Action scenes

May 31, 2010

Some of my novels, especially Second Nature, have a lot of fast-paced action.

Here are a few important things to keep in mind when writing action scenes:

  • Action scenes need immediate action. That means they’re not the place where you include flashbacks or other jumps in time. Keep the action linear. Cause, then effect. Action, then reaction.
  • Characters don’t stop to think or reflect a lot.
  • In action scenes, most sentences are fairly short. While you shouldn’t create scenes where all sentences are long or all sentences are short, in action scenes or scenes with high tension, the sentences become shorter. You can even put in a few sentence fragments. This is especially true for thoughts. No one thinks in complete, long sentences when he or she is scared.
  • Keep paragraphs mostly short too. Start a new paragraph every time the action shifts from one character to the other. Frequent paragraphing makes the reader’s eye move faster down the page. The pace increases.
  • Be careful with “as” constructions and participles. Both imply that the action happens at the exact same time, simultaneously, not one after the other.
  • Use a minimum of words to pick up the pace. Unnecessary words slow down the pace.
  • Choose powerful verbs that convey a sense of fast movement (e.g., smashed, clanked, etc.). Replace slower-moving, weak verbs like stood, was, etc.
  • Don’t neglect the senses and physical sensations. No long descriptions, but give us enough hints to make us feel we’re right there. Let us experience the main character’s exhaustion or pain.
  • Make sure the actions are physiologically possible. Keep track of the relative position of the characters.

Please leave a comment if you can think of anything else that might be important when writing action scenes.



  1. Excellent advice, Jae! Another piece of advice I’d add is DO NOT pull your punches! In your descriptions, be immediate, specific, and sensory-oriented.

    Also, minimize the verbal jabs. Taunting is useful to get into a fight, but once the fight is engaged, no one is talking.

    Finally, at some point in every fight, autopilot is reached, adrenaline being the b*tch she is. You wouldn’t know what you were doing even if you paused to think about it. And pausing to think about it is a break in the action. So don’t write about every blow after a certain point. A haze really does descend. So, if your POV character is in a fight, only at some point after the fight are they going to realize how badly they trampled the opponent. Or they’re going to wake up, dazed, and for several seconds (at least) not remember exactly how they got there.

    There is a reason why a person is supposed to practice escapes, defensive moves, etc., ad nauseum. During many conflicts/traumas/confrontations body memory will be the only thing keeping you alive.

    • Thanks, Lara. That’s good advice too. At some point, you react on instinct and it all becomes a blur. The writing should reflect that.

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