I’ll admit, writing action scenes is not a favorite activity of mine. Weird, right? I’m a fantasy romance author. Every plot I think of has some grand, sweeping fight or battle planned in one book or another (or perhaps in every book, depending on the series arc). I love the concept of action scenes, and I absolutely love reading them. But sometimes (okay, all the time), I struggle to write them.
Why? Because writing action scenes is hard. What constitutes an action scene? How long do you spend on a fight? Does it have to be physical? Can it be emotional (this is particularly possible in romance novels)? Will I lose my readers if I spend 10 pages describing a horse’s flanks? (Hint: Yes.)
As a reader and a writer, I’ve found a few tips over the years that really help me craft a compelling action scene. But before we dive into that, let’s come to a consensus on what an action scene is.
An action scene doesn’t have to be a blow-by-blow, sword-clashing battle—it just has to advance the plot and be an event that prompts your character to react quickly.
This is particularly key to keep in mind when thinking about it from a romance-writer perspective, but because I am a die-hard fantasy reader/writer, we’ll cover some of those tips, too!
5 Tips for Writing Action Scenes
By no means do I claim to be an expert at writing action scenes, but here are a few tips that have helped me throughout the years.
Read the greats.
Set the mood.
Advance the plot.
Remember your characters.
Clear as mud, right? Let’s see if we can dig a little deeper into these steps so you’ll be writing action scenes with confidence.
1. Read the Greats
This one should be fairly self-explanatory: read, read, read! I’m a huge advocate of reading widely. If you’re not into certain genres, that’s okay, but at least know and research your preferred genre. Why? Because there are, without a doubt, action scenes in those books.
For me, a go-to will forever and always be any of the Harry Potter books. And not because I write MG/YA fantasy, but because J.K. Rowling does an amazing job at describing not only battle scenes, but in-the-moment decisions that force the plot to move forward. If I’m ever uncertain how to proceed, I’ll pick up one of my copies and browse a few key chapters, reminding myself how she portrayed the scene, how Harry reacted in the moment, and the events immediately following.
Sometimes, the scenes last for pages—other times, a paragraph. Length doesn’t always matter when it comes to crafting a compelling action scene. It’s all about the character’s reaction and the events that follow because of said action.
When I need help with an actual, on-the-page battle scene, I’ve been known to pick up Tolkien. Not so I can emulate him, but so I can understand the grand, sweeping schematics of a battle (and then spend LESS time describing them, because I don’t share his writing style).
Hot tip: Another good idea is to watch YouTube videos of your favorite battle/action scenes and see how they unfold. You might not get an exact sense of timing (as movies tend to drag these out) or prose, but you might get some fantastic clues for how to describe something, an inciting event, or how to craft a satisfying ending to said scene.
And, while I feel like this is also self-explanatory, be sure to do your research. If you’re writing a novel featuring a boxer as your main character but know little to nothing about actual boxing, your action scenes will likely fall flat. The last thing you want is to create a scene that is, well, unbelievable in the worst sense. Research, research, research!
2. Set the Mood
Creating the right mood is vital for your action scenes. Whether it’s a heart-pounding battle filled with anticipation and anxiety, or an unexpected phone call that has your character’s stomach plummeting to their feet, the right mood can (and should) set the tone for everything that happens.
Let’s compare some examples (written from scratch, please excuse any and all brain lapses):
The man mounted his horse and stared at the approaching army. Nodding to his men, he gripped his sword. The time had come.
Okay, obviously a setup for an on-the-page battle. Now, let’s add some meaningful word choices and see how we can really amp up the scene:
Cattails battered against his horse’s legs as a fierce wind swept over the open marsh. The approaching army wasn’t stopping, and the vibration from their battle drums rattled his chest. Gripping his sword, he swallowed his anxiety and gave his men a jerky nod. The time had come.
So not perfect, but can you see, rather, feel the difference? The right mood is everything. It builds anticipation for your reader so that when the event unfolds, they’ll be racing through the passage to see just how your character makes it through to the other side.
Action is as much about putting the details on page as it is getting your reader to experience the moment, no matter what feelings you’re trying to evoke.
A warning: Don’t go overboard with your prose, lest you prefer the color purple.
When writing action scenes, it’s best not to get too lengthy, which is bound to happen if you start describing every little thing on the page. It’s okay (and sometimes preferred) to stick with short, impactful sentences. The key is to think about what’s happening at that moment. If your character is locked in a sword fight, is she really going to stop and take note of the sky’s color? No. She’s going to be jabbing. Dodging. Twirling. Thrusting. Don’t slow down the action by paying too much attention to the setting.
