Writer’s Den: Lights, Camera, Action!
The cornerstone of almost all great fantasy books is the action scenes held within them. This is also one of the skills that many authors of today have trouble with. A good action scene will draw readers in and immerse them in the author’s world. It will grip them so tight that the pages will continue to turn, and time will pass, and the reader won’t even notice. Every author wants to achieve this, but what takes an action scene from good to great? How do we entrance our readers so they won’t want to put the book down?
Research, Research, Research
The first point I have to make about action scenes is the level of research involved. If your action scene is a battle, you must have a good understanding of anatomy, weapons, fighting techniques, armor, and much more. If your action scene is a chase, you must understand timing, mapping, and have a keen understanding of just how fast people, animals and vehicles can move.
Action scenes that feel real will capture your readers’ attention, even if they deal with fictional concepts. You don’t need to incorporate a lot of technical jargon into the scene, just understand the forces at work, and the factors involved. Good research will show in the writing. Trying to write about something you don’t understand will interfere with your readers’ suspension of disbelief and jar them out of the story, which is the last thing you want.
Melee, Ranged, Magical and Hand-to-hand Combat
If you are incorporating combat scenes in your story, there are four basic types of combat to keep in mind, and there are rules for each of them. This ties in with research, because you must understand the weapons, distances and techniques you are writing about or your action scene will fall flat.
Melee combat is accomplished with handheld weapons of some kind. Knives, swords, polearms, maces and morning stars are just some of the many handheld weapons that your characters could use. Discover the proper names of the weapons, know what they look like and how to describe them to somebody who might not know the proper names of weapons. What techniques are used with the weapons and does your character have that level of expertise?
The second type of combat is ranged. This is usually done with ranged weapons like bows, crossbows, or guns. Again, research the weapons and understand how they work, what the rate of fire is for them, how much ammunition they can hold, and what the effective range for them is. Some ranged weapons aren’t very good at point blank range, so be sure to check this out as well. Fighting style isn’t really required for ranged combat, but you do need to understand distance and cover. Ranged weapons are less effective against opponents who have some level of cover. Also, the character using the weapon has to know how to fire it, reload it, and aim it.
Magical combat is a personal favorite of mine, but must be very well written in order to captivate an audience. This particular method of combat requires the highest level of suspension of disbelief from the reader, and thus it’s critical that you understand how to captivate that audience. There’s nothing worse than trying to read a magical combat scene that’s clunky and not well thought out. If you have a magic system, be sure to fully understand that magic system and don’t break any rules for convenience. Readers will pick up on that rule breaking and call you on it. Be descriptive, and make sure that any spell casting your characters do is consistent with the rest of the book. Combat should not have its own set of rules for magic.
The last method of combat is the hardest for me to write, as I have so little experience with it. Hand-to-hand combat is any fight that involves no magic or weapons. Just two characters duking it out. This could be martial arts, boxing, fist-fighting, or any number of other styles of hand-to-hand combat. When dealing with hand-to-hand combat, it’s important to understand how much punishment a body can actually take before shutting down. Different people have different pain tolerances, and this can help you distinguish the characters in a fight scene. Also, have a mind as to how many hits to the head a character can take before falling unconscious. Despite what movies would have us believe, this is actually a fairly low number.
The Chase is On
Action scenes don’t have to involve combat. Chase scenes are full of action if you can get the description down. My advice for this is to map out the route of the chase on an overhead map that is drawn to scale, and then be sure you have timings down, landscape features, and details. Is the chase on foot or in vehicles of some kind? What speed are the characters or vehicles moving at?
Something that can add excitement to a chase scene is a close call. Partway through the scene, incorporate a close call, where the chaser almost catches the target of the chase. I know it seems cliché, but how often do you see this in movies, and it never really gets old.
To keep the energy high in a chase scene, keep the focus on the characters at hand and don’t get too bogged down in detail about the scenery. The reader wants to know how the chase ends, and if you put too much descriptive text into the scene, you’ll have readers skimming or skipping to the end of the scene to find out. It’s all about balance.
Giving it Meaning
Writing a good action scene is tough, but even harder is making sure your reader understands why the action scene is there. The characters involved must have a reason to be part of the action, and there should be a purpose in the story for the action scene. Putting action in for the sake of having action doesn’t make for a very good story. Also, having nothing but a long string of action scenes will leave your reader so overwhelmed that they may put the book down just to get a breather from it. Be sure to interject some slower parts to give your readers a chance to breathe and process the scenes. If the action scene is a long one, it might be wise to insert a break in the middle of the scene as well.
Articles about active and passive voice are everywhere, so I won’t bore you with the details of this. There is no place where an active voice is more important than in an action scene. Verbs should be strong and descriptive and kept in active voice. Descriptions should be clear and concise and kept to as few words as possible without losing their meaning. The idea is to set the pace for the action quite high to keep the excitement up without losing too much detail in your descriptions. There’s a balancing act happening here.
It’s tough to cover everything involved in writing a good action scene, but I hope this gets you started. Entire books could be written about this subject and still never cover all of it, but the basic guidelines are simple: know your characters, know your setting, and understand all the factors involved when putting that scene together. Balance the description with the action, and be sure to use good, strong language and active verbs to fill the scene out. Above all else, good luck, and have fun writing it.