Tips To Write Better & More Exciting Action & Fight Scenes
Finding your action scenes falling flat? Are your fights just bland and blah? Or are you just having a hard time figuring out how to construct and play a fight or action scene out in the first place? If so, here are some tips for you!
Table of Contents
- Keep a fast pace!
- Create a sense of danger and difficulty!
- Remember that people can only focus on and process so much at once!
- Aim to have your characters win through actual skill, ingenuity, and determination, rather than sheer power or imperviousness.
- Make sure that the victors win because they're actually good - and not just because their enemies are bad.
- And some other things...
- So, to recap!
Keep a fast pace!
The first thing to remember is that what's going on in action and fight scenes is happening fast, so in most cases you'll want your prose to convey a sense of speed and urgency. To accomplish this, prioritize describing actions/motions, sensations, and emotions (EG, fear, anger, or aggression) - in that order. Keep everything else to a minimum - describe only the things that are absolutely necessary to understand what's happening right now, and don't describe those things any more than is absolutely necessary.
Remember - you're telling people a story, not showing them a movie. It can be easy to fall into the trap of trying to depict a precise picture of an amazing Hollywood action sequence you have in your head scene by meticulously describing each and every detail, but the trouble is that things that can be shown on-screen in the blink of an eye take much, much longer to read if given detailed description. As a result, what was supposed to be a thrilling and exciting action scene will feel sluggish and slow instead. Instead, focus on building up suspense and uncertainty.
Favor verbs that describe quick actions over generic action verbs. For example, rather than using a word like "went," you might use something like "ran" or "lunged." Also, try to avoid adverbs - rather than write something like "quickly moved out of the way," you might write "scrambled out of the way."
Try to avoid using words like "somehow" and "managed." When you gloss over important actions with words like "somehow," you leave your scene feeling vague and blurry. "Managed" and similar increases your word count while adding nothing to the story.
Create a sense of danger and difficulty!
What makes action and fight scenes really and truly exciting is when there's a genuine sense that the protagonist is in danger and that victory won't be easy. If it's clear that your characters find the situation as difficult or dangerous as they'd find washing the dishes, then it's going to be about as exciting as watching them wash the dishes.
Instead, make it genuinely difficult for them. Don't make every action and move a success, but let some of them get foiled and blocked. Let your characters take some damage that significantly hinders and weakens them. Let them end up just a hair's breadth from total defeat now and then, especially if whoever they're fighting is hyped up as a genuine threat.
Pay attention to a lot of fight and action scenes in movies and on TV. Notice how the path to victory or survival often isn't straightforward, but is instead sprinkled with setbacks and complications - perhaps a tool suddenly breaks, or a hand slips, or a ceiling collapses, or the enemy turns out much better prepared than the protagonist anticipated or gets the upper hand in the fight for awhile. This is the kind of thing you want to go for - keep things difficult and uncertain for your heroes.
Remember that people can only focus on and process so much at once!
Although people competent at handling dangerous situations should be able to pay attention to the general environment in order to assess and avoid potential hazards and to figure out what to do and how to do it, there's only so much they can take in and process at once. And the more intense a situation is, the less they can afford to focus on anything that isn't necessary. When fractions of seconds count, the amount of time it would take to look at someone's eyes long enough to notice what color they are could be lethal. Same goes for introspection and reflection - there's really no time to think about much of anything besides what you're going to do next and how you're going to do it.
Because intense scenarios demand so much focus, it can also be easy to miss something important - for example, when one is busy fending off a difficult opponent from the front, it's easy to miss the one coming up from behind until it's too late. And here are a couple more examples to demonstrate how not being able to process and notice everything can work and affect what happens:
Ken comes into a room where a guard aimed to fire is waiting for him, having received a tip moments ago. Ken, who was not expecting anyone, takes a fraction of a second to process that someone is standing there. It takes another fraction of a second to process the fact that she's pointing a gun at him. It takes yet another fraction to decide whether he should try to fight, duck, or escape. In the meantime, the guard, who was expecting him, needs only the time to process the fact that her target is here and the time it takes to squeeze the trigger - and by the time Ken's made his decision, she's probably already taken her shot.
Casey is running from a monster through the streets at night. She keeps her eyes open for a clear path as well as any obstacles she might have to avoid lest she get slowed down or caught. Because the situation is so dire, she cannot afford to waste her attention on anything that might slow her down or distract her attention from anything important - so she won't be looking at business signs, nor pay much attention to anyone who isn't potentially in her way. Casey could very easily run by a holdup in a convenience store, someone dressed like Elvis sitting on a bench, and a green-skinned alien standing by a light pole, and not notice any of them - because her mind would be hyper-focused on everything that is relevant, while filtering out everything that isn't.
