Guest Post by Brett Michael Orr: A Guide to Writing Action

Posted August 17, 2015 by Briana in guest post / 4 Comments

Every writer has something they’re not particularly great at writing. Personally, I struggle with emotionally-heavy scenes, and I usually have to apply a very light hand, while still trying to improve myself through experience.

A lot of writers struggle with something that comes naturally to me: action.

I write commercial young-adult in the science-fiction/thriller genre, which means a lot of tension, betrayals, questionable loyalty, and plenty of high-octane action sequences.

Today I’m going to help you write action scenes, using a few examples from my current work-in-progress, THE BUREAU OF TIME!

Let’s Dance!

Most action scenes would only take a few minutes to play out in real life, but oftentimes you’ll use several pages to follow the action – this kind of contradiction is what makes action scenes hard to get right!

With that in mind, start thinking about the choreography of the fight. In big-budget action films, all of those fight scenes are planned out and directed much like a dance routine.

Some things to consider in your fight choreography:

  • Physical Space: are the characters fighting their way through an area? Consider things like corridors, doors, windows, changing terrain. These are factors that can either slow, or speed up, your action scene!
  • Damage Sustained: humans are squishy. Make sure they react accordingly to being attacked, stabbed, shot, or winded. This provides a way to switch tempo, a concept we’ll explore soon.
  • The Victor: every fight should end with a clearly defined ‘winner’. In some situations, you might want a stalemate, but the reader’s emotions will be drawn to victory or loss, so it’s far better for your fights to end with either victory or loss.
Consider each of these points before you start writing the action scene. You might want to try planning the scene exactly like a choreographer would – jot down who’s going where, and follow their progression on a sketch before translating the fight into words.

The Tempo of a Fight

I talked about ‘tempo’ earlier, and continuing the dance metaphor, fight scenes needs to change pace and ‘advantage’. The reader will instinctively hold their breath during combat scenes, but altering who’s in control of the fight will greatly increase the tension and keep your reader hooked.

This scene from THE BUREAU OF TIME demonstrates changing tempo:

The first shot found its mark. The snarling Adjuster was thrown backwards, consumed by a swirling void before it hit the ground; the second teleported away, reappearing directly behind him, plunging its knife into his shoulder.

Shaun screamed, dropping face-first into the muddied ground. He couldn’t move, his shoulder burning in agony. His revolver slipped out of his grasp. A heavy boot crushed his lower spine and he let out a tortured gasp, red dots dancing before his eyes. He dipped into his Affinity, drawing on the river of T.E. surrounding him, rapidly Timewalking his injuries. A rough hand grabbed his wet hair and wrenched his head back.

Shaun felt cold steel against his throat. He thrashed against his attacker, using the slippery ground to his advantage. He pushed backwards, the Adjuster tumbling forward into the mud. Shaun spun around, seized his revolver, his finger wrapping around the trigger. The Adjuster was already on all fours, face contorted in rage, dashing towards him.

A lightning strike masked the roar of his gun.

Here, our character (Shaun) starts the fight well. He kills his first enemy (win), but is immediately surprised (loss) and loses his weapon (loss). He manages to heal his injuries with his supernatural powers (win), but is forced into a dangerous position (loss) with a knife against his throat. Luckily he uses the terrain around him to gain an advantage (win), get his weapon back (win), and finally defeat his enemy!

The tally? 4 Wins to 3 Losses. It’s a fair outcome, but Shaun certainly had to fight for his victory. This kind of tension and tempo switching is vital to maintaining a gripping action scene.

Shaky Camera Angle

Most of my action scene experience comes from watching a lot of Hollywood action flicks. Some writers don’t let using movies to shape their writing, but personally I think we can take a lot of screenwriting and directing tips, and use them to enhance our books.

One of the most quintessential action-scene tricks in cinema is the shaky camera angle. By disrupting the viewers’ point of focus, we feel like we’re actually with the main character, running, fighting, escaping.

I personally translate this into shortened sentences. From an editing perspective, writers are told to be careful with their punctuation and run-on sentences, but when used sparingly and for action sequences, the reader will simply be absorbed into the prose without considering the grammatical implications.

