Jul 22 2006

How to Write Gripping Scenes

This article will focus on how to craft gripping scenes that immerse readers in the story. First, I will start with an absolutely awful scene, offer a revision, and then draw connections about how you can make your scenes more immersive.

 

My mini-scene

 

The elf hit the orc with his shield, giving him enough time to cast Fireball. It shot out of his land like a bullet.

 

This scene completely fails to immerse readers.

 

  1. “like a bullet” feels distinctly inappropriate for a conventional fantasy story (let’s assume that’s what it is).

  2. What’s the fireball like? This wasted a huge opportunity.

  3. The passage used weak and generic verbs (hit, cast and shot).

  4. We can’t really visualize the fight. What happens to the orc that lets the elf cast Fireball?

  5. What’s the elf like? Or the orc? We can’t really visualize either beyond the barest mental cliches.

 

A somewhat better version of my mini-scene

 

The orc swung wildly with its masher. The elf instinctively ducked. A cool breeze fanned the elf’s face as the hammer rushed by. The elf sprang up with his shield, smashing the orc’s face. It fell backwards, chains rattling as it crashed into the ground. The orc’s bloodyshot eyes fluttered, unfocused as though gazing at something miles away.

 

But it was alive.

 

“Spirits of fire…”

 

Mystical energy welled in the elf’s chest and smoke pooled in his lungs. The smoke. He lived for the smoke.

 

“I implore you…” he aimed his hand at the prone orc. Power surged from his heart, as though magma were rushing through him. Clumps of his skin charred and flaked away in the wind.

 

“Incendio!”

 

A geyser of fire hot enough to melt stone gushed out of his fingers. The orc’s top half disintegrated completely. And the bottom half… only he and the gods would know it had ever belonged to something alive.

 

The elf inspected the black gashes that ran up his heavily charred, heat-withered arm. Regrowing skin and bone was simple enough that any apprentice healer could have his arm functional within an hour. But the scars, the scars were permanent. In any case, they made for great bar stories.

 

Then he noticed that his fingernails had burnt away.

 

“Dammit!”

 

It took weeks for fingernails to grow back.

 

This story is better, but it still has many problems… “incendio”? Come on. More substantively, we have no impression of the physical setting, where the story is taking place. (Is this fight happening in… an open field? An Orcish coliseum? An astral plane? What’s the weather like? How does the terrain affect the duel? Who, if anyone, is watching? Is anyone else fighting? What time is it? How humid is it?)

 

In contrast, this scene does develop the cultural setting. We learn a lot about the elf here and his society. He spends as much time thinking about his burnt fingernails as he does about killing the orc.

 

The sensory imagery is occasionally solid– particularly the fire/smoke/imagery– but aside from that it was pretty bland…

 

Making Your Scenes More Immersive

 

  1. Sensory imagery is critical. “He cast a fireball” is too bland to captivate readers.

    1. Show us what the spell does to the victim, the caster, the terrain, etc. Give us the smoke!

    2. Try to engage as many senses as possible. Smell and touch are particularly immersive and visceral. Sight and hearing are obviously important but are usually more generic.

    3. Focus on the elements that separate your story from every other story we’ve read. A fight between elves and orcs on the beach should not focus on the seagulls. Likewise, a story with a dragon character (ie a dragon that actually has lines) had damn well better describe and use the dragon. Give us the dragon!

  2. You have to show readers where the scene is happening.

    1. The best way to develop the setting is to show your characters interacting with the scenery. For example, if the fight is in a tavern, bystanders might jeer or root for one combatant. The elf might use a chair or mug as a weapon. More generically, the elf might choke on the smoke that comes from the fireball or his eyes might water.

    2. Don’t overwhelm your audience with trivial details. For example, if they fight on a beach, describing the sounds of the waves hitting the beach probably won’t add much. But mentioning that the sand offers bad footing will help your readers visualize the scene.

