Writing an Action Scene

As an editor, I have read many different kinds of novels, all at different stages in their development. As a result, I have a good idea of the common mistakes which tend to crop up in unedited writing.

 

Whether the novel has physical action scenes or drama action scenes, I have found a common mistake which highlights whether a writer has edited their own work or not.

 

The issue can be found in the description - or, more precisely, the lack of description - during a fast-paced moment of intense action.

WHAT DOES THIS MISTAKE LOOK LIKE AND HOW DO YOU SPOT IT IN YOUR OWN WORK?

It’s hard to describe what it looks like since it is a very context-based issue.

Let me give it a go.

 

I’ve taken a paragraph from my own novel and have rewritten it to show my point.

This is the beginning of a new scene:

  1. Malina listened to the woodland sounds around her as an early

  2. bird started chirruping into her ear. All of a sudden a potato came

  3. flying through the air, aimed at her head, then WHAM! A

  4. watermelon. Her head collided with the pavement.

  5. Malina looked up into the afternoon sun and grumbled. She slowly

  6. shuffled under a market stall and found a bag of ammo. She hid

  7. her loaf of bread in one of the pockets of her cloak and crawled

  8. into the street.

  9. The bullies stood beside her, smirking.

What is wrong with this action sequence?

Let’s pull it apart.

  1. Line 1 tells us we’re in a woodland - so why are there potatoes and market stalls in lines 2 and 4?
     

  2. Line 1 suggests woodland floor while line 4 tells us Malina is on the pavement and line 8 tells us she is in a street. Confused, much?
    What do the surroundings look like? Where is this scene taking place?
     

  3. Line 2 suggests the dawn chorus in the early hours of the morning while line 5 tells us our MC is under an ‘afternoon sun’.
    Roughly what time of day is it?
    What is the weather like?
     

  4. Line 6: ‘a bag of ammo’ is so vague! Is she going to shoot people? With a gun? A bow? A crossbow? What does the ammo look like? What is it for? And why is it under a market stall?
    All this needs is a small amount of description of the ammo and all this confusion will be gone.
     

  5. Only in line 7 do we find out a bit about what the MC looks like; she’s carrying a loaf of bread and wears a cloak.
    Why bread?
    What colour is the cloak?

    This passage is in need of clearer description and more description.

So now you know roughly what the issue looks like, you need to know how to recognise this mistake in your own work.

My advice:

  • Write your first draft with reckless abandon, shelve it for two weeks, then come back and read it.

  • Do your best to read it as if you don’t know the story, the setting, and the characters etc.

  • Picture the scenes in your head like it’s a movie. Are there any scenes that are difficult to picture? Are there any sentences that seem a bit vague?

  • If in doubt, have a friend or family member read it (pick someone who tends to be negative!). They will soon spot any action passages that need clearer/more description.

BUT HOW DO YOU FIX THE ISSUE?

Pick it apart like I have done with my own writing and ask questions that could clarify the scene.

  • What does the MC look like?

  • What do the surroundings look like?

  • What time of day is it?

  • What is the weather doing?

  • What is the MC feeling (emotionally & physically)?

  • What is the mood of the scene?

During an action sequence, don’t be afraid to take a pause from fast-paced sentences to give your readers a bit of context!

Take it slowly.

Let your readers understand the context before you jump straight into the action.

Just for further demonstration, here is the fixed passage from my novel:

  1. The harbour was lined with pubs and fishermen. Malina mapped

  2. her way through the busy market in her head and set off through

  3. the sea of stalls. Her long, black, moth-eaten cloak swaying

  4. around her ankles.

  5. As she walked between the stalls, an uneasy feeling came across

  6. her. Somebody was following.

  7. All of a sudden, a potato came flying through the air, aimed at her

  8. head then, WHAM. A watermelon. She should have known it was

  9. them following her; the boys who had bullied her all her life. Her

  10. head collided with the pavement and everything went black.

  11. Malina grumbled. She slowly shuffled under a market stall and

  12. found a bag full of pears. Perfect ammo. She hid the pears in

  13. one of the many pockets of her cloak then crawled into the next

  14. street. The boys were stood right beside her and fell about

  15. laughing.

Further description:

Line 1: ‘Harbour’, ‘pubs and fishermen’

Line 2: ‘busy market’

Line 3: ‘sea of stalls’, ‘long, black, moth-eaten cloak’ (tells us what the MC looks like).

Line 12: ‘a bag full of pears. Perfect ammo’.

Line 14: ‘right beside her’ - helps us understand which characters are where.

 

Emotion and mood:

Line 5: ‘uneasy feeling’

 

Context:

Line 7: The extra description makes ‘potato’ fit with the content (the same goes for ‘pavement’ (line 10), ‘market stall (line 11), and ‘street’ (line 14).

Line 9: ‘the boys who had bullied her all her life’ - explains where the potatoes and watermelon came from: the boys/bullies.