Maybe this isn’t cool to admit, but I honestly didn’t realize it was something I did all that well until other people pointed it out to me. As a lover of action TV and movies, I think I subconsciously internalized the style, which is how it found its way into my writing. So when people ask me how to write a good action scene, I never really knew how to answer it. But I got asked this question enough that I wanted to be able to give it a semi-concrete answer. So today, I’m going to share one of my own scenes and do my best to break it down why I think it’s successful.
Below, you’ll find an excerpt from my first book, Crossing the Line, then after, seven tips with examples from the excerpt to help you write killer action scenes.
But first, some story context. In the series, my main character Jocelyn was kidnapped by a North Korean spy agency when she was eight. Ten years later, she’s out to escape them and get revenge, but to do that, she’ll have to work with the American-based agency she’s spent her life fighting against. In this scene, Jocelyn’s been sent by the American agency to rescue their top agent, Scorpion. He’s been captured, temporarily blinded, and he definitely doesn’t trust Jocelyn to save him. This picks up in an empty office building, during their attempted escape from his captors.
Excerpt from Crossing the Line:
We made it to the third floor before we ran into any real problems. The door to the floor opened as we were coming up the steps below it. I stopped quickly and flattened Scorpion against the wall. He moved easily and had enough instincts to stay perfectly still. The door opened out, shielding us from the guard. I crept slowly up toward the opening door, letting go of Scorpion and pushing his chest so he’d stay put. He took the hint.
I got close to the door and waited until the guy started to cross the threshold. Then I slammed it shut, trapping his head. He fell hard, and one of his friends came charging after us. He pushed a button on his radio and told the rest that he had found the intruder. I spun into the floor and ran down the hallway at him. He fired off a few shots. I opened one of the empty office doors and ducked behind it, pulling out my gun and shooting enough rounds to get him to back up. I leaned on my knees, feeling short of breath and more winded than I should have.
But I couldn’t afford to wait. I grabbed one last gulp of air, then turned and ran back to the stairwell before he could get his bearings. He would be right on our trail and there was still another guard to worry about. Plus, I’d left Scorpion alone longer than I would’ve liked.
I kicked the unconscious guard out of the way and hurried back to Scorpion. “Let’s go,” I said, taking his arm. “They’ll be right behind us.”
“Did you get hit?” he asked.
I was shocked he cared. “I’m fine.” I yanked him harder and we hustled up to the next floor. I pulled him down the hall and into one of the offices. I needed a minute—or even a second—to catch my breath. Everything was quiet.
“What’s going on?” he asked. He kept his voice low.
“We just need to wait them out a minute,” I said.
“Did you get hit?” he asked, more forceful and serious.
“No.” I could barely get the word out.
“I don’t have to see you to know you’re having a hard time breathing.” He was getting angry.
“I’m fine.” But I wasn’t. This had never happened to me in the field. “I only need a minute.”
He rubbed his eyes and I could tell he was getting frustrated with me. “You’re lying.”
My breath started to catch up to me. “Remember how we said you weren’t going to second-guess me?”
“You convinced me you had an actual shot at getting me out,” he said.
“You’re in too deep to back out now,” I said. “They will kill you if you don’t stick with me.”
His jaw flexed.
I stepped in front of him. “I’m going to get you out of here. Just stay with me, okay?”
He took a moment before nodding.
I grasped his wrist again and led him out the office, down the hallway, then out the other end into the stairwell on the opposite side of the building. Then guided him back out the door and up the steps. We made it up only one floor—six from the roof—before we ran into more trouble. The guard who had shot at me earlier burst through the door with his gun out. I pushed Scorpion down, then grabbed the railing and windmilled my legs into the guard. It was enough to knock down his gun and stun him momentarily. I dropped back to the ground and grabbed the gun before he could get himself together. I quickly fired two shots, one into each thigh, which would be enough to stop him from getting to us. I pulled Scorpion up. He got on his feet quickly and latched on to my elbow.
I pushed my comm. “I need an immediate rooftop extraction! My location.”
I put a floor between us and the latest guard before I tugged Scorpion to a stop. He swiveled his head in my direction, his teary eyes as red as ever. “What is it? Did you get hit this time?”
“Stop asking that,” I said. “Listen. There’s still one more guard and I don’t know where he is. I want you in front of me. Can you handle the steps?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ve got the layout.”
