An action scene isn’t just a car chase in an espionage novel, a sword fight in a historical, or even a hot and heavy sex scene in a romance. An action scene is any scene that needs the pace cranked up to its most intense level to build tension, deliver emotional impact, and thrust the plot forward with one big punch. So, how does an author turn an action scene into a heart-pounding experience for the reader, while building tension and emotional impact, and advancing the plot?
First and foremost, the action scene should not be overloaded with description of any length. The setting should be set up before the action begins so the reader knows where the action is taking place. A winding mountain pathway during the night, a crowded downtown street during morning rush hour, the prince’s secret boudoir on his private island, whatever your setting, it should be introduced before the action begins to limit the need for description. When the action begins, an author only needs to mention the details that create the immediacy, urgency, or the sense of dread, panic, romance, or in short, the scene’s emotional goal. More important, these details should be mentioned as they relate to or affect the character.
Compare the following two sentences.
Kate quickly maneuvered her old car around the sharp mountain path lined with thick trees and littered with rocks the size of soccer balls. It was a long and deep fall over the edge and she didn’t want to fall.
Kate gunned the car around the mountain path. The trees grabbed at her. The rocks jabbed at her car. She banged her head on the window and gripped the wheel. She wasn’t going over the edge. She wasn’t dying today.
The first example is straight description. The second uses the description to reinforce the sense of danger and its impact on the character. The first is long and factual. The second is hard-hitting and emotional.
The action scene should also not have any character internalizations. In an action scene the character runs on instinct. It’s not the time for characters to think up a vaccine to neutralize a killer virus, make deductions based on hieroglyphics, or wonder whether someone loves you or loves you not. Characters can reason, question, or deduce all they want after the scene but not during. During the scene characters should only react, and it doesn’t matter if they are running away from the bad guy, fighting with him, or wrapped in his tattooed arms. Compare the following two examples.
Kate knew she shouldn’t have gone to the castle. She had been warned against visiting by everyone in the town. But she had wanted to know the truth. Now the truth was shooting at her. She pressed the accelerator of her car. She couldn’t become victim number six. She would lose her deposit on her trip to Cancun in December with Ashley, Maxine, and Diane, she had to plan her sister’s bachelorette party or her mother would never forgive her, and she definitely had to catch one of her niece’s soccer games.
Kate shouldn’t have sneaked into the castle. A bullet shattered her back window. She ducked and floored the accelerator. She wasn’t going to become victim number six. She wasn’t through with life yet.
In the first example, the action is stalled because of the character’s reflections. In the second example, it’s all about the action. Kate doesn’t even realize that she is panicking. She’s simply reacting. The action scene must also be told in real time so the reader participates. Don’t summarize. Let the action unfold in front of the reader’s eyes and describe only what is happening, not why.
Dialogue can be used in an action scene if it contributes to the tension. But it should be direct and succinct. There should be no fillers, no small talk, and no pleasantries.
Kate’s cell phone shrilled. She couldn’t answer. The prince’s Ferrari was gaining on her Mini Cooper.
But it wouldn’t stop.
She grabbed the phone. It was her partner. “Not now!”
“Don’t go to the castle!” Diane shouted.
“Call the F.B.I.”
“You found him?”
“And his five victims.”
The quick-fire volley of the dialogue builds on the urgency and emotional chaos of the scene.
The structure of your sentences contributes to the pace. An action scene is not the place for long flowing sentences of narrative value. Your sentences should be short, clean, direct, and punchy. The best way to achieve this is by using subject/verb/object constructions and vary them up with sentences that use “and” or “but”.
Kate spied the knife. It was buried in mud. She yanked it out. The edge was ragged and blood stained. She had to get out and now.
Don’t complicate sentence structures by using “before”, “after”, “during”, “while,” or “when”. They lead to confusion and weigh the sentences and the action down.
Kate spied the knife before she picked it up. After Kate picked it up, she saw the ragged edge and blood stains. While Kate was examining it, she heard someone approaching. During the time she heard someone approaching, Kate put the knife in a bag.
You can use phrases to offset the basic sentence structures, but sparingly. They can be annoying as they are in the following example.
The knife. It was buried in mud. Edge blunted. Stained with blood. She had to leave. Now.
Avoid using adjectives and adverbs. Instead, use action verbs and succinct nouns. Compare the following.
Kate saw the expensive butcher’s knife. It was slightly hidden in thick mud. The deranged, filthy-rich prince and his big gun were not too far behind her but she pulled the knife out. Its teeth were heavily dulled and the fat blade was covered with dark blood stains. She gingerly placed it in a clear Ziploc plastic bag and put it in her dog-eared purse. Then she started to move fast.
Kate spied the knife. It was buried in mud. The prince was on her tail, but she yanked it out. Its teeth were dulled and the blade was stained with blood. She threw it in her purse and ran.
The second far outweighs the first and without the use of unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, or wish-washy nouns.
Last but not least, keep your paragraphs short. They will quicken the pace of the scene.