Anatomy of Action Scenes
Action scenes. The snippets they use for trailers in summer blockbusters. The exclamation points of storytelling. The bits that are sometimes a pain in the butt to get through when you’re writing them.
Contrary to what some people seem to think, they do serve a purpose beyond adding excitement and explosions to a story – or at least they should. Like any other scene, they need to work for you and for the story as a whole. In some ways, action scenes need to work even harder than ordinary ones. They need to move characters from emotional point A to emotional point B, even while the focus is less on the character’s emotional well-being than on their physical survival.
That’s the primary difference between an action scene and a scene in which characters are hunting for clues or having a verbal fight – the element of bodily risk. If they lose or fail in an action based scenario, they might get emotionally hurt, but they also might risk being badly wounded or, in a Bond-like situation, getting themselves or their allies killed.
They’re also a way to break up and help pace your narrative, add a sense of danger, drama or urgency, or literally move your characters from one location to another. An action scene can test the mettle of your characters; will they fight or run? Will their friends stand with them or betray them at the threat of violence? These scenes are the culmination of a lot of emotional build-up that happens over the course of a story. They are, for the lack of a better metaphor, the TNT at the end of a lit fuse.
Action scenes generally fall into one of two categories: confrontation and evasion. Almost every action scene will be one or the other; the difference lies in the goal of the protagonist. Every duel, pitched battle, and game of chicken is a confrontation. Every car chase, prison break, and on-foot pursuit falls into the evasion category. It’s easy to tell which one is which. Either your protagonist is facing some kind of antagonist head on – be it their main nemesis or a more minor challenger – or he or she is trying to avoid that meeting.
What about a scene where the protagonist faces her nemesis and then runs away? Still an evasion. The ultimate goal of the protagonist is to escape, not fight. Whatever the final scenario is, that’s the category that scene falls under. There’s a reason to figure out which category your scene falls into: there are two different sets of outcomes when dealing with one or the other.
In a confrontation scene, the protagonist will win, lose, or tie (draw) with the antagonist. In an evasion, they either escape (win) or get caught (lose). When running away from someone, you can’t really tie. Either you’re successful or you’re not. Even if you get caught by a third party and not your original pursuer, you’re still caught.
The other way to look at these outcomes is as Yes; No; Yes, but or No, and furthermore. Carolyn Wheat examines these in her book about the suspense and mystery genres, Writing Killer Fiction. According to her, a simple yes or no does nothing to move the story forward. While action scenes are meant to be exciting, they also have to serve a purpose; the key to moving a story forward is escalation. A Yes, but or a No, and furthermore raises the stakes for the characters involved.
Let’s use this excerpt from FEED, a recent horror novel by author Mira Grant, as an example. In this snippet, the mains – Georgia and her brother Shaun – are in zombie territory trying to get some footage of the zombie-virus victims, only to find themselves trapped by a mob of the infected.
These zombies knew the land better than we did, and even the most malnourished and virus-ridden pack knows how to lay an ambush. A low moan echoed from all sides, and then they were shambling into the open, some moving with the slow lurch of the long infected, others moving at something close to a run. The runners led the pack, cutting off three of the remaining methods of escape before there was time to do more than stare. I looked at them and shuddered.
Fresh infected – really fresh ones – still look almost like the people that they used to be. Their faces show emotion, and they move with a jerkiness that could just mean they slept wrong the night before. It’s harder to kill something that still looks like a person, and worst of all, the bastards are fast. The only thing more dangerous than a fresh zombie is a pack of them, and I counted at least eighteen before I realized that it didn’t matter, and stopped bothering.
I grabbed my helmet and shoved it on without fastening the strap. If the bike went down, dying because my helmet didn’t stay on would be one of the better options. I’d reanimate, but at least I wouldn’t be aware of it. “Shaun!”
Shaun whipped around, staring at the emerging zombies. “Whoa.”
