How to Write Killer Action Sequences

The man sitting on the mat across from me was far too calm. Not a speck of worry in his eyes. Only a smirk tempting his lips.

He dug his knee into my stomach, pinning me to the ground. His sharp forearm dug into my throat. I coughed as I lost air. Vision bleary, I tried to buck him off like a crazed rodeo bronco. And I knew it was useless as he tightened around my neck like an anaconda.

I coughed once more. I heard the blood flow in my inner ears. Pounding. Slowing. Stopping.

And the whole time, his eyes stayed calm as mine darkened into sleep.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

After eight months of obsession, tireless practice, and repetition I moved from a white belt to a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). If you’re not familiar with that martial art, think of wrestling with joint locks and chokeholds. Virtually every professional fighter in the mixed martial art (MMA) community focuses heavily on BJJ. If a fight moves to the ground (and nearly 90% of fights do), then you’d better know BJJ.

As a white belt for the first eight months, I was only allowed to wrestle. Once I got my blue belt, I could practice submissions safely since I knew the fundamentals.

This rule was in place so I wouldn’t accidentally hurt someone, and so I would have some comprehension as to how and why my ass would be handed to me the second I ranked up.

In case you haven’t met me, if I have my mind set on something, I will get it no matter how long it takes.

I’m stupidly determined.

After the guy choked me out, I demanded a rematch… thirty times. Until the dojo closed and I had to leave for the night.

I hadn’t submitted him once. But after that night, no one could submit me from that chokehold ever again.

My voice was raspy for a week because of how many times my neck had been wrenched at awkward angles.

Sherlock Holmes

Up until that point, I’d always imagined that if I ever got in a fight, time would slow and my mind would race through multiple scenarios like Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes, walking through the fight and manipulating the opponent’s movements in a brilliant masterpiece.

That’s so not true.

In the moment of a fight, you rely on instincts, on training, on whatever the heck you’ve got. If you’ve got nothing, then you panic and thrash mindlessly, praying that something lands.

 

Most writers over-describe every fricking second

Example:

Rob placed all his weight to the left and shifted to the ball of his foot, ready for action. He took a moment for Tim’s punch to miss before swiveling his hips to the left, raising to the ball of his left foot, and extending his right shin to meet beneath Tim’s ribcage – rewarded by a sickening crack.  

All that to describe a well-timed roundhouse kick to the ribs. If you do that with every blow in a fight, the reader will have to act it out to be able to follow along! It’s far too intricate to visualize. Unfortunately, this is the prevailing writing method with action.

Here’s an off-the-cuff edit I’d personally do to revamp that same situation to make it more engaging:

Rob stayed light on his feet. Tim’s punch came reckless, exposing his chest. An easy dodge. Rob sprung with a deafening roundhouse to the chest. Ribs caved. The sickening crunch of bones echoed off the walls.

Focus on the impact of the hit, the strategy behind a move, or the agility in bobbing and weaving. But never focus on detailing a step-by-step fight scene.

 

Need For Speed

When fighting, time seems to move faster than normal. To create the flurried fighting speed, shorten your sentences. Make them punchy.

Yes, that pun was very intentional.

The reader’s eyes start moving faster over short sentences. String a bunch of short sentences together and they’re flying down the page.

If you want multiple pages describing a couple seconds of action then describe the WHY behind the action instead of the HOW.Fight Science

Don’t show me how your character swiveled on the ball of his foot as he wound up for a kick. That’s boring and so many writers fall into this trap. It’s overdone, cliche.

Instead, show why your character chooses a particular move. Let us in their head as they size up their opponent. If they’re fighting a huge bouncer they have to take out efficiently, tell me how many pounds of pressure it takes to hyperextend the knee. Tell me why that’s the easiest way to attack a man of that size, and why it’s so effective. You could tell me what style of martial arts that stems from if you feel like it. You’d educate me and I’d respect your character’s knowledge.

Showing why behind the move gives your audience respect for an otherwise rapid and overlooked action.

 

Know your style.

There are countless styles of martial arts. If your character is an assassin and he tries to knock someone out with a kick, unless it’s a traditional Asian martial arts series, I will discredit any authority you have.

An assassin is likely to be trained in any combination of styles like Aikido, Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai, Krav Maga, Judo, Filipino Kali, Wing Chun, and/or Eskrima. All of those styles have something in common: efficiency.

Krav Maga

Head kicks are not efficient.

If your assassin dons a karate stance, I won’t believe in his capabilities as an assassin. Do your research on different styles. And depending on geography, time period, and accessibility it could drastically alter the style.

Note: be especially careful with anything involving the military. Each branch has their own training regimen. Each is very distinct to the trained eye.

