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Post Series: How to Write Action Scenes that Pack a Punch

Use the POW formula to write action scenes that really kick butt.

How to Write Action Scenes

| About Writing

Hey Writer Friends! I want to tell you all about writing action scenes. Who’s with me??

One of my favorite, happy things, is giving presentations. I don’t know everything, but I love sharing what I do know. If it helps someone, that’s just HaPpY making for me. But I can’t get in front of every writer out there to teach my class, so … I thought I’d share my classes here. Good idea? Bad? Whatever, I’m doing it. Ha!

I’m starting out with POW: How to Write Action Scenes that Pack a Punch.

I love action. It started with martial arts–Bruce Lee and Cynthia Rock are my PEOPLE. But I love all action, from Rambo to Predator, Alien to Captain America. (Ooh, aren’t you so excited to see Dr. Strange?? I can’t wait!)

I love books with action, too. As with most things, though, there’s a right way and a wrong way to get it done. If you write books with martial arts, car chases, gun fights, whatever, you need to check out these lessons. I hope you’ll stick with me over the next few weeks as we go over the skillz and techniques that will make you a Black Belt in Writing Action!

POW
The POW Action Scenes Formula

P = PACK A PUNCH
Learn how to write believable action by being grounded, realistic and imaginative.

O = ORDER IN ACTION
Learn how to employ choreography and tempo to create action scenes with movement and pacing that makes sense and keeps your reader turning those pages.

W = WRITE WISELY
Learn to use the language of your story world and strong, active verbs to create awesome literary action.

Next week: POW #1: Be Grounded

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POW #1: Be Grounded

| About Writing

p pack-a-punch

There are three important elements to creating a scene that packs a punch:

  1. Be Grounded
  2. Be Realistic
  3. Be Imaginative

Today?

Be Grounded

You can either watch the video (in which I deliver the least convincing punch on the planet which is highly embarrassing) or read on. Or … both!

One of the most consistent problem I see with fight scenes is the lack of impact. And I’m not only talking about the damage that’s delivered when a punch (or other attack) is received, but the impact of the action itself–on the fighter, on the environment, on the recipient. You need to consider the whole body when composing a fight scene.

Consider the Whole Body

Push your chair back and stand up. No one’s watching (unless you’re at the public library, then think of the service you’re doing others around you; they’ll have a funny story to tell when they go home tonight.)

Without preparation or forethought … PUNCH. Not the wall, or the person or beside you … just the air. Too late? Shoot. Sorry!

How did that feel? Do you think you could win a fight like that? Did you feel strong and like your punch could impact damage? How does your body feel afterward? Did you kind of wrench your hip or shoulders?

Let’s try this again. This time, I want you spread your feet apart, one foot slightly in front of the other. Square your shoulders and align your body. Lift your hands into a guarding position. When you’re ready … PUNCH.

Did you feel the increased power in your punch?

Think “the hip bone’s connected to the back bone …” Every part of the body is connected and participates in your action scene. When you write the scene, be sure that your character’s body is whole and grounded.

Next week: POW #2: Be Realistic

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POW #2: Be Realistic

| About Writing

Please, please, people. When writing your character’s ability to fight, be realistic.

Consider Your Character’s Abilities

Say you have an average boy who’s attacked by a bad guy. You want her to fight for his life, but inevitably be victorious. DO NOT MAKE HIM A MARTIAL ARTS EXPERT! Unless, of course, he’s been studying martial arts for years and years.

However, you can make him successful using realistic means.

Have you seen the movie Identity Thief? Here’s this thirty-something fat chick who lives a life of crime and who has to routinely escape from bad guys. You’d never expect her to be able to do it–especially not lay ’em out flat on the ground. But she has a very realistic way to accomplish it …

A woman can realistically learn to perform a move like this. It would disarm most people. But if she’s fighting someone more experienced, or trained, they might block it—and the average woman would likely not have anything else to do to protect themselves.

Your job is to think of realistic actions your character could perform. So what could an average woman do in a fight, or if her throat punch was blocked?