Unfortunately for Shaun, the addition of that many zombies had turned his buddy from a stupid solo into part of a thinking mob. The zombie grabbed the hockey stick as soon as Shaun’s attention was focused elsewhere, yanking it out of his hands. Shaun staggered forward and the zombie latched onto his cardigan, withered fingers locking down with deceptive strength. It hissed. I screamed, images of my inevitable future as an only child filling my mind.
What might happen? Yes, they get away. …And then what? They got away. The stakes aren’t raised, the story isn’t moved forward; they got away, the end. Or, alternatively, no. They don’t get away. They become zombies. That would make for a very short book.
However, if you approach it as a Yes, but or a No, and furthermore, it changes the scenario drastically. Yes, they get away. But one of them gets bitten. What happens next? A lot more than if they’d simply escaped or gotten eaten. Or no, they don’t get away – and furthermore, the zombies don’t attack after trapping them. That raises a whole new set of questions and both engages readers and drives the story toward its next escalation.
It’s worth noting that in this particular scenario, the answer to the scene’s question – do they get away – is a simple yes. However, in this particular instance, it works. Why? Because this scene takes place within the first ten pages of the book. It introduces readers to the characters and the world in an engaging and exciting manner, and gives a little taste of what’s to come. Later on in the book, during a second encounter with zombies, the scene question – will the heroes escape/survive – is answered with a Yes, but that establishes the deeper plot and propels the reader forward down a path of classic political suspense in a totally unique setting. You have room to do this in a novel. In a short story, not so much.
Now to apply the Yes, but and No, and furthermore answers to a pair of confrontation scenes. Will the hero/heroine beat the bad guy?
In this excerpt from the novel Changes by Jim Butcher, the hero (Harry) and his former lover Susan are trapped inside a ring of fire and fighting a duel to the death with a pair of vampires and a monster Harry calls ‘the Ick.’ There’s nowhere to run and they have to win or die. No second chances. Very clearly a confrontation.
The Ick made a painful-looking surge of effort, and got close enough to hit me. I barely got out of the way in time, almost fell, turned it into several spinning steps instead, and recovered my balance. The Ick turned to follow, and Susan burst out of the cloud of greasy smoke the instant it turned its back.
Her tattoos had flushed from black to a deep, deep crimson, and she moved with perfect grace and in perfect silence. So when she gracefully, silently swung that steel table leg at the side of the Ick’s knee joint – on it’s unmarred leg, no less – it took the monster entirely off guard.
There was a sharp, terrible crack, a sound that I would have associated only with falling timber or possibly small caliber gunfire if I’d heard it somewhere else. The steel bar smashed the Ick’s knee unnaturally inward, until it made an angle of nearly thirty degrees.
It bellowed in agony and one arm swept back toward its attacker. The Ick hit Susan, and though it had been off balance, startled, and falling when it did so, it still knocked her ten feet backward and to the ground. Her club bounced out of her hand with a chiming, metallic clang, and tumbled, ringing like a tinny gong, into the circling flames.
Do the heroes survive? Yes. But. The fight almost kills them both, and they’re nearing the final confrontation with the book’s main villains; the Ick and the vampires attacking them were a tangential obstacle, not the primary one. After the end of this particular scene, they are wounded, tired, and nowhere near where they need to be, while at the same point the timer on their main mission has almost run out. Stakes: very much raised.
And now another duel, this one also to the death, but very different in both style and circumstance. In this scene from Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, the famed swordsman St Vier has tracked down a target he’s been paid to kill – Lord Michael, a student of the one-armed swordsman Vincent Applethorpe. In an attempt to protect his student, Applethorpe accepts St Vier’s challenge in Michael’s place. Even should St Vier win Michael will walk away alive.
And then the master swordsmen began. It was all there as Michael had studied it. But now he saw the strength and grace of Applethorpe’s demonstrations compacted into the little space of precious time.
Michael watched with luxurious pleasure the rise and fall of their arms, the turn of their wrists, now that he could follow what was happening. Master Applethorpe was demonstrating again, as fine and precise as at the lessons; but now there was a mirror to him, the polished, focused motions of St Vier. Michael forgot that death was at hand as, indeed, the two swordsmen seemed to have done, leisurely stroking and countering their way across the scrubbed white floor, with the high ceiling catching and returning the ring of their steel.
