writing action scenes.

Ok, I don’t write a lot of these, and maybe that’s the problem. When I do need to write them it doesn’t flow as well as other scenes, I get stuck on descriptions, pace and everything else that you need to take into consideration.

So, does anyone have any good tips, or knows of any good book that deals with this?

I recall the James Bond scenes being very effective, tightly written. But I suggest the effectiveness of a scene is to do with the genre and writing style.

Why not practice until it comes right for you ?


Well that’s my plan, as soon as I’m finished with a short story I’m working on right now I will start writing small action exercises.

But sometimes I just think it can be useful to get some directions on different methods and try them out, change them and see what does and what doesn’t work in different styles of writing.

I believe that action narrative should be specific, paced and building - and, if possible, revelatory. But not repetitive. (It goes almost without saying that it should also be simple and clear.)

Those oldies but goodies, “Techniques of the Selling Writer” (Dwight V. Swain) and “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” (2nd Edition) (Renni Browne & Dave King), both have stuff on action. I bet Stephen King’s “On Writing” does too, but in a quick riffle I haven’t been able to find it, and there is no index.

I’m not a writer – more of a reader, watcher…

The TV series 24 is king of the action and suspense mountain in my brain. There is some degree of “adrenaline rush” in every ~5 minute segment. The bonus disk to season two (Alzheimer’s) contained interesting perspective on the plotting and action planning. Maybe the other bonus discs do the same.


Thanks! I will check them out and start writing small fight scenes or something to get the hang of it. Stephen Kings book is one of my favourites, but I don’t think he writes much about action. I got Self-Editing for Fiction Writers in the mail a week ago and haven’t had the time to browse it, but will do that soon.

Thanks again!

Wow, that’s interesting. I’m not a huge fan of 24, but one think I really like and always get amazed by how thrilling the action is. Every episode is an adrenaline rush, I couldn’t agree with you more. I will check out that one too, thanks!

Instead of all these “how-to” books, why not read some good writers of action and suspense, such as Parker, Deighton, Household, or Child? Find passages that you admire, mark them, and type them out. You will get a feel for the rhythm of sentences and paragraphs that way.

You won’t learn much about writing by watching TV, unless you mute the sound and turn on closed captions. Most TV scripts are notoriously lean on actual verbiage; good independent films are a better medium. Many scripts are available on the Web; so download your favorites, mark good passages, and again, type them out for practice.

I agree with druid: find a writer whose work you admire, and study to see how s/he does it.

Let me add one other factor. It’s what we might call “generic pornography.” There’s a pornography of sex, of course, but there’s also one of violence and one of cooking and one of most other activities. (Pick up a gun magazine and follow the account of someone slavering over the intricate grain of the walnut stock on his favorite rifle.)

My point is that – with violence or with sex or with any other activity – there are degrees of involvement, of detail, of description, which you should take into consideration. Will your readers want a second-by-second narrative of unzipping the fly, fumbling with the fold of the shorts, etc… or will it be enough to say he stopped to take a pee?

It is with violence, I think, as it is with sex, that you can make clear what is transpiring without a precise by-the-numbers analysis. Assume a level of familiarity or awareness on the part of your reader. You can be direct and candid, but explicit may be a bridge too far.

Unless, of course, you’re being paid by the word to write pornography. In which case, have at it. Let her – or him – rip.

That’s great! I’ve been thinking of doing something like that, but I haven’t really read any books where the action really hit me and made me sink in. But now I have a list of authors to pick up at my local library, thanks!!!

You’re absolutely right there, there’s a lot to take into consideration, and I guess there’s a thin line between what works and when it becomes too much and the prose just gets heavy with descriptions of calibers, weapon manufacturers and models. And then we haven’t even started describing every wound each bullet inflicts. :smiley:

Well, I don’t write stories filled with action, explosions and car chases, but sometimes a bit of action is needed and there’s where I think I fail to get the right pace and the right tension. Thanks for all of your advices, will get to work in improving my action-writing next week!

This forum is truly amazing, you get quick support on your favourite writing app, you get writing tips, and help when your mac fails on you. One forum to rule them all… :smiley:

In my experience, that is because when action is written well, you don’t notice that it is an action scene at all.

A good action scene doesn’t feel like somebody has thought “Gee, we’ve had a bit too much description recently, time to throw in an action scene” and then written a 24-style tour de force with a gripping climax… instead, it fits with the voice, style, and timing of the rest of the story.

Good action sequences don’t stand out so much as seamlessly fit in, so unless you are looking for them specifically to find good examples to learn from, you are not going to be thinking about the fact you are reading a really good action scene at the moment.

I will add, however, that I absolutely detest constant cliffhanger shows like 24, and I can’t stand books written by Matthew Reilly… so if that is the kind of action you wish to write, then my comment may not be what you are after.


