Pulling on my editors hat (green, floppy brim, bit Stone Roses) today to offer some hints about writing action scenes from an editors point of view. As always, this is just how I’d do it and what I’d like to see, and your mileage may vary wildly.
I have found when editing books for other people that I’m making the same comments over and over again when editing action scenes, so I thought I’d summarize them in a neat post here in the hope that someone may find it useful.
- NOT JUST FIGHTING
An action scene is a scene, right, where action is happening, right, hence the name “action scene”. As opposed to a “sitting down having a cup of tea and a nice chat” scene. It doesn’t just mean fighting. It can also mean running / climbing / swimming / wrestling / having sex etc. If it’s a scene where your protagonist is doing something physical with their body (or possibly someone else’s body) , it’s action.
2. MAKE YOUR ACTION MORE ACTIVE
I think anyone who’s ever suffered at the hands of one of my edits will be wincing at this one – I think it’s the editorial note I use the most often. Often the action scenes I see are very mechanical – “Dave hit Brian and then Brian hit Dave.” On Facebook Robyn asked for examples, so :
You could write. “Dave hit Brian on the head. Brian fell down, and Dave stabbed him in the neck. Brian died.”
Or you could try instead something like “Dave struck Brian a ringing blow across the helm, denting the metal. Brian’s knees buckled, and he tumbled to the ground. Before he could regain his senses, Dave was on him, sliding the blade of his dagger into the exposed skin of his throat, right up to the hilt. Blood gushed from the wound. Brian gurgled and twitched as the last breath left his lungs”.
Which brings us to point 3 :
3. MAKE YOUR VERBS DO THE WORK
Verbs are great. No, really they are. Not all the time, because you can overdose on verbs as you can on any words, but the great thing about verbs is you can employ them to do the heavy lifting in your work. Strong verbs, used well, will take a lot of the effort out of the work for you and make your action more active (see point two).
“Dave hit Brian on the head. Brian fell down, and Dave stabbed him in the neck. Brian died”
OR “Dave smashed Brian on the head. Brian collapsed, and Dave stabbed him in the neck. Brian breathed his last.”
Look for your weak verbs (went, hit and got, for example, and try to replace them with stronger ones (fled, crumpled, hammered, bludgeoned, retrieved etc) and see if that makes a difference if you feel your writing needs a little more welly.
4. USE ALL FIVE SENSES
Often I see scenes (I’m kind of focusing on fight scenes here because they’re the ones people seem to want help with) where the writer is describing what the protagonist sees and nothing else. Fights, especially battles, are confusing. They’re noisy, they’re muddled, they’re terrifying, there’s a lot going on and your protag might well be in the thick of it.
Don’t just stick to describing what they see. What do they hear? The boom of cannon fire, magical explosions sizzling, horses and soldiers screaming, the clash of metal on metal, or the grind of metal on bone?
What do they smell? Sweat, bodily excretions, gunpowder, blood, burning flesh? Can they taste metal in the air, blood in their mouth?
And, vitally, what does your protagonist feel?
5. POINT OF VIEW
Which brings us to Point of View (POV). When I’m editing, I want to read something that puts me in the head of the character, looking out through their eyes. I want to see what they see, but, even more crucially, I want to feel what they feel, and a firmly fixed POV will hopefully achieve that. So when Dave goes into battle against poor hapless Brian, I want to feel his arm vibrating from the blow he has just delivered, but I also want to feel his confusion, his terror, his racing heart and his moment of relief that Brian is dead and he’s bought himself a breathing space. In the words of Fighting Fantasy – You Are The Hero. You need to write your hero so I feel I’m in their head, fighting alongside them, feeling their exhaustion., their fear and their elation if they win.
It’s tempting to just write an overview of the fight. I don’t want to see that, as an editor. I want you to get right in there and, instead of telling me about the fight, show me the blood spraying, the crunch of a broken nose under a fist, the slippery mud underfoot, the heat, the smells, the fear. And…
6. DON’T BE AFRAID TO OVER-WRITE
It’s easier to cut an over-written scene than it is to pad out an under-written one, I’ve always found. It’s ok to go nuts, to immerse yourself in the action and write ten pages of bloody squalor for me to cut. I’d rather see that than you writing “Dave hit Brian and Brian died. Then he hit Steve, and Steve ran away. Then Steve’s mum arrived, and she hit Dave…” and watch me cry and tell you off… Don’t be embarrassed to let yourself off the reins and have a bit of fun with it – you enjoy writing, don’t you?
7. BRING IT TO A CLIMAX
All this is especially important if you happen to have a big-ass baddie boss fight / battle at the end of your book. A good climax should leave the reader breathless and a little sweaty and exhausted, so you’d better make sure you give them a good one, and not something limp! *
Ok, that was a lot to read through, so if you’re still here I hope you’ve picked up some good advice. Feel free to ask questions in the comments, add your own tips and pick me up on anything I might have missed.
As your semi-reward for reading this far, I’m going to leave you with an extract from The Art Of Forgetting : Nomad which I hope will provide a good illustration of what I’ve been talking about, or will at least keep you mildly entertained. As always, contains mild spoilers, so if you’re phobic don’t read it. Also contains NSFW language….