Be Aware of How Adrenaline Affects a Person’s Performance

When we think of being in a crisis situation, all we ever seem to consider is how much stronger or faster we’ll become. But let’s look at how adrenaline really affects a person …

The Negative Effects of Adrenaline

  • Freeze-up
  • Heart race increases
  • Breathing becomes rapid and shallow
  • Legs shake
  • Mouth goes dry
  • Tunnel vision
  • Time distortion
  • Auditory exclusion
  • Urinate or bowel movement
  • Become monosyllabic
  • Lose fine motor skills
  • Lose some decision-making ability
  • Lose the ability to recall data

That’s a long list! Some of those things might not be a real problem in a fight, but some could be a serious hindrance!

The Positive Effects of Adrenaline

  • Stronger
  • Faster
  • More resilient to pain

You might be wondering where the rest of the list is, but I promise. This is it. So yeah, in a crisis situation we could become stronger, faster and more resilient to pain. But we could also freeze up, clam up, and poop our pants.

Next week: POW #3: Be Imaginative

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POW #3: Be Imaginative

| About Writing

I often hear writing students say that their character “kicks butt”. They can fight, like hand-to-hand combat type fighting. I often hear myself thinking in response to these students, “Really? Et tu, Brute?” Because doesn’t it seem like every random person can fight? I don’t know about you, but I only know a couple people who could really fight like that and that’s just because we hung out at a karate studio for years, so I know real high-dan black belts. So, you know. Do you know people like that, too?

Or do you know people who are good with a whip? Or can lift weights? Or ride horses, play baseball, or do gymnastics? Those people might not be able to beat a Bad Guy in hand-to-hand combat, but I bet you could think of some awesome things a baseball player or gymnast could do in a pinch.

So let’s talk about ways to beef up the imagination employed in your action scene.

Be Aware of the Environment

They say setting is everything–it makes the mood, sets the tone, provides a metaphorical story backdrop for the character and his or her development. That may be true, but it’s certainly true that no scene takes place in a vacuum (or, you know, unless you’re in space in a … something spacey … chamber). So definitely, absolutely, positively, consider your environment as you write your fight scene.

Watch this video and consider: how does the environment help or hinder the action?

 

The close confines definitely contribute to the type of action you see here, right? But how does it effect it, exactly?

How the close confines hinders the action:

  • Body movement is restricted, limiting the type of combat possible.
  • Firearms may be ineffective, as it would be very easy to be disarmed.
  • A fighter might not have enough room to properly operate the firearm.
  • Fighting may be reduced to messy, desperate grappling.

How the close confines helps the action:

  • Anything can become a weapon.
  • Hand-to-hand, two combatants may be more equally matched.
  • It may be possible to retake the advantage.

I’m sure you can think up even more examples than this.

Put Yourself in the Scene

Here’s an exercise for you:
Close your eyes and live the scene. Imagine you’re under hypnosis and being guided to see beyond straight ahead of you. Allow your mind’s eye to “notice” the lady down the street, whether or not the OPEN sign is hanging in the window of the flower shop across the street, etc.

Instead of just writing the scene as you plow through it, taking in the action, kicking butt … take this time to visualize, as if recalling details from the scene of a crime. Allow yourself to get a 360 degree view of the scene, then consider all the ways that scene could effect your action.

Get Up and Move

We writers have that whole “butt in chair” thing going on. We’re so cerebral in our writing, everything happening inside, that we often forget that there’s a body attached to that brain and it can be very helpful when writing fight scenes.

Take a minute to get these two amazing parts of yourself working together for a change. Stand up, and act out your fight scene. Walk through the choreography. Imagine how your body would react to a punch in the gut, a 2×4 to the head, a baseball thrown at 75mph into the center of your back. Let yourself feel it, feel the stumble, the crushing pain, the thrust forward.

Feel it, then write it.

Next week we move on to the “O” in our POW formula: Order in Action!

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POW #4: Order in Action – Choreography

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It’s not enough to know how to pack a punch, now you need to get the order in action right. It’s like you have the building blocks of the scene, but now you need to put it all together. There are two parts you need to pay attention to when ordering the action of your scene—choreography and tempo.

order-in-action

To create the proper order in action, you need to know the purpose of the scene, what you hope to achieve with it.

Is it an event that the character simply needs to pass through, to get to what lays beyond? Say they need to recover a sword but the bad guy is blocking his path to his car which he needs to escape.

