The Last Page by Anthony Huso

The Last Page


House Spirits to Keep You Company

House Spirits to Keep You Company


The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

The Great Hunt

Classic SFF Review


Writing Action Scenes

I want to be honest right off the top: This article is written by a complete novice when it comes to “action.” I’ve never been in a physical fight. I don’t know how to do any kind of martial art. I can sort of fire a little Cub Scout bow, but I have no idea how to wield a sword or a dagger. And military strategy? Forget it. I have no idea how to win a war, battle, or even a tiny skirmish.

So why on earth would I give advice about how to write action scenes?

Well, first, because you asked. I’ve been avoiding this topic, but since it’s come up several times, I suppose it’s time for me to buck up and confront my fear. Second, and most important, because writing action scenes is an essential skill for pretty much any fantasy author. And third, because I can tell you all what not to do based on the mistakes I’ve made.

I find it helpful to split my process of writing action scenes into two parts. The first part is research and planning. Because I’m a novice when it comes to fighting or physical conflict, I have to choreograph and plan my fight scenes, approach them with careful consideration and focus,
and know exactly how I want them to turn out.

How do I do that?

1)      Watch YouTube University. I have an acquaintance who has learned the basics of several skills by watching YouTube videos. She calls it “YouTube University.” Want to know how people really stand when they fire an arrow? There’s a video for that. What to review a recreation of some ancient video you saw profiled on Discovery? You’ll probably find it on YouTube or somewhere else online. Want to see what a real swordfight looks like? Check out YouTube. I’ve watched videos on forging metal, firing arrows from horseback, fighting with KravMaga, grappling, and swordfighting, among other things. Watching videos will help you get a sense of the choreography of a fight.

2)      Read. Revisit stories of your favorite battles or fights, whether real or fictional. Really, Wikipedia is a good resource for overviews of ancient battles and strategies. There are some truly outlandish victories recorded in the Bible and other religious texts. And we all have our favorite battle scenes from books. Honestly, I think the Battle of the Blackwater in A Clash of Kings is one of the best battle scenes ever written.

3)      Choreograph small scale scenes. If you know someone with some kind of fighting skill—boxing, martial arts, whatever—have that person help you choreograph your scene. It’s helpful to actually feel how your muscles and bones respond to certain positions or approaches. True, you may not be in the kind of shape your characters are in, and you may not be practiced in wielding a sword, but you’ll still get a good feel for what a human body is capable of doing.

4)      Map it out. If it’s something you need to write on a larger scale, draw it out. Turn your desk into a war room. Get out the Stratego or Risk gameboard and lay out your armies. Make it a physical reality so you can see how your imagined reality will play out.

Once I’ve researched and choreographed my action scene, I write it. At this point, things usually go fairly easily for me, but I have learned a few “dos and don’ts.”

  • Do use lots of very strong verbs. This is the time to get out your hatchet and eliminate those –ing, state of being verbs and your “wases,” “hads,” and “beens.” Your action scenes should feel very immediate, even in the past tense. Use the strongest verbs you can find.

  • Don’t use a lot of dialogue. This is a mistake I fall into, probably because I’m a dialogue hound anyway. Most people don’t talk a lot while fighting. If they do talk, it’s in short, clipped sentences. Giving your villain a chance to explain his dastardly plans in the middle of a fight is not accurate or realistic. Save that for after the fight.
  • Do drag it out. Okay, I don’t mean drag it out to make it boring. I mean, whatever you think is enough? Add a little more. People love good fight scenes. I tend to write mine too short, and some of the feedback I’ve received is that I can make them longer. Throw in a twist, an extra punch or two, or some kind of additional maneuver. Your audience will love you for it.
  • Don’t use a lot of description. Focus on action, action, action. Verbs, not adjectives. You can use a few, but really, your focus should be on short sentences, strong verbs, and clipped dialogue. Strong verbs and short sentences add immediacy and tension to your action scenes. That’s what you want. There’s time for lush, poetic description later.
  • Do remember all the senses. If it makes sense, remember to include some small descriptions of other senses besides sight. Do your characters have the metallic taste of blood in their mouths? Do they hear a ringing of swords? Do the moans of the dead and dying echo around them? Is there a smell of human waste in the air? Don’t overdo it here—just brushstrokes. Recognize, however, that people in the throes of combat will likely not notice much that’s not directly influencing them.
  • Don’t sacrifice accuracy. This one’s tricky because it can go either way. If you tend to be a little squeamish or if you don’t know what a body really does upon death, it’s really easy to be inaccurate. Make sure someone who knows a little more than you reads your work. Talk to a medical professional to check your facts. Find an expert site where you can ask questions.

But accuracy can also go the other way. Sometimes, you can be too accurate, which can translate into gory or over-the-top violent. Of course, it’s up to you how far you want to go down the violence/gore road, but make sure you write detailed gore and violence for the sake of the story, not for one-upmanship or titillation.

The most important thing in writing action scenes is to drive your plot and develop your characters. If you do those two things, most readers will enjoy the ride. I’m not saying you get a free pass—you should still try your hardest to write a great scene, and you shouldn’t just gloss over the action because you’re afraid to write it! But if you focus on plot and character and use research, planning, and choreography to make your action scene sparkle, your readers will be grateful.

Next week: Creating new religions



  1. Avatar Bridget Bowers says:

    This is a great post! Writing action is nearly as scary as I imagine participating in the battle might be if I had to do that. These are some great tips that I will definitely put to use in my next action scene or two. Thanks!

  2. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Another possibility: read Joe Abercrombie. I don’t know if anyone does actual battle scenes as well as him. All the politicking leading up to the battles and the aftermath of the battles is best done by GRRM, but for the battles themselves Abercrombie does something special.

  3. Avatar Jenn says:

    i agree with your friend, youtube is fantastic if you want to learn about something. i’ve learned so many things with how-to videos. great article!

  4. Thank you. 🙂 Really liked this post. And your don’ts do help.

    And yes, I have to agree with Khaldun, read Joe Abercrombie. He is wonderful at battles!

  5. Thanks for the comments, all. I haven’t read Abercrombie, partly because some of the reviews have made me shy away from his work since I’m sometimes kind of a wimp when it comes to certain things… 🙂 But eventually, I’ll probably bite the bullet and read his stuff.

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