Lights, Camera, Action

punchAction scenes are notoriously difficult to craft. There’s a fine line between crisp, clean detail, and over-telling. At what point does a scene become gratuitous in its violence? How much detail is enough to make the reader understand, while not dragging it out?

One of the challenges of action scenes is the desire of the writer to craft a scene that moves quickly. They want the pacing of the scene to be fast and furious, just like the fight scene. The problem is, that denies us the opportunity to slow time and include the detail necessary for the reader to experience the action.

On the flipside of the coin, several horror writers drag action scenes out far too long, detailing each drop of blood as it splashes on the floor. This, too, can be distracting and cause an action scene to fail.

The goal is balance. Give us the detail, and a lot of it, but give it to us quickly. Here’s a quick fight scene to illustrate the potential short comings of each action sequence.

TOO LITTLE DETAIL: Bobby punched Sam. The fist hit him hard and Sam staggered backward. Something hit him in the shoulder. He covered his head with one arm and swung with the other. He hit something, so he kept swinging harder. Someone else hit him and he crumpled.

TOO MUCH DETAIL: Bobby’s fist raced toward Sam’s chest like a bullet train. It hit him hard, his knuckles sinking into Sam’s soft flesh. The bones beneath bent, creaked. Two ribs snapped. Sam staggered backward into a wall. The pain in his chest made him wheeze. His lungs were on fire. He spit blood. The crimson red liquid shot out of his mouth and sprayed his assailant’s knuckles as they raced in and crushed Sam’s nose. More blood seeped out of him, slicking the floor in puddles of red…

BALANCE: Bobby’s fist took Sam in the chest quickly, unexpectedly. Sam reeled, his chest on fire. Two broken ribs, at least. He tried to move, but his feet didn’t respond. He stumbled back into the wall as Bobby’s fist hit him again, this time in the face. He clamped his eyes shut tight, as if they could lock out the pain, but the snap of bone told him his nose had been broken. Tears clouded his vision, and he sank to his knees. Bobby lunged toward him again.

One commonality between the two are the lengths of the sentences. Notice they’re a bit shorter. Seldom are there more than two clauses. This is one easy way to increase the pacing of the scene.

Until next week, good writing.

–ADG

14 Comments on Lights, Camera, Action

  1. Action scenes can be extremely fun to write, but they’re also very challenging. If it helps, try to imagine the scene taking place in a video game or action movie. Maybe even go watch or play a couple to see how the camera will inevitably slow down at a pivotal moment of the fight, like when the protagonist’s vehicle explodes. Think about it as an example.
    Before that, the hero was speeding along toward the villain’s giant evil robot soldier. As an audience, driving in a straight line in slow motion isn’t too interesting. Hence, when you write a moment like that, it doesn’t need to slow down too much. It just needs to be there.
    That explosion, however, is a different story. All in that one moment, there’s the slow-motion of the flames and roiling black smoke, the potential love interest screaming the hero’s name from the sidelines, and of course, the baddie laughing maniacally like Gansky on a Friday. While that all happens at once, you can drag it out a bit. Play with it. Don’t be melodramatic with all the fanfare and overly flowery language, but don’t flood your reader with everything at once.
    Write well, write often.

  2. Jake Van Dusen | October 23, 2012 at 10:28 am | Reply

    I usually make my action scenes quick, i don’t like dragging out a fight with to much description of the blood and such. one of the only times i will drag a fight out is if it’s the last battle that ive been building up to. if that is the case then i make it the best all the battles before that one battle seem miniscule and crappy in comparison to this one fight. usually battles before this battle are half a page to a page of fighting.

  3. Shania Sheehan | October 23, 2012 at 10:33 am | Reply

    It is sometimes hard to balance, I often have to go back and either add more detail or take some out.

  4. Joseph Martin! | October 24, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Reply

    The “balanced” scene is the best. Action stories that are balanced are much more intriguing than one’s packed with action and gore. When stories are over detailed, like the “too much detail” scene, it just loses my interest and I’ll be like, “Meh. I don’t need this.”

    Action scenes aren’t really my thing. When I do write action stories, I will keep the idea of balance in mind.

    • I’d like to make two corrections on my comment that really bother me.

      1) “than one’s packed with action” should be “than ones packed with action”

      2) “it just loses my interest” should be “I just lose interest”

      haha.

  5. I rarely write action because of the fact i just dont know how to. I never have enough detail to make it sound good. So now that i read how to balance i could try nd write a piece using action.

  6. When I write I usually don’t do action because I don’t write it very well and most of my stories don’t need that much or any action. I liked the balance scene the most because it shows you both sides of the story and not only the one that is doing the action to the other person. So now I want to try to put some action into my stories and see if it’s something I would like to continue in my writing.

  7. Katelyn Haeckel | October 27, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Reply

    I’ve only ever tried writing an action scene once and it’s still a work in progress. As I sit here thinking about it, I realize that it’s not very balanced and needs a bit more detail.

  8. I like a little action in my writing, but if I feel like I’m doing it wrong, I try to pace it to an action movie. The action in film is choppy, yet concise, allowing me to get it just right.

  9. Hailee-Brooke Stewart | October 29, 2012 at 10:19 am | Reply

    Ive never written an action scene, for the reason that non of my writtings have ever needed an action peice. Now that ive read how to balance i may have to reconsider my writting and add a well written action scene. Thank you!!!<3

  10. this really opened my eyes to how to really write an action scene. ill be coming back to this page and looking up how to write a scene better when i need guideance. thanks.

  11. christopher rush | November 6, 2012 at 11:29 am | Reply

    ok i think i now understand how to craft a combat scene i now know not to use too much detail witch is what i do and not to little detail it needs to be just right.

  12. Miranda Almeida | November 6, 2012 at 11:46 am | Reply

    I’ve never written a fight scene before, but I understand what you mean by balance. If I would’ve written a fighting scene before I read this blog, I have a feeling I would’ve been on the “Too much detail” side. I really like good, visual description, but in a fight scene, too much detail would definitely slow the scene down and probably make the scene seem overly dramatic and unrealistic. I think I will try writing my first ever fight scene now.

  13. Most of my storys have at least one action scene so this is veru helpfull. Thank you.

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