As the swordplay grew fiercer the sound of their breath became audible, and the nearer candle flames shuddered in their passing. It was almost too fast for Michael to follow now, moves followed up and elaborated on before he could discern them; like trying to follow an argument between two scholars fluent in a foreign language, rich with obscure textual references.
St Vier, who never spoke when fighting, gasped, “Applethorpe – why have I never heard of you?”
Now, this is a bit more complicated. There are two potential protagonists in this scene, and the answer to the category question – will the hero win/survive – is different depending on which side you’re rooting for.
St Vier ends up winning the duel and keeping his promise to Applethorpe. If he’s the protagonist, the answer is again Yes, but. Yes, he wins, but, he’s sworn on his honor not to complete his mission and primary reason for being there in the first place. Applethorpe dies, but Michael is saved. If Michael and Applethorpe are the viewpoint protagonists, then the answer to the category question is No, and furthermore. No, Applethorpe doesn’t win, and furthermore, Michael has lost his teacher and after this point is on his own both in learning swordplay and defending himself against attackers.
Okay. Great. We’ve looked at the macro questions. What kind of scene are you writing? What is the ultimate outcome for your protagonist? Now it’s time to focus in on the muscle of it. Who, what, and where.
The Who and What are fairly easy. Who is the protagonist/viewpoint character? Who is opposing that person? Who might be part of the scene either as collateral damage or assistance for one side or the other? What are they doing? Be more specific than ‘running away’ or ‘facing off.’ Is it a car chase? Duel? Are they trying to escape a riot or cause one?
What led up to this moment, and what is the result of that progression? An action scene is a crescendo of events. For example, if someone has been planning an escape from a prison, the crescendo of events could be that someone gets wind of it and things get set off early, or someone gets wind of it and decides to do it themselves, or – after twists, turns and near misses – the heroes are ready to set their own plans into motion. The first season of the show Prison Break depended almost entirely on these outcomes.
Alternatively, a confrontation comes when running doesn’t work any more, as in the scene from Changes. Up until that point in the novel, Harry has been avoiding the monster and the vampires on his tail. But the vampires just executed a massive attack on a federal building and drove both him and Susan into enemy territory. There was nowhere left for them to go. They’d come down to a do-or-die moment – either give up and go under, or take down the creatures standing between them and their ultimate goal.
The Where might not seem as important, but it is. It creates an external physical risk greater than just that caused by the antagonist, helps fashion the tone or emotional energy of the scene, or both. In the Changes excerpt, Harry and Susan are surrounded by a blisteringly hot ring of fire that can kill more or less on contact. It’s a weapon that either side can use and a risk to get too close. They’re in close physical quarters with literally no escape.
The setting of the duel in Swordspoint is less about adding additional risk for the characters and more about creating atmosphere. It’s evening when the duel begins; it takes place in a candlelit, wood-paneled loft, the flames and their accompanying circles of light creating a patchwork of shadow through which the two swordsman plunge and dance. There’s a romance to it, and a kind of very private ferocity that Kushner laces throughout the entire book. Violence wrapped up in something beautiful.
In the most basic sense, you need to make the setting work for you. Whether you’re trying to create suspense by having your characters flee through the basement of an old warehouse, thick with shadows and the clank of what might be machinery or the enemy they’re trying to escape – or threatening their lives as they swerve between oncoming cars to try and plow headlong into their antagonist’s speeding Ferrari – the setting is almost as important as the Who and What.
Let’s build a scene using some basic archetypes and situations, for illustration’s sake. In our scene the ‘Who’ will be (on the protagonist side) the classic reluctant hero; she doesn’t want any part of the adventure she’s been forced into, but has come to the point where she sees she either has to step up or let bad things happen. The antagonist will be her half-brother, who’s decided he’s the one that deserves the choice she’s been given. For a little added flair and extra risk, let’s throw their father in, trying to stop them from arguing.