Shaun threw his elbow back at the same moment Zero slashed across with his blade; Cassie pulled the trigger, her shot grazing Zero’s shoulder. The assassin twisted sideways, its mouth opened in a startled roar; the second Adjuster leaped into the fray, bearing down on Shaun; he scrambled towards his gun, but Zero intervened, grabbing Shaun’s fatigues and pulling him back—

Cassie fired, taking down the second Adjuster, but she was too slow—

Zero plunged his knife straight into Shaun’s chest, blood gushing out from around the blade. Shaun gave a horrified gasp, his body collapsing into the dirt.

Rapid-fire fragments, split apart into short sentences in (mostly) past tense (rather than present continuous, which actually slows the reader down), and a trailing emdash, all keeps the action flowing and slightly disrupted – just like a shaky camera.

Note: be careful with how frequently you use this type of prose. It will become frustrating to read after a long time, so reserve it for action scenes where a lot happens in a short period of time!

The Aftermath

Action scenes need to integrate themselves with the rest of your book. A good book should balance the action scenes with some sort of ‘aftermath’. After the dust has settled, you need to consider these things:

  • Recuperation: how badly was your character damaged? If you injured part of their body during the fight, make sure you don’t forget! Natural healing takes a long time, so your character will carry that injury for a while.
  • Post Traumatic Stress: this is a much more serious topic that should be talked about in greater length at some point. Essentially, after periods of heavy conflict, fighting, and death, some people may experience ‘flashbacks’ to that period, and may also be very shocked and stunned, unable to talk or communicate. This is partly due to the massive adrenalin high from fighting, but also because the mind is struggling to process what happened.
  • Next Direction: no matter if your characters won or lost their fight scene, they should be planning for the future based on this outcome. The battle may be won, but the war is far from over; there are always consequences and ramifications to consider.
Ultimately, action scenes are most effective when they are tied into the novel. Oftentimes the post-fight aftermath will trigger character emotion – either bringing them closer together through the bonds of a near-death experience, or forcing them further apart if they realize they’re on differing sides of the ‘bigger picture’.

That’s a Wrap!

Those are my tips for writing convincing action scenes that draw your reader into the novel and will leave them breathless! If you have your own suggestions or comments, please leave them below!

Thank you to Briana for having me on her blog!

What do you think makes a good action scene?

In a special guest post on @brianawrites’ blog, @BrettMichaelOrr shares tips for writing action scenes. (Click to tweet)

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4 responses to “Guest Post by Brett Michael Orr: A Guide to Writing Action

  1. Brett Michael Orr

    Thank you so much for having me on your blog Briana, I’m so happy I could share my action writing tips and tricks with your readers!

  2. Rae Oestreich

    Brett, this post is incredible!

    “…the reader’s emotions will be drawn to victory or loss…” -> that’s something I’d never even thought about before, and yet it makes so much sense. I’m totally using this the next time I’m in a fight scene for my own WIP; I figure I would need to decide what I want the reader to feel after the fight, positive or negative. I guess it would depend on where I’m at in the story? It would totally help in the tone of certain areas of the plot, too, I bet.

    “From an editing perspective, writers are told to be careful with their punctuation and run-on sentences, but when used sparingly and for action sequences, the reader will simply be absorbed into the prose without considering the grammatical implications.” -> as an editor, I can say…you’re exactly right 😉 While normally you want to mix up your sentences with a variety of lengths, the shorter and quicker your sentences in succession the quicker the reader will read, so it ups the pacing and the tension.

    Great post, and you taught me something new! Thanks so much, Brett, and thanks to Briana for having Brett stop by!

  3. JazzFeathers

    Brett and Briana I loved the article.
    Brett, like you, I love writing action scenes. There’s some kind of rewarding in being able to pull out a good scene that makes sense and forwards the plot, especially when many characters are involved.
    I would have suggested the same as you. The most important part, in my opinion, is coreoghaphing the scene. If we don’t do it, we won’t have the nesessary clearity of vision to actually write the scene.

    I’d just add emotions and physical sensations. Action isn’t only just ‘action’, it’s also what that action is doing to the character in the moment it’s happening.
    So, I sometimes let sensations and emotions speak before the action, because that’s what sometimes happens in real life: you realise something’s happened after you experienced the events.

    So for example here: “Shaun screamed, dropping face-first into the muddied ground. He couldn’t move, his shoulder burning in agony. His revolver slipped out of his grasp”

    I’d rather write: “Shaun sreamed and let the revolver go. His shoulder burned. He fell into the mud.”
    Makes sense? 🙂