There's no doubt about it, learning to craft words so that readers are swept up to another world is hard work. Writers must paint captivating scenes, create believable and sympathetic characters and then have them do amazing things to boot. The real kicker is, everything has to be pictured crystal clear in the reader's mind.
One of the trickiest times I've found to pull it all together is when writing fast moving action sequences - especially fight scenes. So, I thought I'd share a few of my own super secret action scene combat techniques that I picked while trying to figure this out for myself.
I should probably read up on the theory of writing action sequences, but you know, for some reason, I haven’t yet. What I have done is picked up a lot of action-y books and read the fight scenes very closely (observation is a great education). Here are a few things I've learned:
- The build up is just as important as the actual action. The time for inner dialogue, explanations and innuendo is before the characters put up their dukes. The anticipation heightens a reader’s response to a fight scene. (Which, btw, is also probably one reason why starting a story with a major fight scene rarely works. We have no background and no investment in the characters, no matter who they are.)
- Be extremely concise. Say what you mean, mean what you say. Which is actually really hard. Now is not the time to be flowery.
- Fight sequences are usually brief. Oh, there might be a few of them stacked together to finish the scene, but they can often be broken down into discreet, manageable pieces.
- Please silence your inner dialogue during the action scenes. Please don’t do any flashbacks in between karate chops. Don’t wonder why the opponent’s eyes are so blue, or how he got that minuscule scar above his left eyebrow. Save it for after your mc’s knocked him out and he/she has time to look.
How to Write Fight Scenes Step By Step
Okay, this is probably extreme, but sometimes I just get so hung up that I can’t move forward even to do a hold-your-nose rough first pass. This is how I’ve worked through it successfully. And yes, I do realize it’s overkill on thinking-things-through, but this is how I function.
Write up a to-do list sequentially of every little, tiny thing that needs to happen in the scene. For instance, if I was writing this passage from A Conspiracy of Kings (I wish I could write like mwt), my list might look something like this:
- Get into the room.
- Find the sword under the couch.
- Unsheath the sword.
- Someone’s coming in.
- Get up, ready to fight.
- Kill the enemy.
The study had a door and a window. I jumped through the open window because it was faster and fell to the stone floor on my stomach, scrabbling in the dust under the couch until my hand closed on a stiff leather strap. I dragged the sword free of its sheath with difficulty and turned, still on my knees, as a man filled the doorway. Coming from light into the dark, he was looking ahead of him, not down toward me. My lunge, as I came to my feet, took him in the chest as I drove the sword upward with the strength of my legs. Even rusted, the sword slid through him, and I found, for the first time, how easy it is to kill a man. (A Conspiracy of Kings, p. 8 - Megan Whalen Turner)
Below each bullet item, write one to three short sentences that tell exactly what happens. Here’s how a piece could potentially begin as short sentences using a passage from Graceling:
1She jumped and kicked at his chest. 2He crashed to the ground / and she threw herself on top of him, / struck him in the face once, twice, three times, / and kneed him in the side before 3he was able to throw her off. 4She was on him again like a wildcat, but as / she tried to trap his arms 5he flipped her onto her back / and pinned her with the weight of his body. 6She curled her legs up / and heaved him away, and then 7they were on their feet again, / crouching, circling, striking at each other with hands and feet. 8She kicked at his stomach / and barreled into his chest, / and they were on the ground again. (Graceling, p. 78 – Kristin Cashore)
See if that order makes sense. Switch bullet items around until it does.
Flesh out the short sentences. Either combine them, or add a little more detail etc.
Go back and proof it a final time. Is the action clear? Is it in order? Run it past someone and see where they get confused. Proof it again. Voila, the perfect action scene.
Halfway to the trees an awful sound reached his ears – the hoofbeats of a single horse closing in. Daring a glance back, Alek saw a horseman on the other side of the stream, riding hard. His carbine strap was wound around one arm.
He was ready to fire…
Alek turned away and scrambled up the bank. The rye in the fields was chest high, tall enough to hide in. A shot rang out – a geyser of dirt shot up a meter to his right. He dove into the rye, thrashing away from the stream on hands and knees.
The carbine cracked again, and the bullet sliced past Alek’s ear. His instincts screamed to run farther in, but the horseman would see the tall grass moving. Alek froze where he was, panting. (Leviathan, p. 129 – Scott Westerfeld)