Writing action scenes, from Sheila Deeth

Writing Action Scenes

Sheila’s September 2013 talk and writing exercise were taken from a chapter in Writing Fantasy Heroes, edited by Jason M. Waltz



Writers’ Workshop of Science Fiction and Fantasy (Seventh Star Press) may well be the better book, but a particular chapter in Writing Fantasy Heroes caught my eye. The chapter’s called Writing Cinematic Fight Scenes, by Brandon Sanderson, but the lessons apply to any action scene, and we all write action scenes sometimes, or else nothing happens.

We read a nicely boring sample of an action scene—an almost childish blow-by-blow account with the odd metaphor. But anything can be boring—action, romance, comedy… and we want to avoid boring in our writing.

If you want to reproduce this lesson at home, start now by writing “stage directions” for a scene involving action. Take two minutes. You’re not writing Hamlet. You’re writing “A prince in Denmark sees his father’s ghost and goes crazy.” Recreate a blow by blow battle, write a scene from your own novel or short story, create a Halloween scene for the current contest…

Movies and TV are visual story-telling mediums… the set-dresser provides the scene, the actors provide the emotion… the blow by blow stage directions are great for this, but they don’t work in fiction. “The reader has to supply much of the work done by the cinematographer in film,” says Brandon Sanderson. And the writing has to accurately prime his/her imagination.


1)      Set up the scene so the reader can “see” it.

2)      Blocking.  Keep the reader’s focus on the hero so s/he can interpret where everyone is in relationship to each other. Avoid abstract language in action sequences—abstract works great in description but try to minimize metaphors and keep things clear and simple in action scenes.

A second example from the book showed how the scene could be set up with description and blocked with clear directions.

Now spend 3 minutes setting up and blocking your scene. It still won’t be perfect—the author describes his second version as “bland”—so just concentrate on set-up and blocking; nothing else.


“[T]ake the reader and stuff them into the hero’s shoes… Fill out your descriptions with increased use of high-sensory language… [L]et us feel the humidity, hear the wheezing of the smoker’s cough, smell the pungency of a beggar’s breath.” We know we need this in dramatic scenes, but with just a few lines with a few evocative sensory experiences, you can coax the right imaginings in your reader during an action sequence. Keep it small, short, sensually dense… The actor’s not looking around enjoying the sights and smells or thinking of clever ways to describe them…

Details such as the scent of oregano, the crack of a floorboard (or a bone) made the next example more real.

Now add appropriate details to your scene. Take 4 minutes this time.

Have you noticed the scene’s getting longer? This is a great way to turn your short story into a novel, or your story kernel into a full-fledged tale.


If you’ve laid enough groundwork, and your reader’s not distracted, the action itself will keep readers interested. But what if you’re starting your novel with an action sequence, or your reader’s just been distracted by a phone-call? Don’t assume they’ll care what you write. Make them care. Put them inside the character’s head, not just his shoes.

“The most powerful fights I’ve read in books have been the ones where every moment—every description, every punch—is channeled through the motives, emotions, and goals of the hero.” This doesn’t mean your hero has to analyze the meaning of life before he throws a punch, but “[d]on’t let the reader forget why your hero is fighting.” Books really do have an advantage over film here. “The audience…gets to watch the hero; we can make our readers be the hero.”

Another sample—longer and with fewer blows, but more insight into purpose, gave the idea. “[T]he actual fighting takes a back seat to Jim’s motivations and emotions. Our story stops being about the fighting and starts being about the hero, and… the fight becomes far more interesting and personal.”

It’s not action that makes the hero; “[t]he hero makes the action,” even in movies. Is that true? Would you watch James Bond if you didn’t somehow care about him?

So, edit your scene and make us care. This is where you’ll insert backstory, or remind readers of the backstory they’ve forgotten. It’s where you make sure everything’s seen through the hero’s eyes—if you slipped up and entered someone else’s head, get out of there now and tell your reader how the hero knew what they’re thinking. Let your reader experience your scene. Take 5 minutes for this.


·         If your scene has stretched over too many pages, it might be time to give the reader a breather. Let them get re-established with what’s going on. Then shift back to the action.

·         Using quirks helps establish character and create variety. In the sample we read, one character chewed a cigar.

·         Each few lines should do something new. Is your character being clever/observant/humorous/making connections? Ring the changes. Keep the reader engaged.

·         Vary your sentence lengths. Short ones don’t necessarily speed up the action—they feel clipped and can slow it down. Longer sentences read more smoothly and let the action flow.

·         Single sentence paragraphs really slow things down. They’re great for a moment of revelation of change but they don’t give a fast-action feel, despite what lots of authors imagine.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *