Mar 02 2008

Writing Action Vs. Writing a Story

This piece describes how to write the right amount of action for a book.

Some writers, particularly novice male authors like myself, tend to write fiction as a series of actions. That is generally a mistake. Although action can be used to engage readers, it can distract you from developing the characters, scenery and dialogue that make a story work.

A piece with too much action frequently reads like a movie script. The author provides little except for what is absolutely necessary to understand the action. Most pieces that begin with an action scene suffer from that problem. The author shows us a character, but frequently doesn’t take the time to establish why we should care about him or his plight.

Likewise, action movies often start with an unintroduced character doing something dramatic and usually dangerous. That does not translate well to novels because movie actors can use their presence to communicate who they are and why the audience should care. Furthermore, movies are inherently more visceral and less cerebral. A novel reader has to create a character from the group up with only the clues you provide.

Many novelists write in an action-dominated way because they fear that an audience will get bored of a character if “nothing happens”. Usually these authors are males and, if asked for examples of stories where “nothing happens,” will almost invariably give works written by females. I think guys are afraid that focusing on details like character and scenery early will make their work into chick lit. I’m only one guy, but I think that I absolutely have a problem with a surplus of action/character-growth vs. exposition and scene-setting.

I think that most action-dominated novelists tend to misunderstand the problem they’re trying to avoid. Pieces that are heavy on exposition/scenery tend to fail for the same reason as action-dominated pieces: the characters are not engrossing. Strong characters are a prerequisite to compelling action. Let me demonstrate this with a quick writing exercise for you: please take five minutes to write a quick fight scene between two guys. Let’s keep it short, at most 250 words.

I’ll give you some time to finish…

Finished?

I’ll be blunt with you. I am at least 95% sure that your action scene sucks. That prompt made it virtually impossible to write a scene that readers would care about. Re-read your fight scene.

WHY ARE THE CHARACTERS FIGHTING?

Your sample probably glossed over this, but it is the main question of any fight scene. Why. Why should we care who wins? Why does this fight matter? Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that you created a scene with a Protagonist punching the hell out of a Villain(s).  Fight scenes with faceless combatants are dreadfully boring.

Fellow Superhero Nation contributor Cadet Davis offers this rebuttal: “characters matter, obviously. However, I still think that my action scene is compelling even though we don’t know why the characters are fighting. In general, I would say that strong language and sentence craft can make a fight interesting even though the characters might be dull.”

I respect Cadet’s opinion, but he is absolutely wrong. You probably have a favorite fight scene. Did you enjoy the fight because the fight itself was memorable and the punches were described in great, vivid detail? Or did you enjoy it because the fight was a fitting climax to a conflict between two great characters? Let me put it another way. Have you ever enjoyed a literary fight between two mediocre characters? I would argue that it’s actually impossible to write a strong fight scene if the characters are disappointing.

Many fantasy authors seem to agree with Davis. Christopher Paolini, the author of Eragon, is a prime offender. Eragon’s climax is a siege similar to the Battle of Helm’s Deep (from Tolkein).

I thought that Paolini’s use of language was uncharacteristically strong in this scene. I found his descriptions of the dragon’s actions vivid, almost exciting. Regardless, the scene failed for several related reasons.

  1. The battle was a climax to a banal conflict between an Evil emperor and his oppressed, Good subjects (led by Eragon). By the time Paolini’s battle started, it never could have been anything but an “epic” brawl between mobs of faceless Evil enemies against The Good Guys.
  2. It failed to answer this question that had been bothering me since page 1 of Eragon: why is Eragon the hero of this book? There isn’t anything special about Eragon, anything that screams that this story and this world are unquestionably about him. The selection of him as the main character seems completely arbitrary. By contrast, the audience connection with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader was so strong—even though these characters were themselves archetypical!—that their fights felt intense and climactic even though the fights were technically middling.
  3. The scene was like a rolling LOTR homage.

To recap, compelling action requires strong characters. Focusing too heavily on action is a problem because 1) we probably won’t care about whether the character lives and 2) we aren’t invested in his mission. It’s important to spend enough time on character, mood, scenery and world-building to immerse in the story, particularly the story’s conflicts. If we care about the conflict, it’s hard to write a bad fight scene.