3. Advance the Plot
Fight scenes are great! They get the heart pumping, people devour them, and they’re really just fun to read. And yet, if they don’t do anything for your plot, then they have no place showing up in your manuscript.
Think of it this way—an action scene doesn’t always have to be a fight, but it should always reveal something that moves the story forward.
What do we learn about the characters because of this interaction? What actually happens besides a few wayward punches and one killer knockout? How does this move the story forward? You can’t get into a brawl just to get into a brawl. No one wants to read about that machismo. Make your action scenes count. They should always reveal something.
4. Don’t Choreograph
You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out, you put your right foot in… As much as shaking it all about sounds like a good time, it’s really not when it comes to writing action scenes. It really does become hokey. (Hah! Okay, I’ll see myself out.)
Basically, what I’m getting at is that step-by-step choreography of any fight or action scene (this definitely falls more in the spectrum of fantasy or any romance novel with a hero/heroine who has an active role/job like MMA fighting, SWAT drills, sports, etc.) should be kept to a minimum. Yes, we need scene blocking. Yes, we need to understand who’s doing the punching and who’s falling to the ground.
What we don’t need is, “She shifted in her stance. Then, cocked her arm back. Her fist flew threw the air. Her opponent parried with his left forearm. With his right hand, he shoved her stomach. She kicked him in the groin with her foot.”
One, it’s kind of boring. Two, we lose all semblance of action, despite tons of action being described. Where’s the urgency? The energy? We don’t even feel the impact of either hit. And three, it’s actually confusing.
Sometimes, being overly descriptive about body parts or movement actually makes it difficult to visualize, causing confusion for the reader.
Let them visualize the encounter. Leave room for interpretation. We don’t need to know exactly what muscles contracted during that haymaker punch. We just need to know it connected and the opponent saw stars from the force of the hit. It’s a classic case of show vs. tell, and we definitely want people to see our action scenes.
5. Remember Your Characters
This final line item on your list for writing action scenes is really a culmination of all the above tips with a cherry on top.
You’ve done your research, read some fantastic excerpts, set the proper mood, factored in the plot, and wrote a kick-ass scene without heavily leaning on choreography. And throughout all of that, you weren’t doing it blindly. You weren’t writing about Person A and Person B without any thought or notion as to who they are or what drives them. These are your characters, after all. You know why they’re in this particular predicament to begin with.
Which means you need to pay close attention to what makes your characters tick during these action scenes. Don’t suddenly jump out of character and have your normally sweet-natured, beta hero hulk out on someone for looking at his love interest wrong. Stay true to what you’ve created.
And don’t forget that an action scene isn’t just about what’s physically happening, but what’s shaping in your characters’ minds. Pay close attention to their internal dialogue, thoughts, and feelings.
If Jane just got into a fight for the first time in her life, she’s obviously going to have a reaction to it. Was it the adrenaline rush she always expected? Or is she wracked with guilt? How does this change her thought process moving forward? Creating believable, authentic characters involves diving deep into their psyche and understanding how every scene, action or otherwise, shapes them moving forward.
Which brings me to my closing thought…
Consider the Aftermath of Your Action Scenes
The aftermath! You’ve done it. You’ve successfully crafted an amazing, hair-raising action scene that gets the blood flowing. Pat yourself on the back. Eat a cookie. Do something, because dang, that was hard. But you did it! Once you’ve sufficiently celebrated, it’s time to face the aftermath.
More often than not, true action scenes will alter the progression of a story. Your characters reacted quickly, possibly in the heat of the moment, and were guided by their emotions. When the adrenaline dies down, what’s left? How will they move forward? What consequences will they face?
Even if they knew a battle was on the horizon, they couldn’t possibly know how it would affect them. Relief or grief? Excitement or angst? There are so many potential outcomes, and they’re all at your disposal.
Now that we’ve gone over some tips and tricks for writing action scenes, I’ll leave you with a few more handy-dandy resources I found:
- 5 Essential Tips for Writing Killer Fight Scenes
- Blow-By-Blow: Writing Action and Fight Scenes — 5 Tips
- Writing Fight Scenes in Romance (With Excerpts!)
- Writing romantic scenes and fight scenes: 6 parallels
Shoutout to All The Kissing community member Megan Starks for writing a fabulous article! (It’s the one with kick-ass excerpts.) What tips do you have for writing action scenes? Share with us in the comments below!