It’s pretty straight forward and it’s all about getting from A to B, or providing an element necessary for the plot to progress.

OR

Is this scene essential to character development? Is defeating the bad guy and retrieving the sword going to reveal something about the character, or help them develop a necessary attribute?

Choreography

A choreographer imagines, designs and directs the physical action of a performance. Imagine that you are the choreographer of your action scenes. Take the time to plan them carefully, to consider its purpose, to be sure you have the right point of view for how you want to depict the scene and to assure you have all the essential details (and none of the inconsequential things) nessary for maximum impact.

EXERCISE:

The Action Plan

Write out the blow-by-blow of the action. Don’t leave out a single detail. For instance:

  • Two men are outside waiting for MC.
  • One stands to the left of the door, under the light.
  • The other stands to the right of the door, a taser in his hand.
  • MC steps out front door of apartment building.
  • MC is grabbed by the man on the left.
  • Man with taser electrocutes her.
  • Man with taser picks up her feet while other man holds her under the arms.
  • They carry her away to their car which is parked out of sight.

You can write your action plan in bullet points or in descriptive sentences–just be as thorough as possible. How you write it isn’t as important as getting it all down.

Check out this scene from Sherlock Holmes and see how the plan gave far more details than the action did–but it informed the action, and that’s what we’re going for here.

 

Whiddle the Action Down to the Most Essential Parts

Consider POV for this. In First Person …

  • MC steps out front door
  • MC is electrocuted

In Third Person …

  • MC steps out front door
  • Guy1 tases MC
  • Guy2 catches MC
  • Guy1 and Guy2 carry MC away

Once you have your scene prepared, you’re ready to address tempo–which we’ll do next week!

If you’re in Northern Utah this Saturday, come to the Viridian Center in West Jordan for an amazing afternoon with authors and illustrators! It’s a book fair, so you can get a head start on your Christmas shopping PLUS take some writing classes for FREE! Hope to see you there!

ali-cross

Next up: POW #5: Order in Action – Tempo

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POW #5: Order in Action – Tempo

| About Writing

Choreography last week, tempo this week? What is this, salsa lessons? I promise, this has everything to do with writing action!

First, we need to revisit the two essential questions from Week Four’s lesson. The answer to these questions will determine your treatment of the scene.

Is it an event that the character simply needs to pass through, to get to what lays beyond? Say they need to recover a sword but the bad guy is blocking his path to his car which he needs to escape.

It’s pretty straight forward and it’s all about getting from A to B, or providing an element necessary for the plot to progress.

OR

Is this scene essential to character development? Is defeating the bad guy and retrieving the sword going to reveal something about the character, or help them develop a necessary attribute?

If your scene is plot driven, you’ll want to …

  • include very few details
  • focus on the action
  • write it similarly to your action plan, like a blow-by-blow of action.

Plot Driven

  • Need very few details
  • Action-based
  • Generally fast-paced, “blow-by-blow”

Here’s an example of a plot driven scene from Magic Without Mercy by Devon Monk. Note the short, even one-word sentences. The down-to-business feel of the writing.

magic

Men and women with black holes where their eyes should be, mouths filled with too many teeth, shifted forward, lining the street behind us. Not just one person or two. A lot. Way too many.

They paused.

Then rushed.

“Run!”

We ran.

They were closing in on us. Fast. Too fast.

The car was just a few yards away. The demons gaining on us.

We’d never make it to the car before they swarmed over us.

Shit, shit, shit. My gun wouldn’t stop them. My knife wouldn’t cut them. The only thing that worked on demons was magic. And I didn’t have any.

About fifty yards from the car, Mike stopped. He growled, head down, fangs bared. He wasn’t running. Wasn’t flying. He just stood in the middle of the street, growling at the demons.

“Mike!” I called. “Run. Get in the damn car!”

But Mike did not move.

The demons shot past me. I smelled the rotted-meat stink of them. Their fingers scraped and slapped as they crashed in a wave and streamed past me.

Aiming straight for Mike.

But what if your scene is character driven? In that case, you’ll want to …

  • keep the details personal
  • focus on the character
  • some action may be missed, or purposely dismissed, in favor of internal thought.

