Since I started writing, my action scenes have been complimented on enough times for me to assume I’m doing something right. Now whilst I’ve dabbled in other genres like neo noir thrillers and horror, each of which require a more toned down and tense style of action, its my Hourglass series which has garnered the most compliments for their flashy spectacle and set pieces, and therefore I thought I’d give a quick rundown of my simple writing process for creating big, bold action sequences for any fantasy/action writers out there who perhaps don’t enjoy constructing action scenes. If this is you, I hope this helps. But bear in mind, I am merely a humble DIY author (for proof, check out the t-shirt I designed below!), so if my advice is no good to you, maybe there’s a Writing Action Scenes for Dummies book on the market.
When it comes to writing action, I believe the author should approach its construction like a movie director/storyboard artist. No matter how much you might have to alter your action scenes during their development, you should always have a number of memorable and exciting vignettes which stay with you, and capture the frisson and kinesis that first inspired you to pen that particular scene, whether it’s a captivating setting, a spirited character moment, or maybe just a kick-ass scrap. But you should be visualising it like it’s a movie, as this will not only help inform you of the surroundings, and where the scene is heading from beat to beat, but it can often throw up new ideas, allowing you to get lost in the moment and improvise.
So let’s break it down to its bare essentials.
- Setting. It doesn’t matter if you have a scene where a tough as boots maverick cop has a knock down drag out with a gangster; a noble knight slaying a malevolent evil incarnate; or mercs hunting down or being hunted by teeth-gnashing horrors, you need a memorable playground. Now whilst your story will tend to dictate the available settings (you can’t have that aforementioned maverick cop having a shootout on Mars just because you suddenly feel like it!), you should choose potential settings whilst you’re still in the early process of drafting your plot, that way you will already have a rough idea of the action set-pieces which will be sprinkled throughout the story as you go. Another thing to consider when choosing settings, is the potential use of the environment, which will give you options to jazz up the scene: bathroom brawl? Use the sink. Super powered dockyard fight? Bring a crane crashing down. The environment can produce pivotal focal points to drive the scene forwards, as well as creating more hazardous drama for your characters.
- What if you have an important character moment, one that shapes them into the person they’ll become? It doesn’t have to be a self-belief one-man army type moment. It could be them witnessing something terrible in battle, or maybe shifting allegiances. Whatever it is, this should be previously considered during the early drafts of your manuscript, but when it comes down to actually writing it, think about the most exciting/interesting way this character moment can occur during the conflict. Consider the character’s situation and, again, their environment. Let the bare bones of the idea play out in your head against the environmental backdrop, and try to live it with the character, and think, what would be the best way for them to reach this pivotal point in the fight. Maybe it is a case of them reaching their full potential, in which case, what plays best in your head and works thematically to your story? Are they surrounded by the bodies of loved ones? Is it just them coming face to face with their adversary? Are they perhaps playing coy, pretending to help a fellow ally into a “safe place” so they can kill/rob/maim/capture them?
- Sometimes an action scene demands to be written so loudly, that the plot can be re-worked to include it. By no means should one be forced into your story at the detriment of the story’s structure, no matter how cool it is, because the story and the characters must ALWAYS come first. But if you come up with a really cool idea that you think you can successfully transplant it into your story, then give it a shot. As one reader/writer who enjoys the explosive pay off after some nice slow burn character work, I really appreciate it when the action is worth the wait. If you’re penning an urban fantasy/action/thriller, you should balance out the dark and whimsy with the impact of visceral set-pieces.
- What about the level of detail? Do you need to spell out every single little movement and interaction? No, of course not. Admittedly, I do go for detail, but like most things, practice and experience will help teach you the level of detail needed to keep the energy and verve up without bogging it all down. If I’m writing a mano-a-mano showdown, I will embellish the detail, showcasing the action to really give a personal feel for the struggle which has been building throughout the book. But If I’m writing a scene where a character must bust their way through a few dozen enemies, I’ll try to be more economical. Again, save the more detailed exchanges of fists, bullets or supernatural shenanigans for key opponents, but the rent-a-goons can be put down in a nice, and hopefully lyrical, sentence or two. AND DON’T FORGET, you can throw some of that sweet environmental destruction in the mix to take out lesser enemies for added dynamics.