Just an afterthought to all the excellent suggestion above. I have found that Lee Child can use pauses in action - the loving description of the bullet or the gun barrel, the description of the heavies in the old cafe, etc as part of the action. He loads these pauses with a sense of threat. It is an interesting exercise to study just how he sets these ‘threat’ pauses up as moody parts of the action stream. There is a sense of music about it - a sense of point and counterpoint, an invisible rhythm and rhyme. He does it again and again, it’s not a fluke. He is a master of the craft and if you follow the suggestions above you can see just how he does it.


You’re probably right there, I guess it is the mark-up pages with good action that is needed to actually manage to go back and check them out. If you dont read them as a writer the first time.

Nope, no cliffhanger action. I mainly write horror and suspense. But one thing I do believe is that by learning how to archive a feeling in one medium can be very helpful when learning how to archive the same in a different. With this I don’t mean that the same methods can be used, but I think it gives an understanding that can be very useful.

After all the canvas of the human mind, that we focus on to bring these feelings forward, is in both cases the same.

James Rollins does a good job of writing action scenes. His book Black Order is a nice “Action Novel”. Rollins is excellent at building action/suspense from slow to fast action.

Matthew Rielly’s “Ice Station” is insane over the top action. Matthew Rielly is a master of FAST ACTION writing. His stuff is way over the top but his action scenes are a good example of “fast moving” action.

Here is a link for both writers at amazon
amazon.com/Kick-Ass-Action-B … DWWW4HM56C

I would say writing action will truly depend on writing style and also the type of action.

A good rule of thumb I have noticed is first determine the speed of the action then apply that logic to your writing.

An Example is if the action is “slow” and starting to build then DETAILS would be more descriptive in the beginning because in the beginning a character and the reader may notice and absorb more details.

As the action picks up a character (and the reader) is more finely focused on the immediate details and less description is needed. If a sentence is too descriptive during “fast action” it slows the pace of the reading down and slows down the action.

So, use this simple idea and build it around your own writing style.

The slower the action the more detail the character and the reader can pick up on and digest. The faster the action becomes the sentences become a little shorter and tighter, the description becomes more immediate and a little more vague.

Being a tad vague builds suspense and makes the reader read “faster” to find out more details and hence the action “becomes faster”.

Here is an example.

If I am a character and I am walking down the street. You as a reader would be walking with me. I would hear the sound of the squeak of my shoes on the pavement. I would notice the house to the left of me has a red roof and a dog barking in the yard. I would feel the cool breeze on my face. I would notice a pretty girl up ahead on the sidewalk. I would notice she is listening to an iPod and shaking her leg to an unheard beat.

Now same street. Same objects. But now a car that contains a man who wants to kill me (and you the reader) has jumped onto the sidewalk and is getting ready to run me down.

I run for my life. I do NOT notice the red roofed house nor the barking dog. The squeak of my shoes is now a wrenching cry of escape. When I glance back at the car I GLANCE BACK over my shoulder. I do not stop and stare noticing every detail of the car. In that glance I may notice the grill looks like the teeth of a predator, I may notice it is gaining on me. I will NOT notice the evil grin of the driver.

Everything around you becomes a blur and your only thought is escape. (Tunnel Vision)
You DO notice the girl ahead but no details about her, only that SHE IS IN YOUR WAY. She is an obstacle you have to maneuver around.

In real life when people are faced with “action/suspense” many people claim after a big event that “everything was a blur” or they only remember small details. Or it “happened so fast” they may pick up on the color of the car but not the make an model, etc etc

The biggest mistake I have personally seen when people try to captivate a reader with action is they make it difficult for the reader to be a part of the action because they give too many details and forget the simple things. If a car was chasing you about to barrel you down your MAIN focus would be on what is in front of you and a path of escape. Your SECONDARY focus would be HOW CLOSE the car is to you. The details of the car and your surroundings not directly related to your immediate path of escape would NOT be processed because you are in FIGHT or FLIGHT mode. Your brain will automatically put all of its attention on the IMMEDIATE threat and a solution and disregard everything else (details not processed) not related to your current perdicament.

So you address the THREAT. You address the RESPONSE to that threat. And third is anything that be an OBSTACLE in your response to that threat. Everything else detail wise in reality will be repressed or left unprocessed by the brain in order to give your full attention to the threat and your response. If you are writing action and you want the reader to “feel” the action. Then you have to take this account and let it reflect in your writing. Action is usually fast paced. So imagine you are giving a play by play. In order to keep up with the pace of the action you have to keep it simple and to the point. In lulls between action (stopping to catch my breath because I lost my attacker for a few seconds) you may pick back up on reality with more detail of your surroundings but as the action picks back up the detail becomes a more singualr focus.

If you want to practice try breaking an action scene down into mini sequences. Decide the pace of each sequence. Then apply the amount of detail = speed theory to this for each sequence then put them together and read them. Did you read it about as fast as it would happen in real life? If it took you longer to read it than it would have happened in real life trim some fat and try again.

Hope that helps

Great post.

Thanks, Franz