Writing Action Scenes
by Kaz

Action. The word conjures up images of fight scenes, car chases, gorgeous people getting it on. Well, for the purposes of this essay we’ll focus on the first two and leave the naughty action for another time. Sure, we all love a good action scene. It gets our hearts pumping, our eyes wide and has us eagerly reading to find out what happens. But what goes into writing such a scene?

In fanfic, we are limited by the fact that often the reader uses one sense (sight) when reading our fics. In movies and TV shows, they have sight and sound. We don’t often really think about how much sound affects us until it’s lost (think Hush). So don’t underestimate the importance of sound in action scenes.

But Kaz, I hear you say, you just said that fanfic readers only use sight! You’re not making any sense (pun intended). Well, that’s true, however, we have two things that all those TV shows and movies don’t—we have description and our readers’ imaginations. Description is very important in writing, especially in action scenes. It can make a reader feel like he or she is actually there, observing—and that’s what we, as authors, are trying to do. We want readers to be so involved in our fics that they feel like they’re in our story. But why use description? Well, let’s look at a few examples. 

Example 1

Buffy beheaded one vampire and then staked the second.

Yes, it explains what happens and yes, it gets the job done. However, can you see it? How did she do it? What did she use?

Example 2:

Buffy ran forward, jumping over the gravestones as she raced after the vampire. Her sword arm rose as she neared the hapless fledgling. As she swung the weapon at its neck, the sword flashed in the moonlight. Buffy felt it quickly bite into the vampire’s skin and pass through its neck. Buffy spun around using the momentum of her swing and faced the second vampire coming at her from behind. Grabbing the wooden stake from the waistband of her pants, she threw it at the vampire. With a meaty thump, it embedded itself into the vampire's chest, disappearing with the vampire in a puff of dust. Buffy wrinkled her nose as she inhaled the musty cloud.

Now ask yourself, which was more interesting to read? Which example explained what was happening so that anyone could see the fight?

In the second I used several techniques to add details. I added a setting- a graveyard. True, by the time you get to a fight scene in a story you’ve probably already told the reader where it’s taking place, but it is always better to show, rather than tell. By adding the detail of the gravestones, the reader will automatically have a picture in his or her mind about what’s happening.

I also used visual imagery- the sword flashing in the moonlight, a cloud of dust, etc. These descriptions are concrete images that the reader can add to the previous setting. By saying that Buffy was ‘jumping over the gravestones’ and that she ‘spun around using the momentum of her swing’, this adds a different kind of imagery. These details clue the reader into what’s happening with Buffy’s body—what her sense of touch is telling her. I used Buffy’s sense of hearing to describe the ‘meaty thump’ the stake made as it hit the vamp in the chest. As I said before, the sense of hearing is very important to getting a reader involved. It can cause reactions of disgust, excitement, lust or sorrow. Finally, I used the sense of smell. I described the cloud as ‘musty’ which has connotations for everyone.

The key to using senses is to find a common thread that most everyone will be able to use. I’m sure a majority of readers have been spun around at some point, that they’ve heard something they’d describe as a ‘meaty thump’ (or can imagine it) and that they’ve smelled something musty. By using these, you involved the reader in your action scene. By using description, you overcome fanfic’s limitations where senses are concerned because you call upon the reader’s past to fill in the blanks.

So what if you don’t know one little iota about martial arts or weaponry or stuff like that? It’s okay! Neither do I! Watch old episode of the shows and concentrate on the fight scenes. Write down descriptions of the action and use them as inspiration. You don’t need to know the correct term for the sword or the fancy move ‘cause chances are, your reader won’t either. If you feel you absolutely must understand what everything is called, then go to Google and look up martial arts techniques or check out the links section for links to weaponry sites. So don’t be intimated by your lack of knowledge!

Please keep in mind that your heroine/hero will get tired eventually. Barring the supernatural, no one can fight at full speed and strength for hours on end. Not only will your characters be exhausted by the end, but your readers might be too. Less is sometimes more—do you really need to write three pages on the sword battle between Buffy and Angelus? Yes, if this is the first action scene or the climax or a vitally important battle, sure, maybe you do. But if this is simply a filler, then don’t use three pages. Is your favorite action/adventure movie simply about a long, two hour car chase? Probably not. If it was, it probably wouldn’t be your favorite because although car chases are fun and exciting, two hours would be too much.

Don’t forget to get a plot. It may seem like an obvious point but giving your characters reasons for having the knock down, drag out fight to end all fights is key, otherwise your readers won’t understand or feel it’s believable.

On the topic of believability, let’s keep our characters … in character. For instance, I’ve read too many fics where I’ve been “Why is Willow physically kicking that demon’s butt?” Willow isn’t a physically imposing character. In canon she never took martial arts classes or was particularly adept at hand to hand combat, she used magic to accomplish things in action scenes. Likewise, if a demon suddenly starts throwing Buffy around like she’s a rag doll, tell us why the Slayer is outclassed! So if you’re going to change canon (making Willow a black belt) give us some background so it’s believable!

Writing action scenes isn’t hard. It just takes a bit of work to get the descriptions down so they convey the image you’re trying to get across to the reader. Don’t be intimidated! If you feel like your scene is lacking, get a beta reader the specializes in action scenes to look it over and give you tips, go read one of your own favorite action fics and see how that author does it or go watch episodes of Buffy and Angel to be inspired. Use the thesaurus if you feel you use the word ‘sword’ too much.

So jump right in! Write that scene and put us all on the edge of our seats in anticipation of what will happen next!