Check out this example from Hell Bent by Devon Monk:

hellImpact.

It blasted through the room like a sonic wave. Threw me off my feet. An entire ocean of magic pounded and roared through the room.

Crushing us.

I couldn’t breathe. Tasted blood.

Tumbled, hit my back, shoulder, head, into something metal, felt my spine crack. Felt Terric’s pain too: arm, shoulder, neck. Could not tell where he was, or hell, where I was.

Ran out of air.

Drowning. Drowning in magic.

Then Terric was there, standing above me. A goddamn angel with alien eyes. He did something with Life magic that made my ears ring with an ungodly chorus of sound. My head spiked with pain.

And then I could breathe, I could think. I stood. A little woozy, but kept my feet. It felt like they’d aimed the entire ocean of magic at me.

Get a grip, Flynn.

I stuck my hand on Terric’s chest, drew off the Life magic burning through him until he stopped glowing and some sanity came back into his eyes.

Situation: the room was filled with a snarling maelstrom of magic that burned across the ceiling, walls, floor, picking up metal, debris and glass and spinning it through the room like a caged tornado.

I love that scene. Notice how we don’t actually see the absolute violence of the scene until the very end when Shame finally takes notice of it? Up until then, he’s worried about the people he loves, the magic inside him. It’s very personal, very character driven!

General Notes on Tempo, Regardless of Plot or Character Driven

  • Vary the speed; take the time to describe one move in detail, while another is described with one word
  • Vary long sentences with short.
  • Use one-word paragraphs.
  • Consider your reader–even readers who love action will get bored if the fighting goes on and on

Next up: POW #6: Write Wisely!

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POW #6: Write Wisely

| About Writing

We’ve come to the end of our How to Write Action Scenes that Pack a Punch series with the W in our POW formula!

pow-spelled-out

There are two important steps in making sure your action scene is written wisely–choosing the right words and using the right voice.

Expand Your Vocabulary

Get to know the language of your scene. Imagine you’re story is a country you’ve gone to visit and you need to know the language to get along. For instance, if you’re writing a chase scene, the language of that “country” would be RPM, or grinding gears, drift, burning rubber, velocity, smoke, squeal, nitro/nitrace, shifting gears, clutch, chassis, pistons, etc.

Even if your reader doesn’t know what those words mean, they’ll understand them in context and you won’t be distracting them with explanations.

car-chase-police-helicopter

Use Strong, Active Verbs

The words you choose have the power to convey so much–don’t be lazy in your selection. Let’s take a look at an example:

Original (by Devon Monk):
Shame stood at the edge of the water, the gun in his hand.

What does this sentence tell you? What can you infer about Shame’s state of mind, the scene, or what might come from the sentence above?

Rewrite:
Shame paced the water’s edge, the gun gripped in his hand.

What more do you understand about Shame and the situation he’s in by the change in these two words? Try changing it up yourself by switching out the words and see what other emotions or tone you can convey.

You can also do this for action:

Original (by Devon Monk):
The bullet cut through Shame’s chest, and he fell to the sand.

Rewrite:
The bullet shattered Shame’s chest, crushing him to the sand.

The rewrite shows impact, tells you how much damage was done, paints a picture of the scene more thoroughly. Try it yourself and see what else you can do with a simple thing like word choice.

There Should be Nothing Passive About Action Scenes

In an Active Voice Sentence, the SUBJECT performs the ACTION.

The Veiled swarmed over Stone.
(The Veiled are our subject, and swarmed is our action. The Veiled swarmed.)

In a Passive Voice Sentence, The TARGET OF THE ACTION gets promoted to the SUBJECT POSITION.

Stone was swarmed by the Veiled. Or, worse, you’ll often see variations like, Stone was being swarmed by the Veiled. (Now the subject of the sentence is Stone, but he isn’t doing any action.)

For optimal reading enjoyment, place the action as close to the subject as possible. Doing so will allow you to avoid other passive-voice maladies.

Annnndddd! There you have it, folks! How to Write Action Scenes that Pack a Punch. I hope you’ve found this series helpful! I hope you’ll refer back to it often, and share it with your friends!

pow_titleslide

Stay tuned for next week when we’ll start working on formatting print books!

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