the deaths of characters I know very well after so many years with them but they are not and cannot be untouchable.  There is a difference between killing characters off for shock affect and characters dying because they were bested and/or caught in the crossfire.  This is difficult to pull off and while I could justify the killing of a character (whatever their role in the story), some readers could easily say they feel cheated by the death, arguing it was unnecessary.  It’s up to me to make it justifiable in the end.

Action should pull on the reader in several different ways.  It takes years to practice and become good at it.  My recent revision of the long sequence I mentioned previously revealed a lot about myself when I first wrote it.  Too often, I ran into paragraphs that simply did nothing to push the action forward.  These stilted moments were amateur to say the least and I am pleased with the revision.  There’s a flow–a pace–to writing these scenes and while I continue to test myself and improve, I believe I’m closer to applying my writing style and voice to these difficult scenes.

Call to Action:  So, we recently watched the movie “Baby Driver”.  I whole-heartedly recommend viewing this fine film.  Not only is it fun and original, but it does something for action sequences that is not only entertaining but strikes the creative chord (pun intended).  How?  The director, Edgar Wright, syncs the soundtrack of the film to the action.  Trust me, you’ll love it.

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