I wish you the best in your writing endeavours. If you need beta-review assistance, please e-mail us at superheronation-at-gmail-dot-com. Good luck!

35 responses so far

35 Responses to “Writing Action Vs. Writing a Story”

  1. chulanceon 04 Apr 2008 at 7:57 am

    My fight scenes are about 20 pages long. Is that good?

  2. Cadet Davison 04 Apr 2008 at 10:23 am

    20 pages is pretty long and probably redundant. I usually get bored with fights that go beyond 3 pages. Then again, my attention span is short. If you’re writing for an adult audience, you could probably go up to maybe 5-7 pages, but I think that’s pushing it. That’s 1500-2000 words. How many punches and kicks do you have to describe?

  3. Chulanceon 28 Mar 2009 at 10:15 pm

    Well, I’ve changed my writing style. Although some fights last longer than others, my novel has characters with a variety of abilities. The fights last as long as they can but not too long. If one person has telekinesis against a person who can read minds, the fight won’t be long. But a superstrong character against someone with telekinesis may take longer.

    I enjoy action scenes as long as they aren’t redundant. Also, I’m a skilled martial artist, so my characters wouldn’t be doing basic punches and kicks. They’d do some spin kicks, knee smashes, upward down blocks, etc.

  4. Marissaon 28 Mar 2009 at 11:54 pm

    Just a warning about that last sentence, Chulance: Be sure the reader knows what it is you’re referring to. Spin kicks are fine, as well as knee smashes, but as someone nearing the blackbelt myself, I understand that you start to recognize an incredible number of techniques by name in a way that the reader wouldn’t.

    It’s like a person who has owned horses for twenty years writing a fantasy story with horses involved, and going into things like which lead the canter is on or the specifics of the breed.

    If you know a lot about something, and it’s touched on in your writing, it’s so easy to make it a ‘look how many words I know’. Just figured I’d point this out, just for thought.

  5. B. Macon 29 Mar 2009 at 12:08 am

    My main concern would be that using fancy moves might lead you to redundancy. From the reader’s perspective, a spin kick is just another kick. It’s probably redundant with any other kind of kick.

  6. Chulanceon 29 Mar 2009 at 1:53 pm

    Of course I wouldn’t simply say the hero used a side kick I would describe the kick, because I know not everyone has a high degree black belt and knows multiple deadly techniques. My main character is a martial artist and I’m keeping his skills around the same level as mine. Also for example when I mention a kick for example the spin kick or or a knife hand smash I would write he was doing a knife hand smash after describing what it was,

    Well It depends on how long they use the fancy moves and each character has a different way they fight. I’ve studied many forms of combat and I want the reader to be able to tell the differences between a spin kick and a plain old kick.

  7. Banshee Kingon 05 Apr 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Hey, it’s me, David. I thought I’d try a different name. Anyways, I have a question.

    Much later in my book, I’m going to have a large-scale epic fight between Cara and the main villain. At one point, there’s gonna be a standstill and a bit of talking between the two. I want to jump from character to character once to show how they’re getting on in the fight. Their scenes will be brief. I know I’ve been told it’s a bad idea to switch characters mid-chapter, but surely there must be a way to do it without confusing people.

  8. Ragged Boyon 05 Apr 2009 at 6:57 pm

    I love martial arts. I could never afford formal training, so I don’t know much about terminology and discipline. But I like to think that I’m pretty good at home-trained martials arts, I’m not sure what style. Plus, my minor skills in breakdancing help me with the complex stuff. I’m really good at flipping, although that doesn’t help much in actual combat.

    Maybe one day I’ll fly to Brasil and learn capoeira. As for now I just study forms and whatnot.