Wikipedia offers a breakdown of every martial art style, their history, major contributors to the art, how it’s evolved over the years, and who primarily uses it. Youtube has countless step-by-step guides on how to do specific moves. This is an effective way to come up with some ideas if you need some creative sequences.


Question of the day: What are your thoughts on action sequences? Sometimes annoying? Sometimes awesome?

 

22 Comments

  1. I try to do action sequences—medieval weapons, not hand to hand, my background being largely SCA combat—as flashes, with the parts between left out.

    The tall woman moved with frightening grace, but Garo had armor and shield and she didn’t. A blow straight down at his helm. He blocked with his shield, stepped forward swinging low. Her leg wasn’t there, the sword a line of fire down his forearm. He stepped back, felt his grip loosening. Back again, stumbled over a body, shield swinging up as he fell.

    (From my _Harald_, published by Baen)

    The next we see of him he’s a corpse.

    • bdschmitt

      May 19, 2015 at 9:12 am

      Thanks for sharing an excerpt of your work with me, David! The same principle still applies whether an action scene is with swords or fists: focus on the emotion, speed, and danger instead the physical movements.

      With the section you shared, David, I like the foundation you have. I would break it down even further. I had to read it twice before I felt like I knew how each character was moving because it was detailed. It slowed down the potential speed of the scene as I tried to visualize where everything was.

      The goal of action is to make the reader feel the action, not show them how each character strikes every blow. Make the reader feel danger, not re-read the sequence for clarity.

      Thanks for sharing, David!

  2. The one I see most often is the author who researched something at length and wants to show off that new knowledge by putting every fact into the text. This is the ugly side of “write what you know.” They know it, but they don’t understand it.

    Normally, I see this with firearms or cars, where we get a rundown of the specs of the hardware being used, but it also plays into the first point above; the one about not including every detail.

    I write mainly hard-boiled detective fiction. I’ve physically studied 9 different martial arts to some degree, and about 50 more in book research. I was never terribly good at any of them, but I can describe the hell out of things. But I don’t. I know my guy can punch. The reader should expect my guy to know how to punch. There’s no reason to describe how his shoulders roll and his arm extends, rotating slightly once it reaches the half-way point, the hand squeezing a non-existent marble in preparation for the impact. I’ll just say I tagged him with a right cross. Adding superfluous detail only draws attention to any errors that might be there due to a lack of understanding.

    If the guy comes in with a knife and the hero executes an irimi-nage (cause the word looks cool), the attacker is not going to wind up in a joint lock. Irimi-nage is the “clothesline” from aikido.

    Too much detail can be fatal in more ways than merely being boring.

    • bdschmitt

      May 19, 2015 at 9:26 am

      Hi Bill, thank you for your insights! That is a very good point. I have read many writers who overcompensate. The principle of showing power, emotion, or danger always reigns supreme in an action sequence over showing how someone moves.

      When I first started practicing martial arts, it was a temptation for me to show off my knowledge. It backfired. And now I simplify rather than over-explain.

  3. This is really great stuff, Ben. As I was reading, I already had in mind to ask you where to go to learn about these fighting styles, and sure enough, you gave some recommendations at the end.

    I agree with you about keeping sentences short and punchy. I remember reading a book on writing by Dean Koontz a few years ago that’s been long out of print (can’t imagine why) where he suggested your sentences should create the effect you want your reader to imagine, and that’s exactly what you’ve described here.

    I’m working on a combat story right now, so I’ll keep your advice in mind as I’m working on it.

    • bdschmitt

      May 19, 2015 at 5:30 pm

      Hi Tom, I’m glad you found it useful! What kind of combat story are you writing?

      • It’s a futuristic sci-fi thriller where the main character is an advanced military soldier. In addition to futuristic weapons, there will be plenty of hand-to-hand combat.

        • bdschmitt

          May 19, 2015 at 10:55 pm

          That sounds fantastic, Tom! When will it be out so I can read it?

          • I wish I could say soon, but it’ll be a few months. I’ve really just started. I do have a short story that acts as a prologue to the story, however. Not much action just yet though.

            • bdschmitt

              May 20, 2015 at 8:53 am

              Well give me a heads up when you’re finished! I’m in the beginning stages of a novel as well. I strongly dislike structure, but I need it if I’m ever going to finish, so I’m outlining it now.

  4. Having never been in a fight, I’d be hard pressed to write a fight scene. But with your tips…well, I just might manage to pull it off.

    It’s fun playing with sentence length to heighten the dramatic moments, or slow down the action.

    Well done.

