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How to Write an Action Scene (Part 1)

This will be the first in a series of blogs that I intend to write on the basics of fiction writing. I’m going to give you a crash course in what to do, and – more importantly – what not to do. Today, we’re going to discuss action scenes, specifically the one on one, fight to the death kind.

Action scenes are one of my specialties. When I first started writing fiction sixteen years ago, I noticed that a lot of authors would build up one incredibly tense, perfectly paced story where all the narrative threads come together for a beautiful climax…and then promptly gloss over the whole thing. Be it a chase, a duel, a battle or a frenzied attempt to stay alive, an action scene is not just about the mechanics of how opposing sides clash. It’s the emotional resolution to your story. Remember that. Glossing over that action-packed climax will leave your audience feeling unsatisfied. You will have stoked emotions in them without providing cathartic release.

That being the case, good action is absolutely vital to genres that use it as emotional vehicle. So how do you write good action? One word: tactics. An action scene is essentially one very big chess game between opposing sides. Whether it’s swords, magic, space ships or kung fu, the underlying principle is the same. Each side is trying to out think the other. Your job is to make the characters think tactically and demonstrate this in what they do. How they react to the situation.

Let’s take a look at an example of really bad action to show the importance of tactical thinking.

Here’s a clip from an episode of Supernatural that I happened upon while eating dinner one night. As an aside, I used to love this show, but the quality has dipped considerably in the last few years.

So let’s review the situation.

Dean is here to kill a very powerful demon named Abaddon, a nasty piece of work who happens to be this season’s primary antagonist. He’s got a magic sword that happens to be the only weapon that can kill this demon, and the sword stokes his bloodlust.

Why are we reviewing these details?

Because if you’re going to think tactically, you have to review the dynamics of the situation you put your characters in. You have to understand how your characters will win, and you have to convey this to your audience.

Abaddon, on the other hand, has access to telekinesis – the ability to move things with her mind. Dean attacks her…

…And she responds by using “the Force” to throw him against the wall.

Dean Wall

Dean draws on the sword’s power to free himself and eventually finds the strength to overcome her use of telekinesis. Abaddon responds by throwing even more force against him.

Abby Force

So Dean summons his willpower and stumbles forward despite the freight-train of energy that she hurls against him.

Dean Stumble

Eventually, he staggers up to her and plunges the blade into her chest. The end.

Abby Stabbed

Why was this scene boring?

Because Abaddon has one of the most useful talents imaginable at her disposal, and she fails to utilize it. Abaddon is reduced to a one trick pony. This is supposed to be the most vicious demon to ever crawl out of the pits of Hell, and she fails to consider tactics that would have occurred to a ten-year-old.

Abaddon can move things with her mind.

So if hurling him against the wall didn’t work, instead of cranking up the power, why not try something else? Shatter the window and fling shards of glass at him. Lift the furniture and throw that at him. Bring the ceiling down on his head. Or, failing that, if it looks like he’s got the upper hand, run away and lure him into a situation where you have a clear advantage. Don’t just stand there with a dumb expression while he stumbles over and stabs you. Abaddon is not thinking tactically.

This is a common flaw in almost every Supernatural action scene after season 5. The show really went down hill when Eric Kripke stepped down as showrunner. Bad action makes for a boring story.

We will explore action more in subsequent posts.

_______________

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