Sunday, April 1, 2012

A is for Action Scene Writing a guest post by D.W. Hawkins

**Warning** there are some pretty graphic descriptions of battle contained with this post.

Action Scene Writing

For some writers, portraying a battle is one of the hardest things to do. Everything from an epic battle between two warring armies to a quick fistfight on a backstreet; translating what you see in your head to the reader is a tough thing to do. I’ll spell out some of my own techniques here, and I hope that it helps some of you out there in your own endeavors. 

The first thing you have to remember is that fighting is tough. If you’ve ever been in a fight in your life, whether you’re in the military or just standing up to a bully in the schoolyard, it’s one of the toughest things you’ll do in your life. Your heart races, your knees tremble, you see red, and you sweat like a pig in a slaughterhouse. Afterwards, all you want to do is lie down and sleep for a few days. Most of you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. 

The above statement is what you have to keep in the front of your mind when writing your action scenes. Plucky heroes who always win the day are all grand and wonderful, but there’s nothing truthful about a fight scene where The White Knight cleaves rank upon rank of the evil Horde of Baddies with the greatest of ease, laughing in the face of his enemies. If that’s what you’re into, then fine. I challenge you to split about fifty logs with an axe, and laugh at them the entire time. At some point, you’ll get quiet and think this is pretty tough, after all.

The same principle applies for soldiers wielding M-4’s, or spies with silenced pistols. In a gunfight you’re constantly seeking cover, you miss, your heart is trying to break out of your chest, and sometimes you even pee a little. Trust me on that last. If any of you are in the military, you know it happens sometimes. Fear is real, and your characters should feel it.

Writing is all about painting a mental picture for your readers. You can’t just tell what happened and expect it to come off like you see it in your head. You have to bring out the gritty details.

Write about how sweat runs into the eyes of your character, and how it affected him. Talk about how the battlefield smells. See the hands tightening on leather-bound hilts, or smell the stink of guts spilling into the hot, fetid air. Don’t be afraid of getting too bloody – fights are bloody. They’re gory, chaotic messes, whether it’s a street fight or a swashbuckling duel.

You have to bring the tiny details to the forefront along with the actual mechanics of the fight. If someone in your story falls to the ground, have them fall face-first and talk about the way they had to spit dirt from their mouth while gulping air because they’re so tired. If it’s a sword fight, talk about how the impact of the ringing blades jars the arms of the combatants.  Write about how it gets harder and harder to hold to a blade because of the sweat soaking into the hilts.

During an action scene, you should also switch out the adjectives you use. Use words like visceral, guttural, animal, primeval, frenzied, frantic, feverish, etc. Here are two sentences that mean the same thing…

He clenched his jaw in anger.
He gritted his teeth, shaking with a feverish rage.

See the difference? They both get the point across, but there’s a real feeling to that second one. The more excitement your pour into your words, the better your battle scene will be. 

Remember that a fight scene should have a singular point of view, at least in my opinion. The best ones always do. Your combatants shouldn’t be able to see the entire battlefield, or know whether someone is walking down the street thirty feet away. The entirety of their attention is on staying alive and whole, and the writing should reflect that. Each fight should come out like a struggle on an epic scale, no matter what the actual scope of the battle is. 

Another technique that I like to use is to imagine the fight in my mind to be taking place in slow motion, like the scenes from the movie 300. It puts things in better perspective for you, and lets you “see” more of what could be happening. The better your imagination is, the better your writing will be.

Remember to gloss over a few things, as well. Sometimes, just saying that “the two of them struggled across the floor, each trying to gain a better position” is better than pointing out the tiniest movement each character makes. You don’t want to bore your readers with pointless mechanics, even if you’re trying to make a point about how technical wrestling can be. Embellish the exciting parts, and gloss over the ones that don’t really matter.

One last thing – pain hurts. How many people have you seen get stabbed in the gut and shrug it off like it doesn’t mean anything? How many people have you seen that get shot and do the same? If you want a little perspective, then search for some of those nasty videos from third-world countries on the internet, and see how people really react when they’re shot. It may be a nasty bit of voyeurism, but it will feed your writing, and give you a better idea of the way things actually work. Almost any blow from a sword is lethal and getting shot hurts no matter where it happens. Think about the greater consequences of the wounds you deal out in your fights. Google it if you’re unsure. If you write that someone was eviscerated and their intestines are spilling out, then what else is going to happen to their body? Will they puke up blood? How long can they live like that, without medical attention? How do those wounds smell?

Nasty, I know. But if you’re going to write about something, then you should learn at least a little about it, right? You have to be as truthful as possible, even in fiction. The reader has to believe that your story is possible in order to swallow it.

So, I hope that helps you guys and gals out a little. Remember, the absolute best rule to go by is that if it isn’t fun for you to write, it probably isn’t fun for anyone to read. If you’re not enjoying your own scene, then who will? Thanks for the opportunity to write this little post, and thanks for reading, everyone. Keep writing, and have an awesome day.

And as this post is part of a tour that D.W. is doing he has given me a coupon code for a free copy of his book from Smashwords and two for 50% off.  To enter to win just tell me which author you think writes the best action sequences in the comments.  I'll announce the winner in 2 weeks.


  1. You've captured the emotion we need to write a good fight scene. I never thought of it as fun, but I guess I didn't write it well.

  2. I loved this post. I have a very hard time writing battle scenes. It takes me a long time to get one right. Or at least what I think is right.

    I've always thought Bernard Cornwell writes great battle scenes.

    M.J. Fifield
    My Pet Blog

  3. As a reader I'm always interested in to read posts about the writing process.
    I have nearly finished The Sentient Fire and for me D. W. Hawkins delivered
    believable action scenes.

    I'm part of the tour. Therefore please do not count me in for the coupons.

  4. Welcome to the A-Z Challenge. Very intrigue piece, by DW Hawkins on Action Scene Writing.

    Jenny @ Pearson Report
    Co-Host of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

  5. Great job. New follower here. I’m enjoying reading my fellow “A to Z”ers. I look forward to visiting again.


  6. Thanks for stopping by everyone! I haven't yet read The Sentient Fire, but I have my copy loaded on my Kindle waiting it's turn. I'm looking forward to it for sure. Now it's time for me to visit my fellow A-Z bloggers.

  7. Lol thanks for all the great comments everyone, and to Scott for giving me the chance to blog here. Glad I could be of service!