Set Up the Action

As a reader, I enjoy books with good action. Whether it’s a pirate raiding party, wizard warfare, or spies on the run, I can’t get enough of these page-turning, late-into-the-night-reading-session books. And when the action is particularly good, you know I’ll be looking for a sequel or other works by the same author. That’s why I find it so important to nail all of the action in my own writing.

Now there’s no three-step lesson plan that’ll get you writing action like the best of them. You’ll need to experiment and develop your own personal style. If you’re a natural at this, please don’t tell me, and rest assured I would writhe with jealousy. The rest of us need to work at it. What I can do is share some of the things I’ve learned.

Study the action in the book you love.

You love those books for a reason. Dissect them and try to figure out how the author did what they did. I’m reminded of all the Quidditch scenes in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. They were captivating. She created an entire sport and made me an eager spectator. I’m not even surprised to find my daughter’s University sporting its own Quidditch team. Really. Here’s the wiki.

Set up your action scenes in advance.

I’m talking setting and context here. If you’re creating some action in a setting that’s already familiar to the reader, make sure you’ve set up previously elements you know will come into play. Interrupting a fight scene to explain why a particular picture frame is shaped like a baseball bat brings the action to a halt. Sure it might be important for the reader to know that little tidbit. How else will it make sense when the protagonist grabs said picture frame and smashes it over the villain’s noggin? If it’s important, tell me about it before the scene begins. That way when you’re in the think of it, you don’t have to tug the reader out of the moment to explain.

This isn’t the movies.

While I enjoy a good action flick, the action in movies don’t translate well in written format. Think of the movie Die Hard (side note: favorite Xmas movie EVER). When John McClane is forced to run across a room of broken glass without shoes, the audience sees this in the few seconds it’s on the screen and feels his pain. But to get the same effect from a reader, a writer needs to take more time. This is tricky, I’m not going to lie. You need to get the heart of the dilemma emotionally and keep the pace moving. Sure, the dialog translates, but did you see the emotion in John’s face when he notices the glass? That split-second recognition doesn’t happen on the page. You need to spell it out for your reader, make them understand the impact of the decision he has to make. No easy task. I wish you luck and commend all you who have successfully accomplished this.

I hope those help. If you have any suggestions on how to make a good action scene, please tell us in the comments below. One never stops learning the craft.

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