  3. Explain the cultural setting. What are the people in your world like? How are their thought processes and cultures different from ours?

    1. Above, the elf is pretty messed up. He talks about his scars at taverns and cares more about his fingernails than burning an orc to death. If I had only described him as an elf, the audience would have assumed he was elegant, high-minded, nature-attuned, etc. What is this, Dungeons and Dragons?*

    2. Readers prefer unique settings.

  4. What is the focus (or purpose) of your scene?

    1. Originally, my fireball scene was an action scene, describing only the elf-orc fight. The rewrite was far more character-driven. I used the fight as a vehicle to portray the elf.

    2. Mixing up scenes is usually more effective. You can drown your readers in action (or dramatic dialogue). I tried to mix action and character development here and I think it was pretty effective.

21 responses so far

21 Responses to “How to Write Gripping Scenes”

  1. Cassandraon 28 Jul 2010 at 7:27 pm

    I’m (fairly) confident when it comes to character development and plot-devices and all that jazz. However, I still feel pretty lame when it comes to writing highly action-oriented/fight scenes.

    I finally managed to write one out between my MC and an evil super and was wondering if anyone would be willing to look over the scene and give me some pointers or advice on how to make it sound better.

    Thanks in advance!

    Cassandra

  2. B. Macon 28 Jul 2010 at 8:23 pm

    If you’d like to post it, you can do that. Or you can e-mail me at superheronation-at-gmail-dot-com if you’d like to keep it more private.

  3. Cassandraon 28 Jul 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Thanks! I sent you an email. It may be a bit long to post here, but if anybody else would like to look over it, just let me know.

  4. Ragged Boyon 29 Jul 2010 at 1:52 pm

    I’d be willing to read over it. Do you have a review forum?

  5. Cassandraon 29 Jul 2010 at 4:22 pm

    No. How do I get one?

    I’m slightly cautious about putting the overall plot in a public forum but it would be nice to be able to get advice from fellow writers. This is really my first superhero story I’ve ever attempted to write and I’d like for it to have the right flavor.

  6. Ragged Boyon 29 Jul 2010 at 7:35 pm

    Yeah. My friends that I tell about this site never post here because they re worried about their ideas getting stolen. So I guess I can understand why you would be cautious. If you want a review forum all you have to do is ask B. Mac and he should be able to make one for you.

  7. B. Macon 29 Jul 2010 at 10:34 pm

    If you’d like one, I’ve set one up for you here. Alternately, we could interact more privately via e-mail.

  8. ekimmakon 21 Mar 2011 at 3:50 am

    Couldn’t really find anywhere it would go better. I remember that the review you sent back said I need more characterization for Jake, so I gave him a lot more backstory. I can’t really show the italicized text for thinking, but hopefully there’s not too much of that.

  9. ekimmakon 21 Mar 2011 at 3:53 am

    It’s said that when you fall, a good friend will help you get up, while a great friend will laugh at you.
    “BWAHAHAHAHAHA!”
    But Razer was definitely pushing it.
    “It’s not that funny” Jake grumbled.
    “Oh, yes, it is!” Razer said, still laughing. He laughed for several more minutes, before Jake made a swing at him.
    “You, getting beaten up by a cheerleader? Just another human? It would be an insult if it weren’t so ridiculous.”
    Jake scowled as Razer started laughing again. Eventually, it clicked for him that something was up.
    “You okay, Frost?”
    There was no reply. It didn’t take much for Razer to guess why.
    “I keep telling you, Aurora is trouble. Mutants and the law do not mix, you should just forget about her.”
    Jake turned towards him with a sceptical look on his face. “Forget about her? Could you forget about Sparky?”
    Razer paused for a moment, to consider it. “I dunno, sometimes I’m tempted…”
    “Speaking of the shocker, where is she?” Jake asked.
    “I think she said she was headed down to the lab to stake it out.” Razer pulled out his lighter and snapped it open, gazing at the flame. “We move out tomorrow.”
    “What’s the plan?”
    “Bust our way in, break down the jail doors, grab whatever isn’t nailed down, and incinerate whatever is.”
    “Your usual subtlety.” Jake noted.
    “Hey, if a method works, don’t mess with it.” Razer looked up at Jake. “Still, there’s nothing planned for today. Wanna go torch something?”
    “It’s better than nothing. You have something in mind?”
    Razer grinned. “An abandoned BioTech cryogenics lab. Lots of chemicals lying around, but no people. It’ll make a sweet explosion, for zero effort.”

