Howto: Write Riveting Action

We writers are villains. Hearing that a reader stayed up until 4:00am because they couldn’t put the book down makes us cackle and steeple our fingers with the best of them. But how do we achieve that?

Fight scenes are action scenes, but action is more than just violence. Action is conflict. Win or lose, whether it’s an argument or a gunfight, a duel or a dance-off, action begins with confrontation and ends with change.

Great action reveals. Early in the story, it can be as simple as the reader discovering how talented the character is at a particular thing, i.e. swordplay or verbal jousting. Later on, the reveal should be more complex and meaningful.

Treat every action scene like a mini climax. The action scene is a culmination as much as it is a spectacle. The biggest moments are when a character realizes past actions have inadvertently trapped themselves or provided an unforeseen route to victory. A eureka moment, especially when the reader is experiencing it right alongside them, is epic.

Note: I’m using Worm “Arc 8:Extermination” as an example. Worm is a web serial, ergo freely available to everyone, but despite being somewhat rougher than most published works, it remains one of the best action scenes I’ve ever read. For the setup, Skitter, the main character, wanted to be a superhero but she somehow ended up on a team of super-villains, yet when mega-villain Leviathan attacks the city, heroes and villains alike must set aside their differences and cooperate to fight him off.

10 key elements to thrilling action scenes:

  1. Compelling characters. This is the big one. If your readers care about your characters, they’ll forgive any number of authorial sins just to find out what happens to them. How to achieve this deserves an entire chapter, and differs widely depending on the reader. Hopefully I’ll try my hand at defining it someday. In the meantime, Google is your friend.

  2. Believable stakes. The main character needs to risk something. It can be as simple as her life, but that’s one of the most boring options. The reader naturally assumes your main character is going to make it out alive (see: Plot Armor). If you need to make it work, show the MC getting wounded or redshirts dying to poke holes in that assumption. The bigger the character is who dies or the bigger the wound, the bigger the hole. But often more interesting than plain old live-or-die is trying to save a beloved friend or pet, fighting to sustain the dream that motivates the main character, etc.

  3. Character agency. A game of pinball, where the character is just rolling from bumper to bumper, helpless, makes for a boring story. Even when the odds are impossible, even when the overarching goal is out of reach, the character needs the ability to affect real, noticeable results. In Worm, Skitter doesn’t have the power set to do anything against Leviathan. But she can help. She takes on the role of medic, saving as many lives as she can.

  4. Subplot. Skitter saving people is the major subplot in Worm, but there are other things going on as well—she uses her history fighting Clockblocker, discovering his strengths and weaknesses, to understand what’s going on; Trickster saving Clockblocker could have been deus ex machina, however the author set it up with Skitter’s previous experience with Trickster. And that’s just one example. The catharsis when subplots come to a crux during an action scene feels frickin’ awesome.

  5. A ticking clock. This isn’t essential, but it sure works. It can come in many forms. In Worm, it is the italicized casualty count punctuating each attack Leviathan makes.

  6. Clarity. This doesn’t mean you can’t have confusion. Chaos and explosions all around can feel epic. But the POV character must have clear goals and their actions must clearly reflect those goals (read up on scene sequel plotting and motivation reaction units).

  7. Brevity. In your quest for clarity, it’s easy to want to go into great descriptive detail. Don’t. Technical jargon done well can be interesting, but it is never thrilling. Anything complicated needs to have been explained prior to the scene so the reader simply understands what it means when you mention “Scion” (at the end of Worm 8.3).

  8. Skip the play-by-play. The same goes for any actual action in an action scene. When we get excited, we want to read faster. Recounting every sword stroke, every dive behind cover, and every detail of the confrontation just slows us down. You need enough for flavor and clarity, and that’s it.

  9. Filtering. The closer the narrative distance the more enthralling a story tends to be. That’s even more true during action. She saw, she realized, she heard… They draw attention to the window of prose through which the reader views the scene. Distance encourages thoughtfulness, and we want the reader experiencing, not thinking.

  10. Grammar and syntax. Parsing complex sentences also slows us down by making us think. Again, you don’t want us thinking. Not now. This is often summed up as “write shorter sentences,” and that is frequently true, but it misses the mark. Write clearer sentences. Be careful with complicated grammar. Don’t try and force multiple messages into a single sentence. Every sentence should lead naturally into the next.

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