Now, what are they doing? Okay, they’re having a fight – the protagonist will do what’s required of her, even if it’s not what she wants. She knows she’s the only one who can. The antagonist wants her to say no, so he can try and take her place. Let’s make it a little more interesting than that. The half-brother has decided that if she won’t step down, he’ll make her – either by crippling her or killing her. Whatever comes first. The father just wants them to stop fighting, and both of them want him to stay out of it.
How can we make this worse? What if the father gets accidentally killed by the half-brother, and our protagonist gets badly wounded to boot? If it moves us toward the ultimate goal of the story, whatever that might be, then sure.
Okay, we have our Who and the specifics of our What. Now for the Where. Let’s make it a sci-fi. That opens up a lot of possibilities right there. Where do they live? A spaceship, a city in the future, another planet… How about a futuristic city. Our little family is wealthy. We’ll set the confrontation on the private platform of the Maglev train that’s going to take our heroine off to meet her proverbial destiny.
She’s got her bags packed, her electronic ticket downloaded into her handheld. There’s no one else there when she descends from the family’s apartment to the platform they share with two of their neighbors. It’s quiet. The hum of the tracks worms its way into her head until it sounds like a fainting rush in her ears and she’s not sure if she’s really passing out or just wishing she would. She can’t do this. A glance at her handheld shows the train’s projected arrival time. Ten minutes. Ten minutes to change her mind.
The door to their apartment hisses open and then shut again, and her brother stands there, looking pale under the fluorescents. He looks a little more than pale, really. He looks sick.
“You can’t,” he says. She wants to agree with him. She even starts to, until she sees what he has in his hand.
He resettles his grip around the largest of the cook’s old pre-war display knives, single-edged and dull. Pretty well useless, except to look intimidating. She hopes.
She eases back a step, putting her luggage between herself and her brother. “You can come with me,” she says.
It’s a lie but it’s the best one she can think of. She just needs time, time until the train gets here, and she can put the doors between them both and call the district police.
He shakes his head. “They’re going to pick you. You know they will. Just. Stay here. Give me the ticket and stay here.”
That’s it. Her way out. Simple and guilt-free. Responsibility turned over at knifepoint.
She’s silent for long enough that he starts to smile. He knows her. Always has. Which is why she surprises them both when she squares her shoulders and says, “No.”
His grip on the knife tightens and he rushes her without warning. The strap of her duffle tangles around her foot as she tries to back away and yanks her balance out from under her. The knife, the glare of the fluorescents, a sharp and painful crack as her head hits the platform tile. The fog of impact starts to lift when her brother lands on top of her and hammers the air from her lungs again.
Wait, she tries to say, but she can’t find the breath to do it. Stop.
The tip of the knife jitters. He looks scared. Maybe too scared to do it.
The knife bites into her shoulder, shallow, and he yanks it free. Hesitates a breath. Slams it down deep this time, deep enough to make her scream in surprise and pain. Over her brother’s shoulder, she sees the doors to the apartment whisk open. Their father stands framed in the light, hands braced against the frame.
“What – !”
Her brother twists around, startled into distraction. She takes the chance to shove him and squirm free, blood greasing the tile. The ringing in her ears is getting louder. For a second she thinks it’s blood loss – and then realizes it’s the sound of an approaching train.
Their father reaches them in that moment, still apparently trying to find words for the attempted murder of his daughter at the hand of his own son. Her brother drops the knife with a clatter that sounds damp and sticky.
She’s getting up when her father hits her brother. A slap across the face that looks unsatisfying to her and her father both.
“You stupid little – ”
He doesn’t get a chance to finish. As the train roars in to a stop, her brother pushes their father back. She doesn’t hear what her brother says over the sound of the train, over the shock that freezes her in place. Her father vanishes under the white glow of the Maglev as its thousands of pounds glide to a halt over his body. Just a dark smear where he went under, nothing more. The doors to the train glide open. She and her brother stare at each other for a handful of seconds and she realizes for the first time how long a second can be.
