Writing Action Scenes

By Mice



I happen to really enjoy writing action scenes. I don't do it all the time, but in a universe like XF/LGM, I definitely have reason to do them on a regular basis. Action is about the physical and the visual, but can and should include the emotional and intellectual as well.

In Armani Weekend: Saturday, for instance, there's an action sequence where Byers (in his POV) is fleeing a shooter in a crowd scene. Doggett (in his POV) goes off to do his Fibbie duty and chases down the shooter. Yes, we see internal stuff, but a lot of the key to an action scene is the visual movement.

Action scenes should be as well described as any other. If you're putting loving attention into describing your smut, use that same loving attention to describe your characters' movement in an action sequence.

Action needs to move quickly. Depending on what's going on, you may want to have things only partly seen by your character -- this emphasizes the chaotic nature of some forms of action scenes. In other action scenes, the character may have thought everything out in advance. They may have a plan, and the tension of the action sequence comes in whether or not the plan will work out as anticipated.

If you're describing a fistfight, it's a lot more exciting to the reader to describe the way the characters bob and dodge, who hits whom, and where. This doesn't mean you have to describe every movement, every blow, but it helps a lot to say more than "MacGyver hit Murdock."

How does the person who's struck react? If your hero hits bone, does it hurt her hand? If a bullet strikes a bad guy, is he thrown back, or does he jerk and slide down a wall? Even more frightening, does he look down at the wound and then back up at your hero, only to advance another few, menacing steps?

How does the hero react to the bad guy's reaction? Jim and Blair will react very differently to a perp who falls when she's hit by a bullet than to one who just grins and keeps on coming. What happens then? Fear? Awe? Confusion? Is the bad guy wearing a kevlar vest, or is there something Really Wrong going on here?

If the bad guy's wearing kevlar, they might get knocked down by the force of a bullet, then get back up again. It would be unnerving, but natural. Someone who doesn't even jerk when the bullet strikes could be terrifying.

Dialogue in action sequences should usually be short and to the point. Unlike in the comic books, most people in the middle of a fight have neither the time nor the breath to waste on snappy commentary. The exception to this is when two opponents are circling each other, looking for weaknesses in some form of hand to hand or non-projectile weapon based combat.

Porthos and Athos, when facing Cardinal Richelieu with epees in hand to evaluate position and weaknesses, would have time to tease and harrass. Mulder and Krycek, in the midst of pounding the shit out of each other, would not. Jack and Daniel, firing alien weapons across a long field, might exchange banter with each other -- at least until they had to dive for cover -- but not with the opponents across the field.

What does the fight look like? One thing I usually do is map it out in my head as best I can. I try to describe it as though I'm watching a film of it. Where are people standing? Where do they have to run to? What serves as cover? What's the lighting like? Is it in anyone's eyes? How much can any character see?

Sometimes, if the setting is complex, I'll rough out a map in a sketch. A couple of pennies to mark my protagonists often helps define line of sight, who can reach what, and how long it might take to run (or sneak) from point A to point B.

What do your characters hear in an action sequence? The 'thup' of a bowstring? The chatter of automatic gunfire? Whining energy weapons? Is it so quiet that all they can hear is their breath and heartbeat?

Remember that in a fight scene, your fighting character is usually engaged utterly with the enemy. There's little time or mental energy for noticing the surroundings. They are going to be focused on their enemy to the exclusion of almost everything else. Another fight may be going on right next to them, but all they'll get is the flash of motion -- they're trying to stay alive. This means that you can introduce surprise elements into the character POV as they fight. Kirk, tussling with Khan, may not notice Spock until he lays that neck pinch on the bad guy. It's a surprise not only for the character, but for the reader as well.

POV is really important in an action scene. What someone perceives is essential. An ambush doesn't work if the character knows about it but shouldn't -- or doesn't know about it when they should. What would clue them in to the existence of the ambush? Is it unnaturally quiet? Is there something wrong about the way things are placed in a room? Are there shadows that are out of place? How alert is your POV character? What is she likely to notice? Will Susan Ivanova hear the almost subliminal buzz of the Shadows around her, or is the room too noisy?

Remember your characters' physical limitations. People get *tired* when they fight. It takes a lot of energy to keep up that kind of action unless you're very well trained in it. A typical martial arts match will be resolved in less than a minute, unless you're Jackie Chan fighting a dozen opponents and dodging like mad.

Don't forget that your characters will be out of breath if the fight continues very long. A punch is going to hurt. Blows frequently leave bruises, even if they don't draw blood. If somebody breaks a limb, that's usually going to stop them in their tracks, from the pain if nothing else. Even if it's a life and death situation, unless they're very used to pain, it's going to stun somebody for a moment. Make D'argo take that moment before he does something creative that saves his life.

Go for the realism. Blood getting in your eyes is going to sting, and it's going to at least partially blind you. Panic and adrenaline may help you ignore pain, but when the end of the fight comes and the pain hits, you may just pass out.

The action doesn't necessarily stop when the fight does. If somebody's hurt, does anyone need first aid? And do any of your characters *know* first aid? Can whatever mission they've set out on continue with your protagonists all banged up and bruised, or do they need to retreat and rethink the situation, to make the attempt another day? If they must go on at all costs -- escaping from a prison camp or breaking into a facility on a time-sensitive mission -- do they have the energy, the resources, and the emotional wherewithal?

Action isn't necessarily all about fights. Infiltration scenes can be excellent action. James Bond sneaking into the villain of the week's headquarters is almost always a thrilling thing. Sneaky spy stuff may not be as fast as a fight, but if it's written properly, it can be just as exciting. The tension is built through keeping your reader guessing.

How close does Mr. Phelps come to being caught on that security camera? Do James West and Artemis Gordon have a dozen guards to get past -- and if so, how do they do it without being seen? Does a desk get bumped when Scully ducks behind it for cover, causing a small noise that Pfaster hears?

These are just some basic thoughts on writing action sequences. Play around with the ideas, and see what else you can come up with. Try not to view action as a chore. Action can be a hell of a lot of fun to write! It sets up all kinds of different types of scenarios -- capturing a character sets up the need for a rescue by his lover, being thumped always sets up a lovely little hurt/comfort potential, near-fatal injuries often bring out those pressing confessions of hidden love.

Action allows you to show the unexpected resolve of characters who might usually be written as more intellectually than physically oriented. What hidden talents do your characters have? What are their inner strengths? What do your big, strong, physical characters have as hidden weaknesses that might come out in an action sequence? This is where the emotional aspects of action scenes can really be showcased. Mulder's terror of fire is a great example. Action sequences can play on a hero's fears and emotional issues.

Action is just another way to play.