    “Zero effort, you said!” Jake shouted, crouching behind the twisted metal piping.
    Razer shrugged. “How was I supposed to know this was a White Coat hideout?” he called back.
    By checking beforehand Jake thought angrily, watching as a Lab Rat (the name that the White Coat minions gave themselves) snuck up on Razer with a flamethrower. It didn’t end well for the minion.
    “Die, Freaxter!” A cocky Lab Rat shouted, having snuck up on Jake. He fired a shot off from his gun, only for Jake to switch on his ice armour and deflect it, then grab the idiot by the throat.
    “Please, I’m a mutant.” Jake said, draining the heat from the unlucky man, before dropping him on the floor, shivering.
    Razer pulled out his lighter, and tossed out a few fireballs for cover. “Still, at least it won’t be dull.”
    If Razer hadn’t been out of reach, Jake would have quite happily strangled him.

    The White Coats hadn’t made any real progress when one of their lieutenants burst through the door, and shouted “Forget this lot! We’ve got bigger problems out front!”
    The minions turned and ran for the door, soon leaving Jake and Razer alone.
    “Are they… ignoring us?” Razer asked.
    There was a sizzling sound behind them, and they both turned. There was another white coat, at least in name. His lab coat was actually a sickly dark green colour, which was the least notable about him. More pressing was the fact his eyes were glowing bright green, and where he stepped, he left acrid, smouldering footsteps.
    “I don’t think we’re that lucky.” Jake said, readying his ice sword.
    Razer snapped open his lighter, and created a scimitar from the fire. “He doesn’t look that tough.”

    He ran up, and made several quick swipes with his scimitar. The man made no effort to avoid them, just flinching when they sliced through his limbs. Soon, he was nothing more than a pile of dismembered body parts on the floor.
    “Looks like he got burned.” Razer said, turning back to face Jake.
    Jake simply face palmed in reply. “Razer? Look behind you.”
    The man’s body had turned into some sort of nasty green ooze… that was still moving. “Freaxter Hell!” Razer swore, backing away from it and unleashing a lighter based flamethrower on it. It rose up into a man shape, before returning to his normal appearance. Human, or at least looking like it, considering that his lab coat was now a charred black, but the fire was doing absolutely nothing. The man tensed his fist, and it rocketed out, like a huge sludge ball. It seared a hole through the wall just behind Razer, who hastily backed off, drawing back the flames.
    “Well, fire certainly isn’t working. Think you can ice him?”
    Jake considered it. “Maybe… or I could end up with my hands melted off.”
    “Well, we wouldn’t want that…” Razer mused. “I think I know how to take him down, but you’ll need to distract him.”

    “Why am I the… distraction…” Jake began to ask, only to see Razer was already gone.
    “Fine. I’ll be the distraction.” He grumbled, striding up to the White Coat.
    The man lashed out, but Jake ducked underneath his arms and slashed at his knees. The man collapsed, his legs going outwards, but he tried to get another strike in. Jake jumped over this one, and stabbed straight down with his ice sword, into the man’s back. He left it there for a moment, before drawing it out again… which had been melted down to the hilt.
    “Now that ain’t good.” Jake said to himself, backing off from the man as he got back up. Jake froze and snapped a pipe off the wall, and swung it at the man… who caught it. The pipe quickly corroded away into dust. The man wound back his fist for a big punch- and gave a quick uppercut with his other hand. He fell to the ground in a sludgy mess, darted around behind Jake, and gave a powerful vault kick from behind. He finished it with a roundhouse punch, that sent Jake reeling backward.

