Action Scene Do’s And Don’ts

Whether your book is full of action scenes, or requires just one, getting the balance right is a skill worthy of any writer, and can be achieved with some simple do’s and don’ts!

Action Scene Do’s And Don’ts

Do Make Things Clear

There’s nothing worse than reading an action scene and not being able to work out what’s going on. Where characters are standing, who is present, and where the scene takes place should, at a minimum, be crystal clear to your readers.

If you’re not sure yourself, sketch out a diagram of the space and where your characters are standing. Plan things out in steps:

1) Villain enters through the back door.

2) MC is in the kitchen.

3) Side character is coming down the stairs.

Map out in your mind where everyone starts and where they move as the scene progresses. Once it’s all visualized and planned in steps, write out the action scene as basically as possible before rewriting to fill in the details.

When you think you’ve got it, ask someone else to read the scene to see if it makes sense, and then keep refining it until the action plays out clearly and is written in the right style for your book.

Don’t Go Overboard On The Staging

When you’re planning the action out in steps, it’s very easy to go overboard on the staging. That villain sneaking in the back door is not a sequence that needs to be laid out step-by-step.

The reader doesn’t need to know that they cupped a gloved hand over the doorknob, opened the door slowly, stepped one foot forward and then the other, and so on. This drags the scene out. Action scenes need to be snappy. The villain nudges the back door open and creeps silently into the empty dining room is usually enough to orientate the reader and get things moving.

Do Add Realistic Injuries

If your scene is all about action, chances are there will be injuries. They don’t have to be fatal, but they have to be realistic in regard to what’s happening.

If your side character coming down the stairs runs into your villain, turns to go back up the stairs, but is knocked down, they’ve gotten themselves an injury.

It could be as basic as them momentarily falling on the stairs, hitting their shins, but being able to bounce up and get away from the danger. They may have a slight limp as they run back up the stairs, but within a minute, those sore shins would have recovered, save for some bruising the next day.

Or the hit from the villain could be bad. They may have a baseball bat that they clobber the side character with. Their fall into the stairs would likely involve a bleeding head injury and fractured ribs from a bigger landing against the stair edges. The side character could then have trouble breathing. They’re dizzy, and blood is dripping into their eyes. They may only get halfway up the stairs, gasping for breath as they go.

Whatever injury happens in an action scene, it should be realistic to the situation and circumstances, which brings us to our next don’t…

Don’t Ignore The Impact Of Injuries

The version of the side character with just hurt shins is most likely getting away. Their injuries aren’t severe, they are pumped full of adrenaline, and they can get up those stairs. Baseball bat injured side character, however, not so much.

They aren’t getting very far with their injuries. The cracked ribs are making it hard to take a breath, their head is pounding, and they’re confused and not thinking clearly. If you have them running up the stairs and getting away just as easily as the barely injured side character, you need to rethink the impact of your injuries.

Avoid the scary movie cliché of characters being stabbed and then walking around in the next scene as if they received a paper cut instead of a life-altering wound, and make the impact of the injuries felt. If it’s serious, write it as serious. In the real world, big wounds slow people down, and it should be the same for your fictional world too.

Do Make Your Main Character Active

Even if the situation your MC is in isn’t their fault, having them in the middle of an action scene, watching while everything is happening around them instead of being active, is pretty boring.

They may not be a fighter, and they may be tied up, but if they aren’t actively taking part in the scene, why are they there?

The MC is the star of the story and should be helping other characters, planning an escape, or plotting what to do next. Even if the action scene calls for them to be bested by the villain, the MC should be active in their own defeat.

When that villain comes through the back door, takes out the side character coming down the stairs, and then comes face-to-face with the MC in the kitchen, that MC should be appropriately reacting to the events, not just standing there while it happens around them.

Make them active. Have them ready with their own weapon after hearing through the wall what is happening on the stairs. Even if they’re scared and looking for a place to hide, show them scrambling to fit into a pantry! Keep the MC active and add another layer to your action scenes.

Don’t Forget The Five Senses

An action scene isn’t just about the moves the characters make, it’s what they see, smell, taste, touch, and hear.

Let’s continue using the last scenario as our example. The MC hears the commotion on the stairs and knows the side character is hurt and they are next. The MC could keep listening to gauge when the villain is close by. That’s one sense ticked off right there.

Now, the MC is panicking. The bowl of food they’re holding shakes in their trembling hands. It’s tomato soup, a comfort food they were preparing as a distraction, and now it will be their undoing.

They drop the bowl. The noise alerts the villain that there’s someone in the kitchen. The touch of the hot soup on the MC’s hand causes them pain and more sound as they cry out before shoving their hand in their mouth to stifle the noise. They taste the tangy soup on their tongue as the rest of the liquid drops from the bowl to the floor, causing the MC to almost slip as they run to the pantry to hide. They make it inside as the villain enters the room.

They can’t see the MC, but they can smell the soup. They walk around the kitchen counter and see the mess on the floor, and the red, sloppy footprints leading to the MC’s hiding place. You’ve used sound, touch, taste, smell, and sight to drive the action forward and add depth to your scene.

Pairing a writer’s trick like the five senses with the other do’s and don’ts listed here should fill your scenes with all the elements you’ll need to pull off any action, even a baseball bat-welding villain interrupting a dinner of comforting tomato soup.

— K.M. Allan

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24 thoughts on “Action Scene Do’s And Don’ts

    1. Thanks, Rebecca! That’s my fave tip from this post and I put it in there after watching the latest Scream movie. That movie featured so many injuries that should have been fatal, yet characters were walking around in the very next scene as if nothing had happened to them. It was frustrating to watch as a viewer and really took me out of the movie. I know in movies like that things aren’t that deep, but some realistic injuries shouldn’t be too much of an ask.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. petespringerauthor

    Excellent advice, Kate. One flaw I see in some stories is the author sets up the scene nicely only to bog things down with extraneous details in the middle of the action. During a scary, active situation, it’s unlikely that a character will have some deep meditative thoughts about some prior experience. I accept that after the fact but not during.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another cliché to keep in mind is the “hero only feels pain when his wounds are treated” so often used in movies. While it has some basis in reality (I analyzed that a while ago), it’s overused.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Adrenaline definitely plays a role, as I’ve pointed out in my post some time ago – the problem is with the obviously convenient timing, which is evtremely unlikely to happen, in my opinion. Plus, different injuries cause different reactions, depending on nerve damage. Some will be numbed completely while other will be very painful sooner than others.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Sadly, I am growing old and the things you wish to dwell upon as an older man are no longer the triumphs and imperatives of your youth. I can no longer be bothered with the vicissitudes of Historical fiction and Fantasy. I have been in the process of retiring for many years now and intend to finally sever the thread soon. Though I do not think that I could ever give up writing completely. The short sharp shock of a life cut short. You cling to the love and the hope you have for future generations.
    Lol- I am too lazy to make all that effort anymore. I write easy now. Romance, detective fiction, serial killers. All made for those too tired or not good enough to write real fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

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