“It’s your fault,” he says. “It’s all because of you.”
He goes for the knife.
She dives between the closing doors and hits the ground in a tumble. Blood, stark and black in the light from the overheads, marks her trail from the doors to the opposite wall like smeared footprints.
There’s a pause as the train shushes forward. A composed female voice hums through the comms.
“Plasma in excess of external norms detected. Be aware that the authorities have been notified. Please have your identification scans ready, as this train has been rerouted and will be examined by the district police.”
Category question: Did she win the fight with her brother? Yes. But her father is dead, her brother is blaming her for it, she has none of her luggage, is wounded, and is about to be delivered into the hands of local law enforcement. I think it’s safe to say her position has gone from bad to worse, and we also have the setup for the next scene – a new question and a hook for the reader. What will the authorities do, and how will she get away from them?
When I’m writing action scenes they tend to emerge organically. That is to say, I’m not totally sure where it will end or who will lose which limbs before I reach the end of the scene. I still keep the above points in mind while I’m writing, even if it’s subconsciously. That way, should I get stuck, I can go back and look at what I’m expecting of the scene, what I want it to do, and go from there. If it doesn’t feel right or doesn’t flow well you can always go back and revise. But you can’t revise if you don’t have anything to work with. Get it down on the page, logical inconsistencies and out of character moments included. Fix it once it’s done. If you’re like one friend of mine and can’t go on until the rest of it works, step back and work on something else. She always has two projects going at once for exactly this reason; if she gets stuck on one, she can work on the other until something shakes loose.
The last thing we’ll look at is the minutest aspect of action scenes; the words you use and the way you punctuate them. I’m not going to spend a great deal of time on this. The best way to learn what works is to read. The best way to test what works is to write.
During my freshman year of college, a writing teacher suggested another way of studying words that I hadn’t considered before. She told me to read poetry. It makes sense. Poetry is the form of wordsmithing most concerned with the sound, beat, and (for lack of a better phrase) mental taste of words. Before that point I wasn’t much of a poetry reader; I’m still not, if I’m being perfectly honest, but looking at poems that are designed to convey a certain mood or attitude – anything by Poe, for example – has definitely helped me get a better understanding of the character of words. Find something atmospheric to read and take it apart. What words are used where? Why? Say them out loud. What feeling does the word itself contain?
Punctuation is another something to keep in mind, probably not as you’re writing, but afterward when you go back to revise. I was told once that we breathe along with punctuation as we read; my brother, an actor, said more or less the same thing. Punctuation in a script is what gives him mental cues about where emphasis lands in a sentence and what his character’s mood and tension level might be at any given time. Read that paragraph again. Where did you pause, and for how long?
Rather than trying to explain more about punctuation and the effect and texture of words, I’m going to throw one last excerpt at you and then go over what the author does to create the tension of the scene.
In this bit of Trickster’s Queen, by Tamora Pierce, the heroine (Aly) and the family she’s trying to protect are the targets of an assassination attempt. The family is well-loved and the daughter is viewed as the fulfillment of a prophecy hundreds of years old. When the people see what’s happening, and that the nearby guards are doing nothing to stop it, they riot, trapping Aly and her charges in the middle of a human disaster.
The assassins pushed past the men-at-arms, where they collided with Junai, Jimarn and Boulaj. Jimarn leaped onto an assassin’s back and clawed at his eyes. Boulaj killed one man as Junai accounted for a second. The horses fidgeted, eyes rolling, wanting to panic. The three Balingtang ladies hung on to their reins for their lives. In these crowded quarters, the horses might kill the very people they served.
A crack opened in the double ring of household fighters in front. Aly saw the assassin pair slip through, one engaging Fesgao as another came at Dove. Aly pushed off the saddle horn, swinging her legs over the restless horse’s rump, smashing into the killer with both feet. She was down on him with a knife in each hand, taking his life before he even understood where he was. Trick and Secret screeched their disgust as blood struck them.