  9. Tomon 06 Apr 2009 at 5:12 am

    If you need to know about martial arts, I’m your man. I have a black belt in Karate, a yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do and a green belt in Judo. So don’t ask me about Kung-Fu. 😛 But seriously, the most important thing people who don’t know about martial arts should understand is that black belt isn’t the end of the line. I achieved black belt at almost 12 years old, but I still had a long way to go. When you get Black Belt you get first ‘Dan’. Then after about 2 more years of training you can go for your second ‘Dan’, then after more time you can go for third ‘Dan’. By the time you’re trying for fifth Dan you’ll be expected to write essays and contribute to the martial art in some way to advance. Only a handful of people worldwide are 10th Dan, and they’ve dedicated their entire life to the martial art (this applies to any Japanese martial art by the way).

  10. B. Macon 06 Apr 2009 at 5:33 am

    If it’s important to switch perspectives, I’d recommend adding a chapter break. As a rule of thumb, I think that if it’s important enough to switch perspectives, it’s important enough to justify a chapter break. That will help you make the transition without disorientating readers.

    “I know I’ve been told it’s a bad idea to switch characters mid-chapter, but surely there must be a way to do it without confusing people.” I can’t think of any.

  11. Tomon 06 Apr 2009 at 5:43 am

    There is one way. If you do that page break thing.

    *

    That thing, that’s kinda like a mini-chapter break. It’s like a semi-colon. It’s not as strong as a fullstop but it does the same job. Same here, it’s not as strong as a chapter break but it does the same job.

    Although really if you’re going to use that you might aswell use a chapter break.

  12. Davidon 06 Apr 2009 at 12:28 pm

    Ok, cool. That will work. I just need to get that far. I shall continue with my story as is.

  13. Wingson 27 Apr 2009 at 6:43 pm

    I participate in a lot of role-play games, and there are a lot of fighting/battle based ones. Since every one is forum-based, the description in everything, not just the fights, is very important.

    At one point, my character (long story) ended up fighting several enemies, so I had to get creative in how to take them out. I don’t remember precisely what my character did, but *squeamish, stop reading* I ripped someone’s head off, severed someone in two, tore a throat open, and raked my character’s claws across someone’s face. So yeah, I had to get imaginative for the many ways I killed people. Gruesome, I know, but effective.

    – Wings

  14. collisionon 09 May 2009 at 4:17 am

    Full name: Helios
    Place of birth:
    Citizenship: Tronian
    Occupation: Intergalactic mercenary
    Abilities: Energy sourcing Ability to draw power from large or small but abundant sources of energy, such as turning kinetic energy into physical blasts or converting solar energy into other forms. Sometimes based on proximity to source, sometimes stored for future use and Energy manipulation these powers deal with energy generation, conversion and manipulation. In addition to generic energy, versions of these powers exist that deal with such things as light, sound, electricity, nuclear energy, and the Dark force dimension.
    Race: Novaras
    Height: 6’3
    Weight: 159 lbs
    Eyes: grey
    Hair: White
    wat do u dink guys

  15. B. Macon 09 May 2009 at 6:43 am

    What’s his personality like? That’s probably more important than his powers.

    This only matters if you’re doing a comic book, but I think that gray eyes and white hair are a bit bland. (They may also make the character feel really old, which might be a turnoff to younger readers).

  16. Leifon 30 Nov 2009 at 12:00 am

    My problem with writing actions scenes is in a lot of ways the opposite of many of the problems you’re addressing here. At the prompt, I wrote this (500 words, took 10 minutes instead of five, but whatever):

    * * *

    The taste of blood has always intrigued me. Sort of a zingy copper, with just enough sweetness to make it delicious, which in itself makes it repugnant. I’ve tasted more blood than I’d care to tell my parents, but I’ve come to enjoy it in the moment, the rush of adrenaline that comes with being punched in the mouth, your teeth breaking through your lip and the plasma spilling onto your tongue. I can accept that, but it’s also given me a gentle craving occasionally, both enthusing and terrifying, like waking up to get a midnight snack but knowing that if you walk into the dark kitchen you can never come back to the safety of your bedroom again, so you pull the covers back up and let the monsters sleep.

