It dawned on me the other day, after struggling through a fight scene, that I am lost when it comes to writing action. I usually write slower, dialogue-heavy scenes, and I have become used to taking my time with the prose. How can I convey the urgency, speed, and emotional stakes that come with a fight scene? How do I paint a vivid picture of it without getting bogged down in the details?
Setup. Setup. Setup. You can't force the pace in prose. Prose is always asynchronous with action because it takes more words to describe some things and actions than others, and because you can't control the pace as which the reader reads. The way you create an effect is fiction is by building up the tension of a scene to a fever pitch so that when the fight itself breaks out, the reader already feels the tension, feels the emotional stakes. And because this is a moment of emotional release, it comes quickly. Not much actually needs to be said of the fight itself most of the time, unless something else is happening other that the exchange of blows. (Some fight scenes are more dialog than action -- Bernard Cornwell's work provides many good examples of this.)
And this is how fights work in real life as well. People don't just start thumping each other out of the blue. There is a buildup of tension between them. Insults, threats, a staredown, maybe some shoving. Point is, both have to get to the point of blood boiling before a punch is thrown. It is the tension that makes the fight, both in life and in fiction.
Action shouldn't be something that you just throw around unless you're writing a mindless slaughter fest, rather it should be used as a motive to insert new information, may it be how much the protagonist has improved after learning a new ability, understanding more about the world (a new faction, a fighting style, etc.), or resolving/introducing a conflict or issue.
Here are some guidelines to write action around a goal:
Consider what significance this form of action will have in advancing the goal of the protagonist.
- Is your protagonist meeting a new character that will play a significant role in the future, introducing a new conflict?
- Is your protagonist testing the new abilities or skills they have learned?
- Is your protagonist going to learn more about the world? Is a new faction going to be introduced? Is there a social group that is mistreated?
Consider how you will best introduce these ideas in the form of action.
- Does the protagonist meet a rival that has some kind of vendetta?
- Will you have a group of bullies that come along to beat on the protagonist, where he can show off his skills?
- Is the protagonist showing his altruistic side by defending a caravan being attacked?
Plan out the action in a 3 act structure (Inciting incident introducing opponent -> Plot Twist in Favor of antagonist -> climax and resolve) to resolve the issue.
Write it, keeping it mind the main objective that you want to overcome.
Here are some tips for making action exciting.
- Use the 3 Act Structure. Suprisingly, a lot of people neglect this, opting to create stale conflicts where either the hero always wins without any fear of loss, or the hero is constantly losing. If you use the 3 act structure consider giving the antagonist an upper hand.
- Create natural movement. Stand up, play out movements yourself. This is surprisingly effective if you want to feel out the emotions and movements, feel free to throw yourself around and feel the impacts of each punch.
- Don't do word by word descriptions of each action. No one wants to read about every single movement from your characters footsteps to the movement of their hair. If you define a move or action once in detail, you can just use the name of the move to describe it in the future.
- Don't dumb-down the action too much. The stereotype of anime style fights is that they 'call out their moves' before using them. This is a lazy attempt at simplifying action.
- Feel free to use natural troughs during action or tell out the story during pauses. After a lot of fighting, people need to rest. So does the audience. Slow down the pace sometimes, and don't make everything travel at supersonic speed.
I would love to read a slow-paced fight scene. There really is no reason why the reader must be as stressed and confused as the fighter. You create art, and art is a translation of reality into a new experience. If I, as a reader, wanted to experience a fight, I would get into one.
Think slow motion fight scenes in movies. Speed is not everything.
If you want speed, try to get into the emotions and mindset of the fighter. Leave the observer position and live the fight. It may help you to act out some of the movements, or get some related experiences. Do an introduction into some martial art, or simply go running through the woods. Incorporate the perceptions and emotions from these experiences, but generally, it is all about the power of your imagination. Be in your story and write from your "live" experience of it.
Rewrite. Edit out adjectives, descriptions, and leave only brief emotions and fast actions. Text can also be accelerated by replacing full stops with commas and connecting sentences with "and" and the like.
I get up. I take my jacket and put it on. As I look around, I see John coming towards me.
I get up, take my jacket, put it on, and look around, seeing John come towards me.
Not perfect, and certainly not fitting for that scene, but I hope you can feel the hectic rhythm in that example.
Anthony Horowitz uses the following techniques which can work.
Short sentences, including minor sentences.
The historic present tense in past tense writing -- use very sparingly.
Similes, metaphors and personification that make the action more vivid.
Questions: 'How long had it been? Thirty seconds? A minute?' These add a lot of tension because it seems like the character doesn't know the answer and so of course the reader doesn't know.