#30Skills30Days: How to Write an Action Scene

This blog post is a part of my #30Skills30Days challenge to learn 30 new skills in 30 days. 


In real life, I am a woman of action, I love action movies, I love watching gratuitous action scenes, but what I am not good at, admittedly, is writing action scenes. Somehow my action scenes always end up being about three sentences long and includes the character picking up their weapon, using it and then surviving without much effort or skill. When I reread my action scenes, there’s not much real conflict or internal dialogue throughout, we don’t get to visually see what’s happening around the characters, it’s just a cut and dry, two-minute street fight. So, needless to say, I’ve been looking to step up my game if I want impress my young adult readers.

For this skill learning activity, I wanted to learn how to write an action scene to improve my current work in progress, Worlds Apart 2.  This book is the second in what I hope to be a three-book series. Somehow I have managed to minimize my action scenes out of fear that I may not be doing it right.

The first place I went to for help was to Writer’s Digest to watch a video on How to Write an Action Scene that featured bestselling author, James Rollins. Rollins shared some good advice on writing the action scene, but the takeaway for me was his advice on adding layers of emotion through the point of view (POV) character.

Emotion was definitely the element that I was missing in my action scenes. To go through an action scene without sharing what at least one of your POV characters is thinking and feeling is an opportunity lost to the reader. How characters react when they’re faced with fear or danger is important to the character’s emotional arc.

Rollins suggests you show emotion in your action scenes by finding ways to make your character more sympathetic. Rollins shares a list of seven ways to do this, but really it could probably be more like six because one of them, I think, is optional. Some good takeaways for young adult (YA) writers like me to explore your POV character’s emotional arc through action scenes are to have established these traits through characterization:

  1. Demonstrate that they’re good at what they do.
  2. Demonstrate their humor.
  3. Show that they treat others well.
  4. Show that the character has undeserved misfortune.
  5. Show that the character has a physical or mental handicap = underdog.
  6. Have one character like another character, but perhaps one character doesn’t return the affection as much as they’d like.

This last tip is especially good for YA writers, because unrequited love is a typical trope we often employ in our stories. I can see how using it would amp up an action scene if, for example, your main POV character is in the fight of her life and also trying to save her unconscious love interest from being bitten by an evil vampire.

I also read a fight scene guide written by my fellow Seton Hill University Writing Popular Fiction program alum, Troy Bucher, called Ten Fight Scene Techniques for Science Fiction and Fantasy. This 12-page guide to writing fight scenes is a pretty exhaustive list of various fight scenes and includes examples, why each type of fight scene works or doesn’t work, etc. I decided that the fight scene skillset will take a bit more time and energy to do and should be an entirely separate activity that won’t fit on my #30Skills30Days list, but it is definitely worth it to pick up when I’m done with this challenge.

Cost: $4.99 for the How to Write an Action Scene video on Writer’s Digest University.

Time commitment: To actually watch the video is 20 minutes if you fast forward through the introductions and skip the Q&A at the end. It will take additional time to actually practice writing the action scene, but that’s a follow up activity once you’ve taken notes.

Rating: 2 = somewhat easy. I rated this skill learning activity a 2 since the video presentation by James Rollins is very easy to follow and take notes. Writing an action scene is something that takes practice, but once you know and understand all of the building blocks involved, you’re set.

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