- Multiple perspectives in one large battle. Now this can be daunting sometimes. What if you have set the ball rolling on your grand adventure, the plot breakdown looks tight and compelling on the page, and all your characters have meat on the bones, BUT, when it comes to delivering an epic finale (or any action scene, really) you don’t even know where to begin. Or where to END! Have you bitten off more than you can chew with all those multiple characters engaging in skirmishes orbiting the main protagonist’s conflict? Maybe. And if you have, don’t force it. Because action for action’s sake isn’t good. So it might be best to keep it more linear if you’re really struggling with action scenes. But if you can do it, and the only thing holding you back is that pain in the arse living inside your head and shitting on you, saying it’s too much work, then tell that arsehole to zip it, and give it a go. How? Well, you plot a big action scene in the same way you plot a whole story: beginning, middle, end. No trick there. So think of each character’s starting point at the beginning of the battle, their motive, and obviously, their climax. If you know these three key points in each of the characters roles in the battle, it will offer you as much leeway as your imagination demands, providing they are each moving towards the next key part of their battle. I have included a very basic breakdown of this process for the climax at the end of the first Hourglass book. There’s a lot going on, so I’ve stripped it right down to spare you any extraneous plot details. Alas, if you are planning on reading it at some point, there are still some SPOILERS in this example.
Clyde – Beginning: Fearing for the safety of his best friend Kev, Clyde heads to the enemy-owned warehouse to try and help him. He’s trained, but had no field experience. He’s scared. He manages to fight his way to his wounded ghost pal. Unfortunately, Kev sees his chance to accomplish an important mission objective, and leaves Clyde, heading through the closing portal into the dead realm in an attempt to apprehend a valuable individual. Clyde isn’t prepared to let his friend go it alone.
Clyde – Middle: Clyde, having survived his trial by fire, and having helped clear out the last of the dangerous mercenaries, is left feeling angry at Kev’s reckless actions. Clyde is still a civilian, having turned down a position at Hourglass, but now he’s pulled deeper into an official mission in order to help his friend. Following a brief lull in the action, he and his mentor use agency resources to enter the dead lands of Erebus to pull Kev and several other teammates out.
Clyde – End: The stakes have become larger than Clyde could have predicted, and he is now forced into battle on a terrible alien world, against a very powerful enemy who is harbouring the insidious will of a lethal demon. Clyde helps win the bloody conflict – or rather, he accomplishes a very important goal by destroying one of the novel’s key adversaries.
Kev – Beginning: Kev, fresh out of the agency training programme, gets his first mission. He infiltrates the enemy warehouse/staging area with his vet teammates. All is going as well as bloody combat can, until his ghostly body is sniped by an Exorcist (ghost killer) round. Wounded, he accidentally sends a distress call to Clyde.
Kev – Middle: After Clyde arrives, Kev informs Clyde of the mission’s importance, and soldiers on despite the wound. Knowing that an agency target (Konstantin “Gulag” Kozlov) is currently being coerced into stealing profitable souls from Erebus by a wealthy and corrupt enemy, he sees his chance to head over to the other side before the portal closes.
Kev – End: Having fought his way through some deadly competition, Kev catches up to Kozlov in the hellish, otherworldly temple. But it’s too late, and in order to save Kozlov, he must enter the body of the possessed monk, to help expunge the dark and vile corruption of the demon. It’s tooth and nail, but he succeeds.
Technically, both Clyde and Kev’s beginning , middle and end, are to themselves self-contained action sequences which could be further broken down into sections, but the reason I classed each of their beginning, middle and end as one on-going action sequence is because despite their range and scope, I had pre-planned all of their big moments; plus, to me, the whole book was building towards this, so really I do consider it one long war.
On top of this, both Clyde and Kev’s personal battles are intertwined with those of several other characters, including Kozlov, across five locations in total, but when you have clear markers in mind of where each character needs to be at each part of the action scene, then it won’t matter if you’re writing fifteen characters across fifteen locations. Grab a pen and paper, or type it out, and workshop the battle as many times as you need until you’re happy with it. And trust me, once you’ve done that and you know where all the pieces are being moved to, you can relax and start having fun with it.
I don’t know if any of this actually helps, but I hope it does. Remember, no matter how big or small the action scene, remember the character motivations, and to break it all down to the key moments so you don’t get lost in the mayhem. And last but certainly not least, imagine it as a big block-bluster movie scene. If you get excited when visualising it, you’re on the right track.
Thanks for reading.
Daniel James is an author of speculative (and sometimes dark and weird) fiction from Liverpool, England.
He is the recipient of two Kirkus Star reviews for his character-driven, action-packed urban fantasy novels Hourglass and The Ferryman’s Toll. Hourglass was also voted one of their Best 100 Indie novels of 2021.