Why space battles, fated duels, and cavalry charges never read as well as you picture them in your head
After setting the stage for this heart-pounding action sequence for thousands of words it’s finally time to get it down on the page. By now it has been choreographed down to the side-glance and you can describe it beat for beat, so you do, but when you read back through it’s all wrong.
In the onslaught of micro-second reactions, lovingly described with all appropriate adjectives, the tension and the drama dry up and all your left with is a tedious chess commentator trying very hard to drop enough keywords to let you know that, “this is tense and dramatic, guys!”
There are three main types of mistakes writers make with action sequences. We’ll call them:
They pop up over and over again. Sometimes you’ll even see all three as a writer figures out their scene isn’t working and tries to course-correct without having to kill their darlings. We’re going to break down each one to talk about why they happen and how to fix them.
Shot-For-Shot action scenes try to re-create the feel of the movie theater. The narration attempts to describe – long form – everything that’s happening, prioritizing the audio-visual events of the scene.
Writers inspired by great film combat or anime fight scenes often fall down this rabbit hole while trying to capture a feeling from a striking moment they fell in love with.
The reason it doesn’t work is simple enough: novels, short-stories, and poetry don’t have background music. In film, directors can maintain emotionality without dialogue by playing poignant music, or indulge in the dialogue and angst but still hold tension through a slow motion shot with heart pounding audio.
Without the music to carry the tone, a straight description of events comes off dry and tedious. The solution, generally, is to let up on the reigns. Set your point of view to track your protagonist’s state of mind, or – with ensembles of 3rd person omniscient stories – dip in and out of areas of conflict at moments of greatest intensity.
Adrenaline tends to narrow a person’s focus. There can be a sense of slow motion, but that’s because our attention has precision-located what it sees as the point of greatest threat. That means if you are narrating individual gunshots, sword thrusts, or cannonballs, and there’s a fire 12 feet away, you’re not going to talk about it until the most immediate danger is in, around, or coming through the fire.
You can use the wordcount you’ll save to build and hold tension and tone.
Fake It Till You Make It
Fake It Till You Make It is the equal and opposite mistake to Shot-For-Shot. The actual action is obscured behind vague descriptive terms and general emotional language. Occasionally, there will be a reference to weapons and what they are doing without any immediate context.
Writers do this for a couple of reasons: The less action-oriented writer might not have a clear idea what should happen so much as the effect they want it to have. Others have been burned by hammering out 2 thousand words of explicitly described action, only to end up with something utterly unreadable.
This is probably the easiest problem to fix. Fake It Till You Make It action scenes are often too short, having been collapsed down into a foggy sort of conflict-soup. Air it out and provide a little restorative show-don’t-tell by developing some tableaus to flesh out and scatter around. Properly spaced out, with your original version for tone and emotional context, it gives more of a long-view, fog of war impression of the scene that still conveys what you need without zooming so far out we loose the sense of urgency.
This bastard spawn of the cinematic style tries to keep the pace of action moving by truncating the description into relevant jargon. Sure, the reader is going to have to stop and google what a fleche is, but your sentence structure is on point. If a writer drops the term “weather gage” in an Age of Sail battle sequence without any explanation of what that means, that’s the Jargonnaut.
Jargonnaught action is usually the culmination of a writer’s vast acquired knowledge from research. They’ve just learned all of these extremely useful words that demonstrate how well they understand their subject, and succinctly describe the action. It makes them feel confident and leaves plenty of room to address the character’s response without bogging everything down. It’s also incomprehensible to a recreational reader.
Jargonnaught scenes aren’t too hard to fix, but some writers may need an outside eye to read it over and let them know where they’ve gone too far. Once you’ve got the more esoteric language located, you can go in and use more general terms. Sometimes you can even remove the sentence altogether without having too much effect on how the scene reads over all
As always, there is no substitute for hard work. Now is the time to take these concepts out for a test drive. Dig up that fight scene you couldn’t quite make work, recreate one from film, or take a shot at something you’ve been thinking about. Write, revise, refine, keep these action writing dos and don’ts in mind, and find your action scene sweet spot.