    That said, the blood on my lips now seemed different, and scary. The scent was like electrified steel, cooling down, the smoke blurring your vision and making everything seem gray. The open wounds from his fist were convulsing as they crashed against my teeth, as if the flesh was already sowing itself back together. But most unsettlingly, it was cold. Like melted ice dripping into my mouth, forcing me to jolt away onto the ground, terrified. It was as if frosted lightning had shot down my throat, freezing my insides while boiling them at the same time. Horrified, I looked up at my assailant, not into his hollow eyes but into his bleeding smile, the cold blood running through his teeth. He’d let me hit him earlier, let me open him up thinking myself a surgeon, when instead I was the patient on his malefic table. I was the plaything to this visage of inhumanity, a mere rag doll to be tossed around until he tired of me and cast me into the fire with his other broken toys. I was a victim.

    But this is ridiculous, I told myself. I’ve tumbled with dozens of strangers in these alleys, and been terrified I’d kill someone or be killed before, this was nothing knew. But I’d always found consolation in the fact that whoever won the fight, we’d both been opened up and showed each other our humanity; whatever differences we had, we still bled. But our blood was warm. And suddenly I could feel my eyes tearing up, and my voice broke as I whimpered, “What are you?”

    “You’re about to find out.” His grin was growing, a Cheshire smirk of malice and vivacity, the blood having run down his lips and across his chin. As his melted smile dripped into the street, I closed my eyes and pulled the sheets back over my head, warm in my bed and safe from all the monsters and the other shadows on the way to the fridge. But this was no dream, and there was nothing covering me but the chilly mist in the air and his inhuman blood. This was no dream. This was a nightmare.

    * * *

    As I’m sure you notice, there’s not a lot of action. There’s one punch and falling on the ground. My problem is, I find it very hard to write about punches and kicks without getting redundant fast, and as such tend to end my actions scenes with far too much brevity. What would you suggest to help make my actions scenes into, well, action scenes?

  17. Leifon 30 Nov 2009 at 12:01 am

    Btw, just found this site, surfing around, seems like a really useful resource, I’m loving it so far. 🙂

  18. A1Writeron 28 May 2010 at 11:22 pm

    This post intrigues me. Not sure why, but it does. Personally, I am a character junkie. For me, it all starts with character and it’s irrelevant unless it comments on character. Narrative is inseparable from character anyway.

    Gone is an interesting novel. It’s a YA novel where everyone over the age of 15 disappears and the kids are trapped inside of a dome that circles their town. Some of them begin to manifest powers. The scope covers a panorama of characters and the big fight scenes are built up to. Today’s action movies are just back to back action sequences with little to no story and I find them boring.

    And ultimately, the thing that separates the greats and mediocre in fiction is motivation. It’s probably the most lacking element in novice fiction, and the most complex element in great fiction, when the the writer can use the text for conscious motivation and create subtext for unconscious motivation. A pool of possible reasons determined by contextualization.

  19. Joseon 18 Jun 2010 at 2:30 am

    I think you should usually use page numbers and dont exceed the limit of 8000 words per book.I also think you should find a few things on your computer to write action scenes from like cursormania.If you find the flaming arrow cursor you can make a computer action story.For example try making the messenger icon use a bow and arrow at the yahoo icon’s face while substituting the normal arrow with the flaming arrow cursor.An alternative way to do this is get creative and make pretend applications and pretend icons for them so that you can come up with a special, 100% original computer fight using those created icons.

    If you think my comment is all about computer action,it’s not because in the next sentence I will show you how to do superhero action.Here are the things to try and not do.
    1.make the fight all about weapons or the hero as it will get boring and some people may not like weapons.I suggest doing a bit of both to fit almost all readers.
    2. start off sentences using the same starting as it will sound like a shopping list like the one below
    Buy bannanas
    Buy milk
    Buy apples
    Buy pineapples
    If you see how boring that is you will also know the effect of doing it to your story.

    Have you ever tried to write a book to please everyone in the human race and failed?
    Everybody will fail at this task because everybody has different likes and dislikes and some people don’t like books at all so there is no chance that they will like your story unless it is very persuasive.
    Also try and make a solid “framework” for your story because if you don’t, there is a better chance of switching ideas instead of sticking to the original.If you really like your new idea and also like the old one I suggest putting the other idea in a different book or paragraph as switching the the idea without putting it in a new paragraph or book will confuse the reader as to what you are talking about.

    I hope you liked my comment as much as I had fun making it.

