In this episode, Clark and I critique a scene from Beneath the Crypt, a middle grade fantasy novel by Alex Heath. We talk about how to evaluate and revise your action scenes. When characters fight, chase each other, or engage in acts of derring-do, it can be hard to keep track of all the moving parts. Often, the clear image of how the action unfolds in our minds doesn’t make it into the story. If you unpack what’s happening in your action scene, you can make sure that it does everything you intend, and nothing you don’t.
Listen to the Writership Podcast
Wise Words on Action Scenes
Additional Resources and Links
Want to find out what Henry did to upset the thief of Carcassone? Read on here.
Clark mentioned that the most realistic fight scene he’s observed is in Old Boy with Josh Brolin.
John Wick with Keanu Reeves is a movie with fight scenes that are realistic in how they portray the combatants’ energy.
To find great examples of dialogue in action scenes, check out Spider-Man comics.
Editorial Mission—Unpack Your Action Scenes
In episode 67, we asked you to look at model fight and other action scenes to help you revise your work. This week, we want you to unpack your own action scenes.
Use an action scene you’ve written and record what you observe in a list of what happens in the scene. Add every instance, one per line, of the following:
- action a character takes (e.g., character throws a punch)
- piece of information that’s revealed (e.g., character notices the bad guy has a knife)
- result or consequence (e.g., man falls to the ground)
Once you’ve exhausted everything you can think of about the scene, put the items in chronological order. Here’s an example:
- Fred slashed at Joe’s face with his knife.
- Joe ducked under Fred’s arm.
- Joe kicked the side of Fred’s right knee.
- Fred shouted.
- Fred fell to the ground.
- Fred dropped the knife.
- Joe grabbed Fred’s wrist with both hands.
- Joe twisted Fred’s wrist.
- Joe felt the bones crack.
- Joe felt relieved.
- Joe saw Fred’s friend walking toward him.
This is a simplistic list, but it will give you a clear view of what you have and what you need. When you're done, review the list and ask yourself these questions:
- Does it make sense?
- Have you missed any crucial actions, pieces of information, or results?
- Does each element appear in the best place in the sequence?
Next, consider the setting and where people and objects are, especially in relation to one another. I recommend drawing a diagram and using small tokens (I use Lego minifigures) to show keep track of people and objects, especially if you have a battle or an action/fight scene that involves more than two or three people.
Think about visibility. Is it a crowded street, the woods at night? What can your POV character actually observe (sights and sounds)? Does this affect the action as you’ve laid it out?
Once you’ve done all this, then revise your scene. You could approach this in different ways. You could use your new understanding of the scene to revise the one you’ve already written, write it from scratch, or begin weaving the sentences in the list together into a scene.
Why go through all this work? Action scenes are intense, fast-paced, and often contain several different elements. Sometimes the author has such a clear vision of the scene as a whole, as if it’s a video playing in their minds, that they don’t see and record the individual elements to transfer that conception to the reader’s mind. Unpacking what you’ve put on the page can help you discover if anything is missing.
Please remember this is a tool for revision! I wouldn’t mess with the minutiae while writing an early draft, but when you review it, if you deconstruct the action this way, you can be sure that what you imagine in your mind’s eye ends up in the story.
Editing Advice to Our Author
Thanks so much for your submission! Beneath the Crypt sounds like a fun adventure story, and Henry and Aurélie are great characters to play with. Even though we’re jumping into the middle of the story with no other introduction to the characters, it was easy to follow. The approach of the mysterious figure is a great hook to pull us into this scene, and the open question you leave us with at the end of the scene is intriguing and would make it hard to put the book down.
Clark and I focused on action scenes for this episode, and I think you’ve done a nice job of conveying who is doing what, where, and when, which as we mention in the episode can be a bit tricky. Although combatants in a fight don’t have time for a lot of reflection (unless one is skilled and facing an unworthy opponent), I think you could make the scene stronger with more reaction from Henry. I’d love to know about Henry’s experience in the fight, what he’s feeling physically and emotionally, and how he reacts what’s unfolding.
One example is when the thief faces Henry, and we get a pretty good look at the black-clad figure through Henry’s POV—with the exception of his face, of course. We see what he’s wearing, that the only armor he’s employed is a helmet, and that he is thin and lightly built (which could possibly clue the reader in to his identity or not depending on your intent and what you’ve revealed before this scene). We also see his weapon and that he is advancing on Henry with apparent violent intent. In the next paragraph, we see that Henry is scared and not sure what to do, but don’t know if he is generally scared or if something he’s seen and concluded about his opponent evoked the reaction. If you were to weave in a direct connection between his observations and what he does, the details you reveal would be immediately relevant to the scene before us rather than only the description of a character.
We noticed that you don’t have a lot of dialogue in the scene, and that may be in part due to what’s happening. As it opens, Henry and Aurélie are resting and wouldn’t necessarily be speaking. The thief is trying to avoid revealing is identity, so he might not want to speak if his voice is distinctive. Consider if there are opportunities when Henry or Aurélie might say a word or two periodically to break up the narrative and alter the pace.
We can’t assess this from only one scene, but wanted to mention this because it’s important in fantasy stories. The magic used in an action scene should be consistent with how magic is used in the story world in general. This is a helpful item to add to a revision checklist for anyone who writes speculative fiction.
For picky stuff, we flagged a few echoes and awkward phrasing in our comments. We spotted some places where specific verbs would enable you to cut some adverbs.
Note: We’ve labelled this middle grade fiction, but other factors within the story could tip it into young adult.
We appreciate your sharing this entertaining scene with us, Alex! Thanks again for trusting us with your words!
All the best,Leslie & Clark
Line Edits for Our Mystery Story
Image courtesy of NejroN Phot/bigstockphoto.com.