You can see for yourself just how easy it is to have things slip by your attention by trying a few simple exercises. For example, try counting backward from one hundred by threes while doing something relatively safe like listening to music or washing the dishes. Or try reading a book while listening to the dialog of a movie. Notice how concentrating on one makes you lose focus on the other.
You can also find a "busy" picture (EG, a crowded street or cluttered room) and look at it for approximately fifteen seconds. Then, have a friend quiz you about the picture. What color was the watch on the woman standing by the tree? What all objects are on the bookshelf? Which spaces might someone be hiding behind? Who might be able to conceal a weapon? You'll very quickly find that even though the larger details might jump out at you immediately, the smaller ones quickly become hazy. Add some elements of difficulty (EG, only a few seconds to look at it, loud noises, poor lighting conditions) and this task becomes a lot harder - and it becomes pretty hard to imagine that even superintelligent geniuses could be able to make their brilliant observations in just the few seconds it would take to dodge a punch.
And for one final and really easy exercise, go to YouTube and look up videos on change blindness - you'll quickly see how easily the little things (and sometimes not so little things!) can slip under the radar, even when you're trying to pay attention!
Aim to have your characters win through actual skill, ingenuity, and determination, rather than sheer power or imperviousness.
Some characters come out victorious simply because they're just too strong and tough to beat - their own attacks are so powerful or huge that the enemy has little to no change of dodging or defending itself from them, while being so tough or hard to hit that nothing the enemy can throw at them can do any real damage.
This makes for a boring story. Not only is there little to no sense of danger, but after awhile the action and combat scenes will become very predictable - and if people already know what's going to happen, why read the story? Some people have tried to get around the problem of predictability by having their characters use bigger and flashier moves or by having them withstand increasingly powerful attacks, but it's still just more of something that never made for a very engaging combat scene in the first place.
On the other hand, writing a character who uses real skill, ingenuity, and determination to come out successful ultimately lends to much more interesting and exciting scenarios. Let's take a look at what each of them are, and how they can work.
Skill is a combination effort and finesse, and the culmination of practice and prerequisite knowledge. Skilled characters won't simply land a good hit because their attacks are so strong and/or big that they can't help but hurt, but rather because they learned how, where, and when to hit and developed the necessary coordination to land their hits. They also won't avoid taking damage simply because they're just that indestructible, but because they've learned to pay attention to their surroundings so they can try to move out of the way.
An ingenuitive character will be able to take advantage of the surroundings and what's lying around in order to win rather than relying on some deus ex machina or a lucky break. For example, if Sally can't hit Invisible Bob because Bob's invisible, then Sally might grab and throw a handful of dirt on Bob rather than whipping out some unforeseen power or gadget that can reveal invisible things or it turning out that today is the one day of the year when Bob's powers stop working.
Determination is the willpower to carry on even when things are difficult. For example, rather than Tom proudly striding toward the big villain because nothing the villain threw at him even made a scratch, he pushes on despite injuries causing him pain and weakening him. Rather than being completely and totally fearless, Tom is actually very scared and it's all he can do to keep it from showing. (But, a caveat: be careful that you do not use determination or willpower in a way that it might as well be a power in itself - EG, "willpower" enabling Tom, who otherwise has no special powers, to subdue two tigers trying to eat him with his bare hands.) This is not to say that you can't write characters who are super-strong or nigh-indestructible, or that lucky breaks are always bad. However, if you want their fights and action sequences to be interesting, then it must take more than that to get them through to success. For powerful/impervious characters, try to give them opponents that are equally matched to them, or put them in scenarios where it will take more than their strength or invulnerability to get through it. When it comes to lucky breaks, use them sparingly - and the less unlikely they are, the better.
Make sure that the victors win because they're actually good - and not just because their enemies are bad.
If you take a good look at many action heroes, you'll find that they actually aren't really that great - it's just that their enemies are really incompetent. Some examples of enemies being really incompetent include:
- Scenarios where characters with no special powers dodge each and every bullet fired by a squad of ostensibly-trained people.
- Scenarios where ostensibly-trained characters stand by and do nothing while a protagonist kicks the butt of someone they should probably be mobilizing to protect or assist.
- Scenarios where characters fall for what would be incredibly obvious bluffs or ruses to anyone else.