  20. NinjaSquirrelon 06 Jun 2012 at 12:30 am

    I’m writing a story with three major protagonists, only one is actually a combatant of any sort. The others probably won’t see much combat until the climax outside of self defense, not heaps of ass kicking.
    The one actual fighter is a member of a special counter terror unit that’s conducting completely deniable operations with support from only a few members of the local government.
    In my first chapter where I’m introducing my three major characters I wanted his saga to start with a raid on a terrorist safehouse. The main purpose of this raid is to establish that the terrorists are becoming increasingly well armed and funded and to establish teams level of effectiveness as well as superior weapons and gear before I begin throwing stronger and stronger enemies at them. As well as to give the character a chance to discover a new unexplained power.
    I know you said not to introduce a character with an action sequence, this seems to be the best way of introducing this character, who is actually out of his element when not in combat, without all sorts of pre-mission preparation that would prolong the time till any relevant revelations.

    How would I be able to achieve these plot points without making the mistakes you mentioned earlier?

  21. B. McKenzieon 06 Jun 2012 at 6:15 am

    “I know you said not to introduce a character with an action sequence…” I think it can be challenging to start a book with an action sequence (because you have to cover the characters, the setting, and the plot all from scratch). However, if we already know something about the plot, I don’t think it would be problematic to introduce a character with an action sequence (assuming this action sequence shows us key traits about the character, helps advance the plot, and is interesting).

    “An action sequence… seems to be the best way of introducing this character, who is actually out of his element when not in combat…” PS: If you were interested, you could also look into action sequences besides combat.

  22. L05T 80Yon 31 Aug 2012 at 7:31 pm

    I’m looking into trying out something new for me with my latest novel. My character is this solid, emotion-hiding, goes-out-of-his-way-to-kick-some-ass guy, who ends up teaming with this sarcastic, laid-back computer hacker to find a kidnapper, but i don’t want it to be just about the fighter going out and breaking jaws while the hacker stays in his apartment with his desktop and an earpiece communicator, watching Friends repeats while trying to help.

    How can i make this different, but still stick to the feel of the book setting and the characters?

  23. ekimmakon 01 Sep 2012 at 4:45 am

    Well, you could have the hacker come out into the field with him. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t do everything from the safety of the next county with same efficiency as in person. Of course, that involves bringing the hacker out of his comfort zone (because very few people enjoy being in a position where you could get shot) Just what are you trying to keep and what are you trying to change?

  24. B. McKenzieon 01 Sep 2012 at 5:30 am

    Maybe there’s something about the plot that forces the hacker into the field. (It might help if he has skills beyond hacking and/or some of the hacking has to be done in-person on the enemy’s hardware). Alternately, while the fighter is off looking for trouble, maybe trouble comes looking for the hacker. Perhaps he has very powerful enemies.

    Also, perhaps there is some conflict so that the hacker can’t ask the fighter to do all of his fighting. For example, if the hacker were a criminal and the fighter were a cop, the hacker might have to do some jobs on his own rather than get a police officer involved.

  25. L05T 80Yon 01 Sep 2012 at 11:53 pm

    thanks

  26. Agnion 25 Sep 2012 at 5:50 am

    In the novel i am writing there are 5 fighting sequences including the climax. All are short (2-3 pages) and the climax sequence is little longer (7 pages). Is that okay?

  27. B. McKenzieon 25 Sep 2012 at 12:14 pm

    That sounds reasonable, Agni.

  28. Infernoxon 04 Nov 2012 at 4:44 pm

    My novels are definatley action-heavy, but I am working on it.

  29. Dr. Vo Spaderon 10 Nov 2012 at 9:43 pm

    @B. Mac,

    …Do you have an article on, well…movement? I have a character with the parkour style running, and I don’t know how to write it.

  30. B. McKenzieon 10 Nov 2012 at 9:52 pm

    I’m not sure I could come up with 200+ words of advice on movement. I’d have to punt by suggesting that you read as many books with parkour as possible (Gabe Arnold has a list here).

