The Secrets of Writing Action Scenes

200px-HeirToTheEmpireBack in 1991, Timothy Zahn rejuvenated the Star Wars franchise with Heir to the Empire, the first new, non-comic Star Wars tale since the end of the first trilogy. Like every SW fan, I devoured it, but I remember thinking that although Zahn nailed the characters, he totally blew the battle scenes. The reason was simple: what takes seconds to show in film can take pages to describe in prose. By trying to replicate the action of the movies, he created those vast blocks of gray text that readers skim, violating one of Elmore Leonard’s prime rules: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

When I began to write the Eddie LaCrosse novels, I remembered how I’d felt about Zahn’s action scenes, and so thought about how I wanted to do mine. It took a while, but I finally realized the obvious thing about action scenes in prose: they have the same job as everything else. They have to advance the plot, and reveal character. If they don’t do at least one of these things, then they’re extraneous at best, boring at worst. And readers will skip them.

There’s a lot of action–fights, chases, even occasionally battles–in the Eddie LaCrosse novels. The point of view helps a lot: everything is in first-person, so there’s no question of what perspective to emphasize. If Eddie doesn’t experience it, it doesn’t get mentioned.

But Eddie is also a very specific character. He’s experienced, but he’s a bit past his prime, and he tends to either win his fights very quickly, or choose not to fight at all if he thinks he’s overmatched. Because he’s seen so much, he often compares his current fight with something from his past, often employing techniques that worked before. When I write an action scene, I have to keep all this in mind.

Further, there are the physical sensations of the fight. The muscles used to swing a sword, or to parry a blow, are specific and, to most of us, a bit unusual. I’ve taken fencing and sword-fighting classes to get an idea of how it feels, and yes, at times I act out what I’m about to write to see if there’s some interesting detail I might have overlooked. Luckily my office is on the third floor, so the neighbors don’t have to see me jumping around.

Dark Jenny cover

It’s also important to remember that things we might see in TV and the movies don’t always go that way in real life. For example, in Dark Jenny, Eddie punches somebody in anger, and it messes up his hand for the rest of the book. This was inspired by the incident of director Howard Hawks punching Ernest Hemingway: “I hit Hemingway, and I broke the whole back of my hand.” (Joseph McBride, Hawks on Hawks, p. 37.)  My own experience with punches is thankfully limited to adolescence, but I do remember that it hurt, something that you don’t see or read about in most fight scenes.*

A personal peeve of mine is the idea that someone can be harmlessly “knocked out,” often more than once, with no long-term consequences. A quick pop to the head and that’s it; you wake up later, perhaps with a bit of a headache but otherwise none the worse for wear. That is, frankly, bullshit. As the recent NFL controversy has shown, repeated blows to the head accrue damage over time; just look at Muhammed Ali these days, for another example. If your hero gets clocked more than once, you need to think about what that means beyond a simple plot point. As an example, in Burn Me Deadly, Eddie is beaten up and knocked out at the start of the book, and spends a fair bit of time recovering.

So those are some aspects of my approach to writing action scenes. What action scenes do you like, and which ones ring false? And thanks to @INCspotlight for suggesting this topic on Twitter.

*the only other time I recall seeing this in a movie was in the original M*A*S*H, when Trapper John (Elliot Gould) hits Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and clearly hurts his hand.

8 Comments on “The Secrets of Writing Action Scenes”

  1. My book hasn’t got action scenes but Argument scenes and I think as most people have had some arguments in their life it’s enough to set the scene, maybe throw in a bit of tension or aggravation and let the reader fill in the details themselves.

  2. Just finished writing Epitaph, which is about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (Ecco, 2015). I’m convinced that the after-effects of concussions played an important role in what happened in Tombstone, Arizona. I interviewed people who’ve had serious concussions and described the experience in detail once, from Doc Hollida’s point of view, because he is a sympathetic character. Later when “bad guys” get pistol-whipped and vomit, you know they’re feeling as awful as Doc did.

    Head injuries are no joke, but the Earps thought bashing someone with 6 pounds of iron was nicer than shooting them. Can’t argue with that, I guess.

  3. Alex, your fight scenes are always interesting and well written. I like the fact that when Eddie gets hurt, he doesn’t magically get better straight away. And the way you have him weighing his choices of how to act/react or to stay out of it altogether. A seasoned fighter who is even moderately successful would behave this way, particularly if his livelihood depends on him being able-bodied.

    Having been a bit of a brawler in my younger days, I can promise you that careful consideration goes into deciding whether or not to punch someone, even if they desperately need it! Broken bones require weeks, if not months to heal, especially as a person ages. Hitting someone using something specifically designed for the task, like a sword, takes it toll as well. Miss your target and hit the cast iron pole next to them instead and it will ring your entire body like a bloody bell. It’s why I switched to gaff tape. Too bad for Eddie that gaff does not yet exist in his world!

  4. I think your action scenes are spot on. I like how Eddie will fight dirty if that’s the most practical way to win or stop a fight.

    I had to write a fight scene for one of my earlier books, and I tried to envision the whole thing in my head as if I was living through it, before I wrote it down. I *think* it worked well…

  5. The first offensive move I taught students when I taught martial arts (American Kenpo) was how to make a proper fist, from knuckles to heels, and then make them use it on bags. Good form makes a big difference on whether punching the other guy just stings you or breaks you.

    That all being said, I would then teach them a palm strike, because it’s stupid to hit bone with bone, no matter how much you’ve toughened your hand. Save the fist for body blows, face attacks from certain angles, and other strikes you know won’t break the hand bones, and use open palm for most face hits, because if they move a little or your aim is off, ouch. Not so many little bones to break with a palm strike, so you can go full power.

    Remember that boxing gloves are not there to protect the other guy. They’re there so you can punch at full power without turning your hand into gravel.

  6. Agree with most of what you’ve said here. I can’t tell you how many characters I have read about getting conked on the head repeatedly, to where I expected them to have a severe concussion at some point.

    Also important to keep in mind is the character themselves. A seasoned professional is going to know how to hit and how hard, wheras your average Joe would likely one, not know where to hit, or even that you can break your hand punching someone.

    Another thing that bugs me to death: the so called “armor” tough female characters wear that leave their whole bellies exposed. If you are a “tough girl” fighter, you should know to wear proper equipment. One wrong twist in a battle and someone could slice your guts open. Great plan.

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