Consider the Imperial stormtroopers in Star Wars. Obi-Wan Kenobi talked them up as being incredibly dangerous but when it came right down to it they never did manage to kill anyone on-screen and eventually they were defeated by small, furry aliens wielding weapons made of sticks and stones. Nobody saw the main heroes or Ewoks as being particularly talented - instead, they saw the stormtroopers as being woefully, even hilariously inept. If it so happens that your characters win only because their enemies are just that bad at what they do, then you run the risk of the same thing happening to them. And once people lose the ability to see them as credible threats, the story loses a huge amount of suspense.
If you're finding yourself having a hard time figuring out how to beef up the opposition and make it threatening, here are a few things you might try:
- Start from the perspective that for most things the protagonists can do, their enemies can do right back - EG, If your protagonists have marksmen who almost never miss and martial artists who can incapacitate an enemy before you can say "boo" among them, so do their enemies.
- Put yourself into the villains' shoes. Write them as if they were the protagonists for awhile. Switch between sides as needed.
- Ask yourself what the opposition might learn and observe about the characters they fight - then, ask yourself what they might do to defend or counter against that, or how they might exploit it to their advantage the next time they meet. Have them do it.
And some other things...
Remember, in any serious fight, the first goal is to do it to the enemy before the enemy can do to you. The second goal is to get out of the way and avoid being hit. Any action that doesn't lead to these goals is pointless, likely even dangerous, as it just gives the enemy extra time to prepare and land a successful hit. If you want your characters to look like truly competent and dangerous fighters who mean serious business, they should not be flipping their weapons around, performing pointless gymnastics, or pausing to laugh maniacally in the middle of a fight.
Avoid cheesy catchphrases and cliches. About the only thing they really accomplish is making the characters who utter them look like cornballs, which spoils the tension. (Also, this rule goes double for anything along the lines of "playtime!")
Remember to factor in the amount of time every action would realistically take. For example, in the amount of time it takes someone to actually draw a knife from a sheath, someone nearby who already has a drawn knife would have more than enough time to stab the first. If a sheathed weapon of any kind suddenly ends up in someone's hand with no intermediary point, you have a problem in your story.
Remember to factor in the environment. For example, if it's raining or has just rained, it'll be that much easier to slip and fall. Same for if the ground is uneven. Rocks, sticks, or any other hard objects on the ground will hurt and might even cause serious injury if fallen on. Sharp objects can cut if fallen on. Concrete will hurt much more to fall on than dirt or even wood. Trees and walls can be collided with.
Keep track of where your characters' limbs are, and what they're doing. If you don't pay attention, you might accidentally end up with a character performing actions that would take at least three arms - EG, digging through pockets while pinning someone's arms up against a wall.
Do some research into actual martial arts and self-defense techniques. Self-defense videos on YouTube can be a good place to start. So can videos of professionals demonstrating how old-time weapons would have been used.
Try sparring with a partner or two to get a better understanding of how fighting works. Slap boxing with a training partner can help you gain an appreciation of just how difficult it can be to react in time to simulated punches. Add a second opponent into the mix, and you can see just how difficult it can be to take on multiple opponents - taking on two hands is hard enough, but four is another game altogether! You can also simulate weapons using wiffle bats, pool noodles, or even rubber or latex weapons along the lines of those that LARPers use.
Try out this exercise. It can help you develop a feel for how a character might behave if the stakes and risks are real.
So, to recap!
- Focus on describing only what's necessary, and keep your descriptions brief and to the point. Every word you add only slows your scene down that much more, so don't waste them.
- Make sure your action/fight scenes are legitimately challenging and risky for your characters - a safe action/fight scene is a boring one!
- Remember that people can't notice each and every detail. Also remember that it takes time to process everything that's going on, as well as time to perform every action - and even though it might be just a short amount of time, that time can still mean the difference between life and death.
- Try to have your characters win through being genuinely skilled, rather than super-powerful or invulnerable, or through lucky breaks or new gadgets or powers revealed out of nowhere.
- Try to make sure your protagonists win because they're genuinely good - not just because their enemies are bad.
- Avoid having your characters perform unnecessary actions - EG, flipping weapons or laughing maniacally - if you want to make your characters look like they mean truly serious business. Otherwise, be aware that they're opening themselves up to danger!
- Avoid cliches and cheesy catchphrases - they make your characters look like cornballs.
- Do some research into martial arts and self-defense - and if possible, see if you can get a little practice in yourself to gain some insight into how these kinds of things work.
- Factor in how the environment might affect the fight, and write accordingly.
- Make sure you keep track of where your characters' limbs are - else you might end up with some pretty confusing and nonsensical scenes.
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