Action sequences are among the most exciting, tense parts of the story when properly executed; fight scenes, battles, chases, break outs, and all manner of things fast paced and physical. They’re vital for both rising action and climax, and they add life and interest to the story. Below are a couple of tips for polishing your action, keeping it tight, and making it read like the cinematic badassery that you envisioned.
Keep It In Scene
I use the words “in scene” a lot on this blog. What they means is that you describe things as they happen. In other words, the reader gets things exactly as they would if they were watching it all acted out. Things stay concrete, and most of the focus is on what’s physically occurring. There are two parts of this:
No Prolonged Internal Monologues
Internal monologues pull the characters away from the action. They interrupt the movement and physically remove the reader from the immediate situation to focus on a character’s thoughts. As such, they dramatically slow down the pace of the scene. You want your action to be fast paced.
Internal monologues also cut down on urgency. They imply that the characters have time to catch their breath and think about what’s going on. In a high stress situation, most people don’t have time to process things in detail. They especially don’t have time to ruminate on their personal problems, to analyse the motives of the villains, or to explain their own motives to the reader.
Keep your character in the moment.
No summary narration
Summary narration is when a prolonged sequence of events is condensed into a brief summary of what happened, rather than playing out in its entirety. If something happens in summary narration, it looks like this:
Jessica and Alice exchanged blows.
If it happens in scene, we see Jessica wind her hand back and punch Alice. We see Alice react. We see any ensuing dialogue, and Alice’s counter attack. The reader actually gets to see the exchange.
In scene is more effective because summary narration crunches the action into a short space and doesn’t give the reader as much to visualize. Summary narration also suggests that some time has passed and nothing notable has occurred in that interval. Putting the action into scene allows you to keep the tension high and keep the reader present.
The story does not take place in a vacuum.Your character is interacting with everything around them. As such, it’s important that all actions have reactions, and that the setting itself is incorporated into the action.
If the character does something, follow through. This makes the actions feel more concrete. If Alice gets punched and the first thing that she does is take a swing at Jessica, you’re missing a step. The first action (Jessica’s punch) doesn’t go anywhere. If Alice gets punched, unless she’s got abs of steel or no nerve endings, it makes sense that she has to *react* to the punch.
Following through make your scene more organic and let the action work as an exchange, whether it’s between two people, or between a person and their environment. It enables the characters to interact with the world around them, thus giving the characters a sense of physicality and making their actions have a bigger impact. It also makes things easier for readers to visualize.
A big part of grounding is keeping track of the setting and interspersing background details so that the characters don’t feel like they’re floating in space. Like following through with actions, using the setting gives your characters a chance to interact with their environment. This results in more concrete images, as well as more ways to vary up what’s actually happening—things can break, obstacles can get in the character’s way, and objects become improvised weapons or problem solving tools.
Action is a great way of establishing setting in general, because showing the way that characters interact with their surroundings allows you to reveal the setting naturally without large blocks of description. More so, you can develop the setting through the way that the characters change it. That is to say that after Alice and Jessica are done fighting, there’s a good chance that the living room is going to be trashed. Leaving physical reminders of their fight for later anchors the story around it and makes the effects of the action sequence seem more permanent.
Conservation of Detail
Action sequences do strange things to conservation of detail. On one hand, anything that’s relevant is brought into hyper-focus. On the other, too much detail gets in the way of the story and stops action from happening.
Focus on efficient descriptions. Figure out what you want the readers to see, and try to describe it as efficiently as possible. Large blocks of description slow the story down. Incorporating description into action gives an image that helps readers picture the action without getting in the way of pacing.
Consider what details the POV character would be likely to pick up on. They’re going to notice if Alice is holding a sword. They may notice that the sword is inscribed. They are unlikely to notice the latin motto inscribed on the sword, unless they get very, very close. They are highly unlikely to notice the color of Alice’s eyes if she’s swinging the sword at them.
Track your details. Once you put information out, keep it consistent. Since action sequences tend to unfold across a space, the layout of your setting becomes relevant. So does clothing, because that may get in a character’s way or serve as protection. Establish any armor or weaponry that the POV character is carrying early on so that it doesn’t conveniently materialize out of thin air. Keep a mental map of the environment (or a physical map) so that you can plant details about potential obstacles, tools, or escape routes before they become plot relevant.
Join us Monday as the undistilled badassery continues with Action Sequences Pt. 2!