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How to Write Action Scenes that Explode Off the Page

How to Write Action Scenes that Explode Off the Page
Written by Nick Brown

Whether in modern thrillers, historical adventures, or science-fiction epics, knowing how to write action scenes can energize your novel and keep the reader turning the page.

I have written dozens of these and have always enjoyed the process. I hope what follows will assist you in crafting your own.

Below, I have identified three key aspects of action scenes in any genre. We will then use these criteria to improve an example.

The Essentials

Clarity. It is crucial that the reader understand exactly what is going on. In the case of a complicated battle sequence, for example, the writer must help create a clear picture of who is where and what is happening. The last thing you want is for the reader to feel lost or confused, so being organized is paramount.

Power. The scene has to make an impact and stand out from the rest of the prose. The use of strong verbs and vivid descriptions will draw the reader in. You want them to feel as if they are running alongside your protagonist, feeling every blow.

Detail. Small, specific details will help you build a believable scene. They will also assist you in achieving the other two key aspects described above.

How to Write Action Scenes - a Working Example

Here, we will write several drafts to develop a short action scene. Here is the first version:

Emma ran down the street and took cover behind a car. The robbers were already on their way out of the bank. She drew her gun.

Adding Clarity

Okay, the basics are in place but it's rather vague. Have we given any context? Put the reader in a scene they can imagine? Will they understand exactly who and what is where?

Emma flashed her ID as she passed the uniformed officers already forming a cordon. She ran down the street and past a fleeing trio of girls. Thankfully, there were no civilians close by. The bank was on the right side of the road. Just as she took cover behind a car, the doors opened. One robber appeared, then another.

So now we know a bit more about the 'geography' of the setting and what the main players are doing.

Adding Power

How can we make the scene more powerful? Add life and immediacy?

A crucial aspect of knowing how to write action scenes is language. Time to bring in those powerful verbs and vivid descriptions.

Emma flashed her ID as she passed the uniformed officers already forming a cordon. She sprinted down the street, dodging an abandoned motorbike and a fleeing trio of girls. Thankfully, there were no other civilians close by. The bank was on the right side of the road; a dark building with WESTERN COMMERCIAL rendered in red letters. Just as she took cover behind a car, the doors of the bank flew open. One robber shot out, then another, both clad in overalls and ski-masks.

Now we have a more compelling picture in our minds. There is always a narrow dividing line between giving the reader too much and too little. If in doubt, study the work of authors who write action well (some recommendations: Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy, Joe Abercrombie).

Adding Detail

What the scene needs now is more detail:

Emma flashed her ID as she passed the uniformed officers already forming a cordon. She sprinted along the street, dodging an abandoned motorbike and a fleeing trio of teenage girls. Thankfully, there were no other civilians close by. The bank was on the right side of the road; a dark building with WESTERN COMMERCIAL rendered in blocky, red letters. Just as she took cover behind a brown sedan, the doors of the bank flew open.

One robber shot out, then another, both clad in overalls and ski-masks. Only the first man was armed: he held a sawn-off shotgun in one hand.

Emma drew her automatic and aimed at his chest. "Armed police. Freeze!”

It’s not perfect – and it probably won't win us any awards - but it’s considerably better than the first attempt. Clarity, Power, and Detail have transformed a quick piece of “tell” into an exciting “show”.

Executed well, action can be as effective on the little page as it can on the big screen. I invite you to try your hand.

About Nick Brown

Nick Brown is the British author of the 'Agent of Rome' historical adventure series. The sixth book, 'The Earthly Gods', is published this summer. As a freelance writer, he has also 'ghosted' science fiction novels and contemporary thrillers. His website is nickbrownauthor.com.

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