“Sorry,” Aly told them, panting. She mounted Dove’s horse properly so she wouldn’t need to use the time-wasting jump like that a second time. Everywhere she looked she saw chaos. People streamed in to fill the square, many carrying weapons. Others fought to escape it. Some failed and were trampled. The square filled with a roar of sound: screams, furious yells, battle-voiced commands. Above that animal sound was a high, warbling trill. The Stormwings had come to feast on the pain and fear.
A little girl, shrieking, tried to climb the statue to escape the mob. A boy who might have been an older brother pushed her from behind, trying to get her to the top, the only safe place he could see. A handful of other children splashed through the fountain. One of them was pushed into the water, toward that bit of safety, by a woman who fell then beneath a man’s club.
Let’s go paragraph by paragraph and examine both word choice and punctuation. The first thing I notice in the first paragraph is the terseness. The sentences are mostly short and to the point, filled with active and violent verbs; pushed, collided, leaped, killed. It creates a sense of close quarters and extreme danger, a very immediate threat to both the heroine and the people she’s trying to protect. There’s nothing still or calm about it; that’s true of the rest of the selection as well. It’s all rollicking motion and clear violence.
Focusing in on the second paragraph, though, we see a change in the way sentences are structured. In the first paragraph, everything is kept brief as Aly takes in the sudden swamp of violence. In the second, she catches up and dives in; our focus narrows to her, and as it does so, the sentence structure mirrors her own actions. She pushes off, swings around, and smashes down all in one long fluid motion – and all in one long, fluid sentence.
In the third paragraph our focus broadens again to the spreading riot; we’re not given any distinct images to hold on to, just flashbulb details that make up the whole. Think of the last time you were in a crowd and didn’t want to be there. What did you register? Did you take in your surroundings as a whole and then decide on a course of action, or was it all loud conversation in your ears and passing flags of colored t-shirts as you fought to get out of the way? Same principle here. There’s simply too much going on to focus on a single event.
In the final paragraph, however, something catches Aly’s eye. We’re not told as much, but the sudden clarity and focus implies it. It’s a distinct image in the middle of the chaos, unique enough to leave an impression beyond screams and flailing limbs. It also serves as an illustration of the mercilessness of a riot; once something like this starts, it doesn’t matter if you’re a child or a mother. You’ll go down the same as anyone else. Once again, the writing in the last paragraph is more fluid and less brusque than the sections where Aly is taking in a multitude of actions at once.
Now, you don’t have to think about all of this at once when writing any given scene. The most important thing to do is just get it all out, and then go back and look at what you have and see how you can better create the atmosphere you want. It might take a few tries. It might take more than a few.
It would be nice if everything came to us in a flash of perfect inspiration. Every so often, some snippet does, and we’ll spend the rest of the time trying to make the rest of the writing live up to that one perfect phrase. Most of the time it’s just a hard mental slog through the morass of our own at times sluggish creativity. (Every word in that sentence was picked to make it feel thick and sticky. Here’s hoping it worked.)
As far as figuring out the mechanics of a scene – how fast can this car go, does a person’s arm really bend that way – do your research. Get a friend to help you act out a fight, or look up martial arts sites and videos online. Make sure your sources are reliable. If all else fails, just think it through. Your action needs to obey the logic of your story-world if you don’t want your readers to stop and question you right in the middle of the explosions. And that’s the last thing you want them to do.
Also, remember that everything in this entry (except the part about getting stuff down on the page) is a suggestion, not a rule. It’s taken me years to figure out what processes work for me and they still change from time to time. Try what’s here. If it doesn’t fit, try something else, but always, always keep moving forward.
For more about the authors and the books used in this entry, please visit their websites:
Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire): www.miragrant.com (www.seananmcguire.com)
Jim Butcher: www.jim-butcher.com
Ellen Kushner: www.ellenkushner.com
Tamora Pierce: www.tamora-pierce.com
All excerpts are (c) their respective authors used with permission.
January 8, 2011 @ 2:00 pm
Great article! I’m just approaching the big action climax of my novel, so I’ll be re-reading this before I write it and checking I hit the right points 🙂