    “You hit like a girl.” Jake said, after getting back up again.
    The man look infuriated. “Why, you imbecilic, impetuous, insignificant simpleton!” he raged. “Do you know the amount of knowledge and expertise is required to achieve these kinds of metahuman abilities in non-mutated genetic structure? Can you even comprehend what sort intellect is required to gift oneself with the ability…”
    Oh, please, no… Jake thought to himself. Someone shut this guy up!

    The walkway hanging above crashed down on the man, knocking him out. Well, I did ask… Jake thought, looking up. Razer stood by the edge of the dismantled walkway.
    “I don’t see the point to long conversations. I can leave peopled crushed with just one-”
    “FREEZE!”
    Jake paused. Just who could be stupid enough to say that to me? He thought, as he turned around slowly. He didn’t like his answer.

    She was wearing a police uniform that looked one size too big for her. Her hair was dark brown, and her hands were shaking as they held the gun towards Jake. When she spoke, it was in broken, harsh tones.
    “You are under arrest, in accordance to the Pangaean law of superhuman abilities. Stand down now or I will shoot.”
    “Is that really necessary?” Jake asked coldly.
    “There are rules in this world. Rules everyone has to follow. And if you-”
    “IF I followed them” Jake cut in “then I’d be lying dead on the shores of the Doomsday Isles or some other war zone.”
    “You’re exaggerating” She insisted. “You do your military service, just like every other mutant and freaxter, and then-”
    “Did you ever stop to think that there’s no justification for this?” Jake asked.
    Her gaze hardened, and her hands stopped shaking. “When I look around this room, I see all the justification I need.”

    A single fireball streaked across the room. It sliced open a nearby chemical tank, and the girl only had time to look shocked, before it exploded in a wave of icy cold chemicals.
    “No!” Jake shouted leaping towards her. She lay on the ground, shivering, unresponsive to his touch.
    I can’t feel anything. It’s like her body heat is drained away.
    “Frost! Move it or lose it!” Razer called, running for the exit.
    “Razer…” Jake growled. The doors behind him swung open, and he instinctively brought up his ice armour, before running. Bullets ricocheted off his back, as he ran for the exit.
    “We’ve got an officer down! It’s… oh no.”
    Jake didn’t make it to the door in time to avoid hearing the cry that was part scream of rage, part wail of despair.

    Jake stomped over to Razer, and tried to cleave him in half. Razer barely had time to bring up his own sword and parry.
    “What was that for?” Razer snapped.
    “What do you think you were doing back there?” Jake said coldly.
    “Well, someone aimed a gun at you, so I took care of them. I didn’t realize that saving your life would make you want to kill me.”
    “That was Aurora.”
    Razer’s eyes widened for a moment, then he scowled.
    “And how was I supposed to know that? I’ve never even met the girl!” He turned away. “It doesn’t matter now. If we move now, we can get away before the LEA get here.”

    “No.”

    Razer froze, then looked back. “What was that?” he asked darkly.
    “I’m not doing this anymore. When I think about all the times you’ve hurt people, if they felt half of what I’m going through now… I’m through with this.”
    “So, what? You’re gonna join the police? We both know how that’s gonna end.”
    “No. What the government does to mutants is immoral. But you’re no better than they are.”
    “Frost, you tried to kill me. I can forgive that of an ally, but if you leave, I’ll have to return the favour.”
    Jake turned away. “Then that’s the price I’ll have to pay.”
    Jake walked off into the night. “Goodbye, Razer.”

  10. ekimmakon 31 Mar 2011 at 3:13 am

    I feel somewhat ignored, but I probably put this in the wrong category, anyway. If I wanted feedback that badly, then I’d have gotten a review forum.

