1. KISS. We all know what KISS stands for, right? (Although let’s pretend it’s ‘Keep it Simple, Sweetheart’ because I don’t really know you and I make it a general rule to try to refrain from insulting people I don’t know).
This rule is an absolute must for writing an effective action scene, IMO. Simple simple simple. This is not the time or place for flowery language or literary set descriptions. Use strong, clear, active verbs, short sentences, and paragraphs of no more than a few of those short sentences. Let’s take a look at an example.
The mugger—a big, bulky kind of guy—reached into the pocket of his black trench coat and pulled out a gun. It was a shiny silver .357 Magnum, the same type of gun John’s grandfather owned.
John reached his hand out, and his fingers closed around the cold barrel of the gun. John squeezed, then bent his elbow and made the gun aim straight up into the clouds. He turned the gun to the left, then to the right, and began to lower the gun to the ground. There was a crunch as the mugger’s index finger shattered and went limp, which let John retract the gun into his own hand. The mugger sank to the ground and let out an anguished cry that pierced the cloudless sky.
John gripped the gun with two hands. It felt familiar and inviting and took him back to that summer he spent at his grandfather’s Texas ranch, that summer he learned to shoot.
“Don’t move!” John shouted at the man on the ground.
There was a flash of metal and then there was a gun in John’s face. John didn’t think. He went right for the gun.
He grabbed the barrel and forced it up, then immediately twisted it down. There was a crunch and as the would-be mugger’s fingers broke. The man dropped to the ground with a muffled scream.
John aimed the gun at his head. “Don’t move!”
The second scene is clearly more effective at portraying a sense of urgency, right? The first has more detail, but it brings the pace to a grinding halt. You want a reader’s heart rate to pick up a little during an action scene. You want them to frantically turn the page to find out what happens next. Keeping it short and simple is an easy way to accomplish this.
2. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Let’s jump back in with another example.
Mary lunged at her attacker. Her elbow flew up, and she slammed it into his temple. Then she raised a fist and sent it flying into the bridge of his nose. Then came a kick square to the gut. Finally, she finished him off with a palm strike to the throat, and he crumbled to the floor like a house of cards.
Notice something missing?
I’ve been shocked by the number of so-called action scenes I’ve read that only give you half a sense of what’s going on. If your main character is the one throwing the punches, don’t forget about the guy on the receiving end. Unless your character is fighting an inflatable punching toy—one that keeps popping up as soon as it goes down—you need to account for the antagonist. His or her experience in the scene should be just as important as your character’s. Let’s look at the example again.
Mary lunged at her attacker. Her elbow flew up, and she slammed it into his temple. He staggered back, woozy and off balance, but then he straightened himself and flew toward her.
She raised her fist and loosed it into the bridge of his nose. This time he screamed, and blood rained from his nostrils. He looked at her with fire in his eyes, and Mary spun around and landed a roundhouse kick square to his gut.
It forced him back a few steps, but it wasn’t strong enough to finish him.
“I’m going to kill you,” the man said, lunging toward her. But Mary’s hand flew in the air, and she forced her palm into his throat. He sputtered, his windpipe destroyed, and he crumbled to the ground like a house of cards.
Ok, I’ll admit that’s not the best action scene I’ve ever written, but it’s much more fleshed out, isn’t it? So always remember that in a fight scene, there are two (or more) participants. Don’t forget about all of them!
3. When writing a fight scene, YouTube is your friend. There are a number of fight scenes in THE EIGHTH GUARDIAN. For probably half of them, I just sort of closed my eyes and imagined what they would look like. For the other half, I went on YouTube, watched a bunch of videos over and over again, and then described what I was seeing.
I then sent a copy of the manuscript to a critique partner trained in martial arts, and for about half of the fight scenes, her reaction was “This doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.” Can you guess which half?
So if you’re untrained in martial arts (like me), definitely confirm your scenes with a primary source. And if you’re already a jiu jitsu maven, well then I hope you enjoyed my two tips for writing better action scenes!
Meredith McCardle is June's Affiliate Blogger. To find out more about our guest author positions here at the League, click here.
Meredith McCardle is a recovered lawyer who lives in South Florida with her husband and two young daughters. Like her main character, she has a fondness for strong coffee, comfortable pants, and jumping to the wrong conclusions. Unlike her main character, she cannot travel through time. Sadly. Her debut, THE EIGHTH GUARDIAN, will be published by Skyscape/Amazon Children's in Spring 2014.
The Eighth Guardian
by Meredith McCardle
Iris's world is turned on end when she's plucked out of her top-secret government training school and dropped into an organization she’s never heard of: the Annum Guard. It’s a team of highly trained operatives who have the ability to travel back in time and tweak the past to improve the present. Enhancement, not alteration—or so they claim. But the deeper she gets into the organization, the more she learns that the Annum Guard is keeping some very dangerous secrets. So now she has to start digging for answers without getting caught. For if she fails, it won't just be her life on the line. It will be an entire history's worth of lives.