On the Construction of Action Scenes

Action scenes are a special kind of hell. Even now, writing about action scenes is literally painful. You see, action is not my strength; it’s basically carefully crafted description that paints a moving scene. Add the need for carefully chosen pacing — ugh. It’s a nightmare.

During a conversation I can count on the dialogue to do most of the heavy lifting. I trust the readers to pick up a lot from dialogue, and let’s face it: a good action scene is all about what’s happening, not what’s being shouted across the battlefield. I feel like a decent action scene very quickly becomes a bad action scene when you throw in a lot of hammy dialogue to remind the reader that its emotional too.

Description is a huge blind spot for me; showing versus telling kills me because I have such a hard time telling the difference. When have I told you something and when I have shown you that it’s happening? In action scenes this goes double. Everything in an action scene feels like telling to me. It’s the worst. (This probably has something to do with why I write stories about people sitting around and talking about their feelings. I’m getting better, though.)

How does this all tie into action and my expectation of reader interpretation of the scene?

I feel like if by the time the action scene comes I still need to tell anything, I’ve been doing it wrong. Amy hits Benedict, even though she’d never resort to violence to make a point.  By the time Amy is decking Benedict I’d want the reader to know enough about her that the very act of giving him a black eye is significant. That by being an insufferable asshole, Benedict has pushed Amy’s character into a new place. Everything about Amy from here on out is unknown. I want the reader to be so titillated by what she’s done that they won’t notice how bare the action really is.

Amy twirls on a heel and decks Benedict. He stumbles back. Palm flat against his left eye, he shouts, “This action scene sucks!” 

You get the idea.

What it comes down to is that I write actions scenes that play to my strengths — mainly, not action. Everything leading up to that action scene has to be carefully crafted so that the reader isn’t left feeling wanting by the fact that the action scene isn’t quite so punchy as it could be. I try to put together something that uses phrase, shape, and punctuation to inform and help the reader through what I suspect is the weakest part of any story.

The good news? As with all things, I generally suspect the reader will apply their own mental visual to the scene, so as long as I get them to feel it, they’ll do the hard work for me.

Ashley M. Hill found her voice in science fiction when her curiosity about technology coupled with the lifelong urge to tell stories. Her interest in social and feminist issues shapes how she approaches the genre. She's pursuing computer and network repair for her day job.

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