I realized during revision this summer that I actually hate writing action scenes. And it requires very little introspection to figure out why: I never read them.
Well, not carefully. I read plenty of books that contain action scenes, but I let my eye elide most of what’s going on. In most, but not all, action sequences, I don’t care enough to want to picture every single movement — I just want to get the gist of it and understand the emotional beats that I do care about.
For me as a reader, most action scenes are the hurdles I have to vault to get to the parts of the story I really care about: the characters and their reactions to things. This is why, when left to my own devices, I will allow my narrators to beat the story to death by going into minute detail about what everyone is thinking and why. It’s also why I treasure writers whose work makes me care about action sequences.
I know what happens between Peter and Miraz in the battle-by-individual-combat at the end of Prince Caspian because C. S. Lewis’s clear, practical, and character-focused voice works for me. I remember the details of Quidditch matches but not the Battle of Hogwarts because the way the former were written engaged me more. In fact, I remember most literary action as a couple key images that stood out for me… and then I can tell you who won? Lost? Was injured?
Obviously, the idea of “action sequences” covers wide ground. I consider action to be anything that isn’t dialogue or inner monologue — anything that could be seen on a movie screen or comic-book spread. And some types of action do engage me: I’m there for training sequences, romantic encounters, and how-to descriptions. (For instance, Swiss Family Robinson and The Children of the New Forest were among my favourites growing up.)
But sometimes I need to write the kind of scene I skip. My characters need to be in a fight or break into a building, and though this is what the story is telling me it needs, I want to have written it, not to write it right now.
My first problem is, it’s harder for me to maintain pacing through action than through dialogue. (For me — not necessarily in general!) Particularly, I turned toward first-person voices when I was in high school and haven’t looked back. That makes it difficult for me to keep the pacing tight enough to make the reader feel in-the-moment with the narrator, simultaneously make sure the actual action is clear enough for the reader to follow what’s going on, and still have the narrator notice what makes sense for her to notice in that situation.
I know my narrators tend to default toward confusion, sensation, and instinctive responses, in part because that’s the way I feel like I’d deal with sudden violence or athletics, but also because writing those down makes it easier to maintain the fast pacing I want, without sacrificing the character’s voice.
(Now that I’ve written that, I do wonder whether I’d be better at action sequences in the third person. But all my current projects are first-person. And there are a lot of them. So, moot point, for now.)
My second problem is, I start to doubt myself partway through any action sequence. In my first draft, I am not having any fun writing it. It’s tough to imagine that any reader could possibly have fun reading it.
Intellectually, I know that’s not true — once I’m finished them, I enjoy re-reading my action scenes as much as I enjoy reading anything I’ve written (aka depends on how I’m feeling now, how I was feeling when I wrote it, what other writing I’ve just read, the weather outside, the phase of the moon…) But it sure does feel hopeless half the time I’m writing them.
Which is why they tend to turn into dialogue or inner dialogue the second I let my focus waver. And though that works for the moment, the same way patching a broken kiddie pool with duct tape (true story!) keeps the water in for a couple more splashes, unplanned dialogue tends to pull me down the dead-end rabbit hole of things that don’t actually work for my plot. So I spend another few hours trying to twist the story this way and that but finally end up having to go back to the damn original scene, cutting all the gabbing and the filler, and starting again. As you can imagine, my confidence in my own writing at that point is not stellar.
And for the hat trick, I also have trouble teasing out the original aspects of my action scenes. For instance, in pretty much every first draft I’ve written, there are about three different action scenes that all serve different purposes… and all feel the same for the reader.
Oh, another fistfight? It doesn’t matter that the first one was on a rooftop, the second between two rivals who’ve known each other since childhood, and the third took place between a professional boxer and a plucky teenage detective whilst the timer on the bomb counted down to zero. They all feel like the same brawl… because once I’ve found a pattern of writing that works, I beat it into the ground.
More charitably, I suppose it could be the result of the fact that all the writing I have to drag out sounds alike. It sounds like each word is an effort, because it is.
Either way, afterward in revision, I have to think really hard about what every action scene is supposed to do — whether I’ve tossed it in there to break up the talking heads (bad! That can’t be its only purpose!), what the characters want, and how it moves the story forward. Plus, the epic sword duel at the climax should feel very different from the protagonist’s fencing match at the beginning, and I need to find the way to make that happen.
At least that last difficulty has a straightforward path to solution: watch/read some great action.
For instance, manga/anime like One Piece and Naruto do a great job of making each fight feel fresh, despite plots that pit the protagonists against scary baddies in battle after battle. They make sure each character’s fighting style illustrates their personality and their abilities. Same with the battles in great Western cartoons like Steven Universe or Adventure Time. (Bonus, all those series develop action set pieces in worlds where the people fighting have magic powers/weapons with magic powers.)
Epic blockbusters show how to hook action sequences on a set of memorable, unique moments. Think of (the only OK DCEU movie) Wonder Woman, the image of Diana deflecting bullets, wrists crossed. Steve Rogers spread stretched pulling a helicopter back to the ground or Peter Parker swinging between skyscrapers. The “I am not left-handed” duel in The Princess Bride. Luke clinging for dear life, newly an amputee, as Darth Vader extends a “helping” hand. Iconic images and lines mean that those action sequences feel like no others — one mental tableau is enough for us to identify them.
You can see the difference by comparison: for example, fight scenes in Star Trek TOS blend into a melee of punches and the ever-popular chop-the-other-guy’s-back (though Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch is effective at making Star Trek fights more unique). Or Adam West’s Batman, which feels unique from other shows with the “bam!” and “socko!” overlays, but whose actual fights feel repetitive from episode to episode.
Or at least, I hope I can see the difference. I hope that I can learn to understand what I like about action sequences in text-based and visual media (and maybe audio too? Hello there, storytelling podcasts.) And I hope that I can apply those lessons to my own writing.