“If I pull you down, don’t fight me.”
I nodded, but I still worried. I knew I only had his trust for a limited amount of time, and I was afraid it was running out.
Seven Tips to help you write killer action scenes:
1) Know your character’s surroundings
It’s important to know your character’s environment so you can use it in the scene. For example, in the scene above, I was very aware of the fact that we were in a regular square office building, with one floor on top of another. There was a staircase on either side of the building, which was connected by each floor and a hallway of offices. This meant I was able to use the doors to the offices and stairwells for bullet cover. Since the stairwell was involved, it provided tight confines for a fight, and Jocelyn could use the railing to leverage some kicks. Additionally, the tighter the space is, the more challenging it will be for your characters, which raises the stakes.
2) Limit description to absolute essentials
I think one of the keys to a successful action scene is to keep it moving. There may be moments of relief and recovery, which is fine (we’ll get to that next), but you want to do your best to ensure the scene doesn’t drag. Here’s one sentence from this scene where I think this technique is working well:
I grasped his wrist again and led him out the office, down the hallway, then out the other end, into the stairwell on the opposite side of the building.
I needed to get my characters from one side of the building to the other. I didn’t spend time describing how many offices they passed or what color the hall was. Those details weren’t essential to my scene and would have only slowed the pace.
3) Check in regularly (but briefly) with how your character feels
Checking in with your characters tells us not only how your character feels, but it can add to the tension for your reader. If they know your character is nervous, anxious, running out of steam, it can make your reader more tense and engaged. If they know your character is feeling empowered, they may draw on the same feelings. In this scene, Jocelyn is struggling to keep up, which adds a layer of stress.
Additionally, brief breaks in the action can give your reader a chance to absorb the scene and process the stakes, such as when my characters duck into an office so Jocelyn can catch her breath. But use this sparingly. Too many breaks will slow your scene down.
4) Add conflict on both sides of the situation whenever possible
Sure, putting your character in a fight with an enemy can be tense enough to carry a scene, but if you really want to kick it up a notch, consider adding a conflict to your character’s side of the fight. In this scene, Jocelyn is battling three attackers, but she’s also dealing with the reality that the person she’s rescuing doesn’t trust her. He could go rogue at any moment and make her job infinitely harder (and there are reasons that she needs to save him). This adds a level of conflict and tension to both sides of the fight.
5) Raise the stakes as high as you possibly can
In most situations, action scenes work best when they’re about life and death, but capture and torture are also solid options! In my case, I have my characters outnumbered, one character missing a sense he usually has, and they’re being shot at. Scenes like these tend to work best when there is a believable reality that the characters won’t make it out. Even if it’s early in the book and readers can guess that your characters probably aren’t going to die around page 100, in that moment, it should feel like a real possibility.
6) Focus on the threat in front of your character, but give your reader a periodic threat assessment
Action scenes often have a lot going on in a finite amount of text. If you have your character consistently describing every possible threat at every given moment, it will take away from your scene and likely overwhelm your reader. Instead, focus on the most immediate threat to your character, then catch us up with the other possibilities. In the case of the scene above, Jocelyn was, for the most part, only fighting one guard at a time, or dealing with one threat at a time. When she was in a fight, that was the only thing described. When she wasn’t, we heard about threats she was afraid of; we got updates about which guards she was expecting, which guards she lost track of, and how pressing their need to escape was.
A regular threat update helps your reader keep track of the various threats in the scene and shows how much danger your characters are in.
7) For practice, try watching a scene from an action movie or TV show and writing it out like a novel
If you’re new to writing action scenes or just want some practice, this may really help. You won’t have to create characters, setting, or a threat level–all you have to do is focus on writing the action and making the scene feel the same when you read it as you do when you watch it. Use the tips above as a guide. Once you’re comfortable writing these scenes, you can shift that style to your own writing.
As always, I hope this helps!
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Now it’s your turn: What are your thoughts on writing action scenes? If you hate them, what do you struggle with? If you love them, what’s your favorite thing about them? Tell me about it in the comments! You can also share any of your own tips and tricks!
Excerpt from Crossing the Line by Meghan Rogers. Copyright © 2016 by Meghan Rogers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher, Philomel/Penguin.