A lot of people in my writing circle have a hard time with action sequences, especially fight scenes. There’s a temptation, I feel, to go very cinematic with the way they’re structured; after all, that’s what anime and action movies have gotten us used to. But in general, things work very differently on the page, and what works great in your mind might lose a little something in translation to the written word. Be sure to also check out my sister blog at Undivinelight headed up by Rachel!
- Stay true to your character’s voice. If your character is new to fighting, they might panic. If your character isn’t on the front lines but rather watching someone they love fight, they might be afraid. An experienced mercenary might be excited. A soldier might run drills in their mind to try to stay calm. These little moments of character are vital because they color the way the reader experiences the fight.
- Limit your perspective to exactly what your POV character is experiencing. This falls along the same lines as the above. Restricting your viewpoint makes everything feel more immediate. It keeps you from going to a bird’s eye or bouncing camera type of experience, which often doesn’t work on the page. It also gives you the benefit of letting you zoom in on tangible details of the fight, like the way the knife hilt sits in her hand or the burn from the bullet graze on his arm. Sensory details like that are key to keeping me immersed in the action.
- Use short sentences. It builds the illusion of speed on the page because the eye can take them in quickly, process what happened, and move on to the next one. During down moments, either between battles or even just between blows when the characters are trying to recollect themselves and think, then you can mix it up with longer sentences.
- Don’t choreograph every blow. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but letting the reader fill in some of the gaps with their own imagination will make the fight ten times more brutal than anything you can put into their minds. Instead, just give the major pieces of blocking in the fight: if someone gets injured; their relationship to the landscape, when the tables turn, and so on. Otherwise, it can begin to read as a technical, blow-by-blow sort of narrative, and it’s easy to disengage.
- And, most importantly: keep the danger real. If the hero never gets hurt, never honestly seems to be in peril of losing–to whatever end–then the response too often is “Yeah, so?” Let your protagonist make mistakes. Let some of those mistakes have lasting consequences. Let the antagonist sometimes genuinely be better than the hero. Let your main experience loss; it keeps the reader on their toes.