  11. B. Macon 18 Apr 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Okay–I’ll start this with the caveat that I’m not sure where this scene falls in sequence, which is one reason I prefer review forums and e-mail correspondence. (It’s easier to keep the chapters/scenes in order).

    “It’s said that when you fall, a good friend will help you get up, while a great friend will laugh at you.” This could be shortened to “When you fall, a good friend will help you get up, while a great friend will laugh at you.”

    “It’s not that funny” Jake grumbled. Comma after funny.

    I’m losing track of all the characters in this scene. Who’s Frost?

    “Your usual subtlety.” Jake noted. Comma after subtlety instead of a period. I think this could be a bit more stylish as something like “Subtle as always,” Jake noted.

    I think more setting/atmospheric details would help here.

    “Zero effort, you said!” I think you could come up with a more interesting retort to this than “How was I supposed to know it was a White Coat hangout?” Maybe something that develops his personality more. Maybe something like “You’re fine–I haven’t seen any cheerleaders yet.”

    To help keep your superpowers extraordinary, I’d like more details on the superpowers. Razer “tossed out a few fireballs for cover.” No sensory details here? Also, what about the ice armor?

    The dialogue from the antagonists feels a bit awkward to me. Like the mook talking as he runs up on them with a flamethrower.

    The minions turned and ran for the door, soon leaving Jake and Razer alone.
    “Are they… ignoring us?” Razer asked. — I feel this line of dialogue is unnecessary, given that the lieutenant just explicitly ordered his minions to ignore them.

    I love that the green coat guy leaves behind acrid, smoldering footsteps.

    “I don’t think we’re that lucky.” Jake said, readying his ice sword. Comma after lucky.

    “Looks like he got burned.” Razer said, turning back to face Jake. Comma after burned.

    In a combat situation, I think it’d help to cut down on the dialogue between Jake/Razer. For example, “I think I know how to take him down, but you’ll need to distract him” could probably be shortened to “I’ve got an idea. Distract him” or just “Distract him.”

    I don’t feel like Jake’s quips are as effective as they could be. (“Why am I the distraction/Fine, I’ll be the distraction/Now that ain’t good…”) I’d recommend cutting this down to a single line because he’s talking to himself in combat.

    “You hit like a girl.” Jake said… comma after girl. (When a line of dialogue has a tag like “Jake said,” the dialogue should end with a comma rather than a period).

    “Her hair was dark brown”–Is this necessary here?

    “IF I followed them” Jake cut in “then I’d be lying dead on the shores of the Doomsday Isles or some other war zone.” Commas after them and in.

    ““When I look around this room, I see all the justification I need.” Possible rephrase: “Look around you. What more justification could I need?”

    The dialogue at the end strikes me as a bit cliche. “Then that’s the price I’ll have to pay” doesn’t really seem to fit their tone. (I’d recommend “I can live with that” or “Goodbye”).

  12. ekimmakon 19 Apr 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Okay, first thing, thanks for the feedback. Spent a day and a night mulling it over.

    Next, it’s painfully obvious that I need to brush up on my grammar, where dialogue is concerned.

    Frost is the nickname Jake uses. Should I have made it a bit more obvious?

    I think I might have neglected to describe their powers properly, because later on (but before I wrote this scene) I went into great deal of description of them and their powers. Obviously this is bad writing, so maybe I should go back and rewrite this.

    It seems that you write better lines for Jake than I do. Maybe I was just rushing it out. I do remember that I started out with even worse lines for him, though.

    Definitely need to work on the combat scene between them and the mooks.

    I guess the redundant line in my head was Razer saying it as though he has trouble believing it. “Two superpowered mutants, and they decide to face off against the police? Aren’t they supposed to be smarter than that?” (Actually, maybe I should use this line?)

    It took a lot of thought and effort for me to write the scene with the green white coat. Glad to know it wasn’t wasted.

