Action, in any storytelling medium, is the relationship between build up and pay off. While cinema may emphasize the payoff (pyrotechnics play well to theater-going crowds) it seems that the written word has the best potential for getting the most from the build-up, especially because an author can let readers inside a character's head.

What elements are most universally conducive to a great action scene (regardless of medium or genre)? How might they be used differently in scriptwriting vs. writing a novel?


4 Answers 4


The pacing of the writing must match the pacing of the scene. For a love scene, you need avid and languorous description. In an action scene, you need short, almost breathless wording. Here's how I would re-write Nick's example:

James ran down the hill. The enemy were in this valley, somewhere. Where, dammit? He flicked his rifle, left, right, left again. Noise and smoke and dense forest made it hard to see. Shots rang out. Two men beside him dropped, crying and streaming blood.

His yell "Medic!" was drowned by the sudden buzzing overhead. Everything went white.

See? Short sentences, mostly monosyllabic and disyllabic words. If this were a movie, they'd use very short shots, lots of close-up and obstructed views. Try for the same effect with words.


I think another aspect of a good action scene is to not overload the reader/viewer with too much at once. Like you said, there's areas in an action scene which can totally isolate themselves for a short period from the rest of the scene to emphasise things like shock, awe, pain, victory and such.

Off the cuff example:

James ran down the hill into the valley where the enemy troops had been spotted. His rifle flicked left and right to find enemy targets. The noise, smoke and the dense forest made it difficult for him and his soldiers to see properly, and bolts of light rained down from bombers overhead. Their large hulls blocked the sunlight to and fro, increasing the confusion. Firing off some shots into the forest, masses of gunfire returned, striking two soldiers off to his right.

As he was about to yell, "Medic!" when he heard a buzzing sound from above.

In an instant his vision went white and his ears ringed loud. He felt himself hit the tree next to him and fell to the ground, blind and deaf. Minutes seemed to pass as he struggled to regain his senses. It was as if he was in a bubble, watching blurred shapes rush over head and shout muffled words at an unknown enemy.

Yelling came from in front of him but it was muffled and he couldn't see who it was.



I think a main feature to action is suspense; so, you can let the reader/viewer know what's happening, but almost hold back in a certain way. Thus, during the down fall, you can expand on what happened during the action scene. And with that it will become more memorable and vivid.

An example would be: In some movies they show short flashes of the storyline, and then expand on them, and show the full outlook; and even sometimes share other point of views.


Use extremely short sentences. Emphasise seemingly irrelevant details (carefully).

A feldgrau uniform in the door.

Triggrer pulled. Serves you right, Fritz.


Another potato masher lands the concrete floor. Bloody patches on its handle.


... etc.

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