  5. I love writing action scenes! The last 10k of my book (apart from the last chapter) is all fight, fight, fight. And I’m just gearing up to do it again. I like the fight scenes snappy – use of short sentences really amp up the tension. And the pain – I like to make sure the reader can really feel what she’s going through without feeling it – so when her arm is slit open (I know, gross) I want the reader to wince, maybe make their stomach roll. I write in 1st past, so I have to be really careful to stick with my protagonist but have small breaks as she moves from killing one to the next where I can have her set her eyes briefly on what any one of her friends are doing. I like to use the weather to mirror the emotion, so the last battle in book one was a storm, in book 2 it’s blazing heat – so plumes of dust choking her, sweat trickling into her eyes, down her back, between her breasts, the scorch of the sun against her skin, the heat blazing through her fatigued muscles, hair clinging to her neck. I’m by no means a martial arts expert, in fact I know jack about it, but they fight with their strength, their speed, and their determination…and a little bit of magic, of course 🙂 Great post, Ben! I enjoy stopping by to read them.

    • bdschmitt

      May 19, 2015 at 5:38 pm

      Hi E.L., yes, you are completely right. That’s a good approach to action on a big scale. That’s truly impressive to keep 10K pages about a battle while keeping it engaging, and continuing to evolve the character. How long is the book overall? I’m imagining a 100K page book, so that’s a massive chunk.

      • Just shy of 80k. The entire book is leading up to the battle at the end, so the 10k is from the moment they begin to prepare, to the moment the battle ends. There is more than one enemy to fight. First they have to get past the army, then there’s a section where MC is thrown away from the battle and into a side fight where she is tortured by a nasty git (one of the main baddies in bk 2 – I tend to lead them in the book before). Then, there’s the main fight and then the loss surrounding it. It’s just been long listed for an award, which I’m truly psyched about! BK2 has many more casualties so that will be fun and the stakes are much higher.

      • I left a really long answer to your question, Ben, but even though my dashboard said ‘success!’ it failed :/

        • bdschmitt

          May 20, 2015 at 1:08 pm

          Sad! =( Feel free to leave a shortened version when you have the time.

          • Okay – here I go again. The 10k covers everything from the moment they begin to prepare for the battle right through to the end of the battle. There’s more than one enemy to fight, so a chapter covers the first wave…all too easy, surely that can’t be it? Hell, no! Then the real army descends. Then my protagonist gets thrown away from the battle and tortured (I’m fairly mean to my characters at times), then there’s the fight against the main antagonist and the loss endured because of that. I think that’s a condensed version of what I wrote 😀

            • bdschmitt

              May 20, 2015 at 4:31 pm

              Love it! I’m a huge fan of escalating tension, so that sounds just about perfect to me. =D

  6. Great post! Though I’ve never written an action sequence before, I know I’ll have to do a lot of research when the time comes around (and it will). It’s important to be accurate, and I definitely agree with you on making it punchy. I’ve tried reading sequences before where it gets too literal, too by definition and it gets boring. You do end up picturing every single move, and it takes you out of the story. It’s like reading a textbook, and well, if I wanted to read a textbook, I would. Even though I wouldn’t. 🙂

    As a writer, it can be very easy to want to detail everything. It’s hard to find that balance between what’s in your head and what you need to show the reader. There needs to be a flow, and more important, it needs to sound like the character. Like the sequence above, the description from move to move gets flat because that’s not how people think. When you get in the characters head, it’s a lot smoother and easier to read.

    I’m in the process of editing my first novel right now, and I’ve caught myself writing scenes that sound too … bullet pointed, for lack of a better phrase. It’s all about the rhythm, right? I think that’s the challenge in all writing, especially descriptive passages where there is no dialogue.

    Maybe that’s just me though. Dialogue comes easy for me, it always has. The rest of it, well, I’m working on it. 🙂

    • bdschmitt

      May 21, 2015 at 10:14 pm

      Hi Laura — you need to try an action sequence just for fun. It’s exhilarating. The rest of the day is super easy in comparison to beating the crap out of bad guys.

      Rhythm (hate spelling that word) is key in narration, I agree. I say leave the stilted narration in the first draft, and fix it in the edit. I usually try to put some personality into my narration, so it’s no longer about what the character is doing, but the sass and the vibe they’re exuding as they do it. It can be hard to do it well, but after a few revisions it sounds less rigid in my work.

      Hey… maybe I’ll do a post about narration tips… yes, I like that.

      • I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve gone over my novel to make sure the rhythm (I hate spelling that too) is effortless. First drafts are supposed to be shitty though, and then you keep going over and over it, and the story gets better. Hopefully. Lol.

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