    Yeah, cutting down dialogue would probably help.

    For the ending dialogue, how about:
    Jake stopped to consider it. “Thanks for the heads up,” he said, before turning away.

  13. B. Macon 19 Apr 2011 at 6:14 pm

    “It seems that you write better lines for Jake than I do. Maybe I was just rushing it out. I do remember that I started out with even worse lines for him, though.” No worries here. When I’m doing a first draft, my dialogue is usually forgettable or clunky. Most of my lines for Jake were slight edits on what you had written, so I think you’re giving me good material to work with. 🙂

    “Frost is the nickname Jake uses. Should I have made it a bit more obvious?” In the story’s proper context (reading each chapter in sequence), it’d probably be obvious. You could make it clearer, if you’d like, but I’m guessing that it won’t be a huge deal. (I was just confused because it’s been a long time since I’ve read these characters, so I guess I forgot the nickname).

    “I guess the redundant line in my head was Razer saying it as though he has trouble believing it. “Two superpowered mutants, and they decide to face off against the police? Aren’t they supposed to be smarter than that?” (Actually, maybe I should use this line?)” Could I suggest a rephrase along the lines of “Two mutants taking on the police? I wonder which superpowers they got.” “I’m thinking we can rule out superintelligence.”

    “Jake stopped to consider it. “Thanks for the heads up,” he said, before turning away.” “Thanks for the heads up” sounds pretty polite here. I think this foreshadowing might be more effective and tense if it weren’t polite. For example, perhaps something like “It’s your funeral” or a warning?

  14. Janon 29 Jul 2012 at 7:58 pm

    When you are immersed in the character’s mind, you tend to find the scenes more gripping. I read a novel where the hero was sure that he had accidental killed the heroine. As he was walking towards the medical area he was sure she was going to be dead. The author describes the fact that he knows there will be a sheet over her body, and that forever after the medical ward will now be known to him as the place where he proved himself a murder because she is dead, etc. By the end, you are screaming in your head for him to hurry up to the ward and see if she’s dead or not, because it broke down the ‘she can’t die, she’s a main character’ rule.
    She turns out to be alive.
    But that’s not the point.

  15. Anonymouson 30 Dec 2012 at 6:11 pm

    That second scene was pretty great. Have you ever thought about writing a fantasy novel?

  16. B. McKenzieon 30 Dec 2012 at 7:35 pm

    “That second scene was pretty great. Have you ever thought about writing a fantasy novel?” Thanks, but I don’t think I can make it happen this year. My main goals are:
    1) My full-time job (online marketing)
    2) Selling my first book (superhero movie reviews)
    3) Writing my second book (Pixar movie reviews)
    4) Writing a guidebook about how to write superhero stories
    5) Writing a comic book (The Taxman Must Die)

  17. Anonymouson 30 Dec 2012 at 7:44 pm

    Oh, OK. I did not realize you had so much to do! I’m looking forward to the Pixar book, and the guide.

  18. Nayanon 30 Dec 2012 at 8:28 pm

    ”Writing my second book (Pixar movie reviews).”

    This time you should not post the reviews here. That may hamper the sales.

  19. B. McKenzieon 30 Dec 2012 at 8:36 pm

    Yeah, good thinking, Nayan. At the time I wrote my first superhero movie reviews, I didn’t know that there was a market, posted them on SN, and didn’t have the heart to take them down after the book came out. Now I know to save all of the reviews for the book, so the Pixar book’s reviews will all be exclusive to the book.

    In addition, the second book will be significantly longer–I’m planning on ~13 reviews.

  20. XosMelon 12 Jun 2013 at 6:55 pm

    Er mer gerd this is my favorite article from you so far! 😀

  21. B. McKenzieon 13 Jun 2013 at 6:28 am

    Thanks, but I was around 16 when I wrote it. I’d recommend a huge grain of salt.

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