A volley of arrows arced high, to slice down like a deadly shower into the ranks of the Queen’s army. Sheets of arrows rained down, but the enemy barely faltered, replying with shots of their own. And then they were on them. Too late for shooting.
Rhodri stashed his bow and drew his sword, plunging into the fray. Instinct took over, made him its instrument. Ducking and weaving from side to side, horse and rider moved as one. Noise and movement, sweat and chaos, red mist drifting from the sky. Metal meeting metal, flesh, bone.
He felt blood spray across his eyes, and blinked it away. A hand seized his leg, and he kicked, booted foot crunching against bone. He felt a searing pain in his calf, but he couldn’t look down at the wound. Intent on dodging the next blow, fending off the next attack, Rhodri fought for his life. For the lives of his family.
One on one now. The disciplined lines broke down. Men grappled, on foot and horseback, slipping and sliding in the churned-up mud that was once a grassy road. Showers of blood mixed with the rain, dripping from Rhodri’s hair into his eyes. Every limb ached. The adrenaline spurring him on was gone. He moved like a machine, no thought but to evade the hits, dodge the tumbling arrows, stay alive a little longer. The idea of reaching the river faded. There was nothing, had never been anything, but the fight, eternal and exhausting.
Liberty stumbled, hooves skidding in the mud and gore, slammed by another horse barging into her side. She slipped, flinging Rhodri from the saddle. As the ground rushed up to meet him he twisted and rolled. Over the sounds of battle, he heard a sickening snap in his right shoulder.
He staggered to his feet, quivering at the shock. Liberty had vanished, carried away by the storm. He was alone.
The horse that ploughed into them lay on its side, screaming, flailing hooves throwing up gobbets of mud. Splintered fragments of bone ruptured the skin of its left foreleg.
The rider lay on his face, one arm flung out, fingers twitching towards the wounded horse’s bridle. There was a chilling familiarity about horse and rider. Rhodri tightened his hand around his hilt, and tried to shift the weight of the shield on his left arm. The movement sent a hot lance of pain along his shoulder into his neck, and he hissed at the flare.
The injured rider sat up, and dragged his horse’s head into his lap. A warrior stumbled between them. Rhodri didn’t see the moment of death, but the screaming stopped abruptly, leaving behind an aching, silent void. A cloud darkened the sun, and the rain returned.
The rider raised his head. One blue eye glittered. The other was a dark slit, unreadable. He thrust the horse aside and leapt to his feet, sword waving. Rhodri stepped back, testing the uncertain ground beneath him. He tried to keep his weak arm steady. Without Liberty, he felt vulnerable and exposed.
Drusain advanced, wiping his eyes. “I thought it was you,” he said. His voice was soft, full of menace. “I’ve been looking for you. I want the honour of killing you myself.”
Rhodri’s muscles tensed as he sized up his opponent. The carnage of the battle faded away. It was just the two of them now. “It won’t be me that dies today, Drusain.”
They circled, slow and cautious, boots dragging in the mud. Two old adversaries, looking for an opening, a weak spot. Rhodri knew his left arm wasn’t up to the fight. He just hoped he could disguise it for long enough.
“You fucking traitor, you make me sick,” Dru goaded him. Rhodri tried to stay calm, not to rise to the taunts. If he lost his head, Dru would strike like a snake.
“At least your father only betrayed his friends. You’ve turned against your country!”
“I’ve heard the lies you spread, Dru. You have no idea . . .” He narrowed his eyes. “I should thank you. You’ve made me a legend!”
“I’ll make you a fucking corpse!” Dru charged in, sword raised, spittle flying from his lips. Rhodri barely had time to bring up his shield. The jarring clash buckled his knees. He gasped.
“Was it your idea to brand your own men, Dru?”
Rhodri ducked the blow whistling past his ear. He rolled to the side, crying out in pain as he brought up the blade. His two-handed strike crunched into the mail of Dru’s thigh. He stumbled, grunting. “Did you do it yourself? I bet it made your cock hard . . .”
Dru flung up his arm to block Rhodri’s furious blade as he recovered his balance, panting. “I love how those savage whores moan. I’ll try out your woman, when I’m done with you!”
Blind anger triumphed over the pain, lent strength to his exhausted limbs. Dru staggered under the onslaught, blows crashing against his shoulders and limbs.
He dropped into a crouch, shield up to protect his face, sword lashing wildly. A lucky strike against Rhodri’s shield split it down the middle, Dru’s blade wedged in the severed wood.
He tried to jerk it loose as they circled each other in a morbid dance. Dru thrust, the tip of his blade lacerating Rhodri’s forearm, blood trickling towards the hilt. Every movement wrought fresh hell in his injured shoulder as he struggled to wrench free.
He pushed against Dru with all his strength, broken bone screaming under the strain. His mouth was full of blood, and darkness gathered at the edge of his vision as his feet scrabbled for purchase in the mud.
Dru’s wide eye brightened. He drew back his mailed fist, powered by the weight of his shield, and slammed it into Rhodri’s collar. There was a crack, a scream, an explosion of pain in his skull. His vision blurred. He had the distant sensation of falling, and then nothing.
*”That’s quite enough, thank you” – extended metaphor ed