This week we’re back to build on what we learned and discuss the most common pitfalls authors make when writing action.
THE ACTION SCENE VS. THE ACTION SEQUENCE
When most people think about writing action the default paradigm is to think in terms of crafting an action scene—a car chase, a martial arts fight, a shoot out, etcetera. But the single event paradigm is limiting. Don’t sell yourself short…you’re capable of so much more! If you can write a thrilling car chase, wouldn’t it be double the thrill to also incorporate a shoot out? The idea here is to broaden your thinking from writing action scenes to writing action sequences.
An action sequence is multiple action scenes daisy-chained together.
Action sequences can take place in a single chapter or span multiple chapters. In the Andrews & Wilson novel American Operator, the climatic action sequence in Istanbul spanned sixty-five pages over ten chapters and included the following elements:
- A thwarted assassination attempt on the US President
- A sniper versus sniper duel
- A motorcycle chase
- Hand-t0-hand combat
- Two foot chases
- Three gun battles
Now I know what you’re thinking, it’s hard to imagine spending more than a couple of paragraphs describing a fist fight, how could you possibly go on for 65 pages? The answer is simple—by using the action sequences to advance the narrative.
USING ACTION SEQUENCES A PART OF THE NARRATIVE ARC
If you’ve seen the movie Return of the Jedi, you might recall that the final third of the movie is a one prolonged, epic action sequence unfolding over three venues and portrayed from multiple character points of view:
Luke Skywalker is alone on the Death Star facing off against Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader. Han and Leia are on the forest moon of Endor battling storm troopers and trying to take out the Death Star’s shield generator. And Lando is leading a squadron of rebel fighters in a space dog-fight against an overwhelming force of imperial star destroyers.
The action is dynamic and each scene cuts away at a crucial moment of suspense. We’re watching a light saber battle one minute, a dogfight in space the next, and a laser blaster shoot-out on Endor after that. The pace is fast, the stakes are high, the action is thrilling!
But these scenes were not just gratuitous action eye candy. Far from it, Luke is facing the final test of his hero’s journey—resisting the dark side and saving his father. The rebellion has bet “all or nothing” on the attack, sending the entire fleet to engage the Death Star. If they lose, the galaxy falls. Han and Leia, having just realized they are in love, will lose each other and everyone they care about they don’t complete their mission. This is the brilliance of George Lucas—all the major and minor plot threads converge and get resolved by way of the action sequence. The film’s narrative arc is woven into and through the action.
Action should never be something that’s “bolted on” to your story, nor should it be gratuitous.
If you’re up for the challenge, what Lucas did is your goal. The key to writing amazing action is to craft multi-faceted, multi-scene, multi-event sequences that drive and/or resolve plot threads and character arcs in the narrative itself. Action should never be something that’s “bolted on” to your story, nor should it be gratuitous. If you need help identifying the types of narrative elements you should work into your action sequences, here’s a list:
- Characters test their courage, faith, resolve, etcetera…
- Characters face their greatest fear
- Characters put new skills, knowledge, or capabilities to work
- Characters call upon allies
- Characters risk bodily harm or something of value
- Characters are forced to make hard choices
- Characters sacrifice something treasured to win
When you’re writing your next motor cycle chase, gun battle, or knife fight, be sure to pull one or more things from this list into the sequence so that the action matters.
MOST COMMON MISTAKES AUTHORS MAKE WRITING ACTION
Now that we’ve discussed how to write Amazing Action and provided a framework to do it, let’s conclude this two-part post by talking about the things that trip up even the most talented authors. Because as much as readers love great action, poorly executed action scenes are a major let down.
Too short or not thrilling enough
Have you ever waited two hours in line at a theme park for a ride that lasted 90 seconds and wasn’t as cool as you’d hoped? Don’t do that to your readers with your action.
Aimless, confusing, or pointless
This one describes my personal pet peeve. There’s nothing more annoying to a reader than action that’s utterly confusing or pointless. If you’re going to include an action scene, make sure we understand why the characters are risking their lives and be unambiguous about the outcome. It needs to be clear what was gained, what was lost, who was injured and how badly.
Requires “too much” suspension of disbelief
It’s okay to ask your readers to suspend their disbelief occasionally, but skilled writers of action make sure their character’s capabilities are grounded in reality. Unless your novel is about superheroes, think twice before having your protagonist come off like Superman or Wonder Woman.
Forgetting the payoff
This one is tricky and there’s a lot of gray area, but don’t forget the payoff. If you’re going to put your reader through an emotional meat grinder, they need to get something for it. The best way to do this goes back to the narrative arc component we’ve already discussed. The hero can lose or fail in an action scene, so long as something is gained with respect to the plot and/or character arc.
FINAL PIECE OF ADVICE – THINK CINEMATIC
Before signing off, I want to offer one final piece of advice and that is when you’re writing action “think cinematic.” When you map out your scene, imagine you’re a film director. Unless you write in third person omniscient, think of POV characters like cameras. What do they see, feel, hear and smell from their position? Give the reader multiple perspectives on what’s happening.
Imagine watching the action unfold on the big screen, see it with your mind’s eye and then write it that way. Your reader’s imagination will fill in the gaps, but be sure to give them all the necessary dynamic inputs—a sense of time, space, and perspective—as events are unfolding. Think “cinematic” and I promise you can’t go wrong.
If you missed Part 1 of this post and want to read more, CLICK HERE.
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