So, since I missed that, I thought I would share what I do know about writing action scenes. Then I'll go next month to the next meeting. If I remember, that is. To look at my phone, that is.
So, what do I know about writing action scenes? I know I don't know it all, but what I do know, I'll share.
Definition of an action scene.
First, we need to define exactly what we are talking about when we refer to "action" scenes. We are talking about whenever any action that moves the plot forward needs to take place. It could be running from something or someone, or a fight, or a car chase, or even a board game. Any action which involves increasing tension until it resolves to some degree.
A lot of authors say they don't like writing action scenes. If so, they are probably doing it wrong, and it comes through in whatever action scenes they do write. What they generally mean is they don't like writing fight scenes. But an action scene is much more than fighting, as I've described above. Most every book will have some action scenes in it, even romance. Thus the need for us to examine how to write them in a manner that not only becomes enjoyable, but realistic.
Now, here are seven suggestions I have for writing action scenes.
1. Keep in mind the purpose of an action scene
Why have an action scene? What do they accomplish? Two words: tension and resolution. That's why so many climaxes use them so often. But the goal, whether one is talking about action scenes in movies or in a book are to create tension about what will happen to the character, to put him or her in jeopardy that you are not sure they will escape. If you are having an action scene purely for its own sake, you're missing the whole point of having one in there. Instead of it being an important plot-moving element, it becomes mere plot decoration. Sort of like having a token action scene because it is expected.
Basic rule of thumb, if it does nothing for the tension of the story and the character(s), it is best to cut it or just say it happened without describing it.
2. Action scenes have a narrow focus.
By that, I mean that when a character goes into a battle or such, he or she focuses on the battle rather than a lot of other stuff going on around them. They won't notice the color of a drapery unless it falls on them or their opponent. So sensory data gets narrowed to whatever is going on in the battle or action. Think of all the adrenaline going through their veins. They will tend to only focus on the task at hand, or if well trained, only relevant data like noticing a fist coming at them from the side.
So your writing will need to reflect that narrow focus. Don't take time to describe any scenery except for that which directly is relevant to the action, to make sense of it. For instance, you could say something like, "A blue Dodge van careened toward them." But you wouldn't want to say, "We ran past a blue Dodge van as I plunged my fist toward his face."
To be realistic, you only should notice what your character would in that situation.
3. Action scenes happen fast.
This is good news for people who write an action scene: you don't need to spend pages writing out blow by blow accounts of everything. What does this mean for writing them?
It means action scenes should only be as long as required to describe the action adequately enough that the reader doesn't get lost. Probably one of the harder action scenes I've written was in my book, Mind Game, where I describe a space battle between three ships. It was a challenge to give enough detail that people could follow or get a picture in their minds as to what was happening in this three-dimensional-movement environment, but not so much that I made it appear longer than it would in real life.
Let's focus on sword fighting, for instance. Most sword fights happen in two or three moves. You rarely see the types of sword fights you see in movies where they battle it out for several minutes. It usually takes 2 to 5 seconds. Therefore, your writing should reflect that. If you have them swinging at each other more than three times, it starts to work its way toward non-realism.
That also means you'll want to use brief, short, sentences to describe action scenes. Conjunctions are not your friend if they are tying two long and complete sentences together. Break them up. The only thoughts of the character need to be focused on the battle or action at hand. This is not, generally, the time for long monologues or thoughtlogs as the case may be.
4. Focus more on the experience of the pov character than on the action itself.
That could be counter to what I just said above, but a balance needs to be maintained. Describe the action as necessary, but what the reader is really interested in is the character's experience. This is where showing can be very handy. Take these two examples:
Example 1: I hit him in the mouth and he slammed his fist into my gut.
Example 2: I swung my fist. It rammed into his jaw with a loud crack. My lungs expelled their air as a force slammed into my gut. I collapsed. The steely taste of blood rose into my mouth.
See how the second example raises the tension more than the first? The first just conveys what is happening. The second conveys what is happening to the character, what he or she is experiencing.
5. Don't have your characters talk a lot in an action scene.
What they do say should be short, to the point, and matching the drama of the moment. You might get "Look out!" or "Duck!" What you shouldn't get, unless your writing a literary piece, is long thoughts and discussions that put all the action on pause.
Just think, if you are in an action scene, like I was one time after my car spun out on the side of the road. The car's wheel stub was on fire, I didn't talk much. I ran as fast as I could to a nearby gas station to tell them to call the fire dept.
You wouldn't expect (though you often get) long discussions between characters. Or friendly banter like Spiderman or Deadpool. Those two are character traits. You don't often see much dialog (there are always exceptions) for instance, in Captain America's fights. There always tends to be pauses in the action to discuss something, but other than for characterization, you don't want most of your characters to say a lot during action scenes. Whatever they do say, should be to move the action forward or to build further tension.
6. Don't attempt to mimic the movies.
Movies use a lot of action scenes. Camera work is designed for it. You can see what is happening, and just seeing the main character dangling over that pool of acid is enough to keep you glued to the screen to see whether and how he escapes, or not, as the case my be.
However, as in point 4 above, just describing what happened from a camera pov is boring in writing. I've had people tell me they tend to skim and/or skip action scenes in most novels. The reason is they don't increase the tension in a novel as they do on the silver screen.
That's why point 4 is so important to include in any action scene. The tension will come more from what will happen to the character. So whether we are talking being hit or being dealt a bad hand in a poker game, we had better know what it means to the character's pov or you haven't conveyed good tension.
7. Your point of view will be an important factor how and what is described.
The above assumes you are writing in first or third limited person. If you are using an omniscient pov, however, your tactics can change. Keeping in mind the building of tension, you will have more freedom to get by with abbreviated action scenes. You can pull back for a broad view of a fight, as J. R. Tolkien does in Lord of the Rings, or you have the freedom to go into a specific head for a more personal view.
In either case, you do what will build tension most. For instance, I recall the scene in the movie, Lord of the Rings, where you have an extended fight scene with orcs and Legolas at Helms Deep. However, in the book, Tolkien only describes it in a sentence or two, referring to the sun glinting off Legolas' blade as he swung his sword over and over. In that pov, he could get away with that brief description. But to have focused on what happened, blow by blow, as he killed orc after orc, would have been tedious and wouldn't have built the tension as it did in the movie. Some complain that the movie's fight scenes were too long as well.
In first or limited third person pov, you would have to use a telling transition to skip over all that, something like, "My muscles grew weak as I hacked away at orc after orc. After several minutes of killing, I saw a bright light coming over the hill." But the omniscient pov has the value of being more descriptive in this instance.
So keep tension in your action scenes. They should build tension through them until it resolves, or partially resolves. All the above points focus on that aspect and making them as realistic as possible. If you can accomplish that while breaking any of the above suggestions, more power to you. But keeping the above points in mind will help to keep your action scenes pulling the reader into them, instead of something to skip over.