  31. Liamon 25 Feb 2013 at 2:28 am

    I did the challenge to write a 250 word fight scene. Some of it’s kind of silly but does it make sense? How is the pacing? Any other critiques? Also it’s only approximately 250 words

    I said nothing, and locked blades with him. Our eyes met and we yanked our swords back, only to jab them again and again. His skills were unprecedented he nicked me over and over again. He fought differently than me. I tried to get a single killing blow, but he just wanted to tire me out with many cuts. His swift rapier would weave in and out of my katana. I had the advantage of being able to block blows, but his lighter sword made him more agile. In fact I was hardly able to hit him. I felt the right moment and swung my blade and I hit him in his ribs. He wasn’t down though.
    “Signor Cutzzio, you don’t seem stop do you” I said contemptuously.
    “Well Lord Fharquar, I’m still here”
    “Touche” I said with a solemn face. With that we resumed our fight. He ramped up his speed and maneuvered his blade ever so precisely. Nicking me every time with what felt like pin pricks. His dominance would soon end, I had gone easy on him. I clenched my Katana with two hands and sliced repeatedly to intimidate him. I soon had him against a wall where his Rapier wouldn’t stand a chance against my thicker blade. I patterned my blows in a figure eight motion and Signor Cuttzio was helpless but to fend me off with his sword. Our blades soon met and I sliced his sword in half. I began to draw my sword to his neck when he pulled out a gun
    “F*#k, I totally forgot that I had this thing. How do you like them apples Fharquar?”

  32. Nayanon 22 Jun 2013 at 6:56 am

    @B. Mac

    Could you suggest a novel whose action scenes are well written?

  33. B. McKenzieon 22 Jun 2013 at 5:40 pm

    Day of the Jackal, Point of Impact, maybe Ender’s Game, The Great Train Robbery, The Big Sleep, Starship Troopers, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Maybe the Count of Monte Cristo, Eye of the Needle, and Bitter Seeds. The only superhero novel worth a mention here is the first Wild Cards book (though it’s more effective outside of action).

  34. Edward Thatchon 25 Nov 2014 at 9:02 am

    Damn this info is what i’ve been doing my fights last only 2 and 1/2 pages ( my books are short)

  35. Byakuya91on 30 Nov 2015 at 4:25 pm

    As a major action buff, I do agree action in novels shouldn’t be used as a crutch. Generally, action will only be as good as the characters that are written.

    The reason why is because if we have an emotional investment within the character; we are more inclined to be concerned for the character when he or she might fail. That’s called raising the stakes.

    In my view, a good writer for action scenes is someone who can mix things up and be creative. For instance, a one on one brawl might work the first time, but the second, third or fourth time; most audiences can get bored.

    For instance, in the draft I finished I noticed some of my action scenes where like this. Thus, in my second draft I mixed things up.

    Instead, of a straight out brawl, I had one of my villains lure the main character into a confined location. And despite his abilities of Force Field protection, he was put into a tough spot.

    Another method you could use is to have some exterior goal, tied to the action. Maybe, the combatant is trying to stall the hero from a greater, pressing need( a bomb about to go off, a friend taken etc.).

    This can add additional stakes to the bout, because the main character isn’t necessarily fighting for his survival; but rather, something else.

    Another thing that can help individuals with action scenes is to try to make use of the environment. Don’t just have it be a blank slate. Incorporate it. For instance, maybe the characters are fighting atop a balance beam. Depending on the characters, this might be exceptionally tricky, or one(preferably the enemy) might have an advantage.

    Finally, in my view, what makes a good action scene is try having the main character loose. B.Mac himself mentioned on this site that a lot of authors feel like having their protagonist loose demeans them.

    But in fact, it is the opposite. It showcases how strong your enemy is and on top the vulnerability of the character. This extends not only physically, but mentally, as all characters have some way of interpreting defeat.

    Now, on the flip side, don’t have your characters be punching bags. Instead, let them grow and develop. And thus, the second confrontation could be different. Maybe, the main character creates a plan beforehand, or tries to mix up his approach.

    At the end of the day, action scenes are very much like condiments to a sandwich. While they are important, they shouldn’t be the bread to narrative, themes, character development and so on.

    Rather, they need to accentuate whatever the writer has done already.

    Overall, great post.

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