When we hear the term ‘action scene’ we often think fight scenes, car chases, and explosions. But the truth is, action scenes can have all of the above, but it’s not a requirement.
However, there are a few things that you will always want to consider and include when you sit down to write an action scene.
This month’s guest author is an indie fantasy writer, Matthew Romeo, who just released the third installment of his fantasy trilogy, The Maven Knight, and he knows a thing or two about writing action!
On Writing Action Scenes
By Matthew Romeo
Like a story, action follows a three-act structure:
- Act 1: Inciting Incident
- Act 2: Ebb and Flow
- Act 3: Resolution
The Inciting Incident sets up your key players, what their tools are, what their motives are, and where they are physically (i.e. blocking). The Ebb and Flow should grow tension between the fighters. The Resolution should have one fighter or faction victorious over another, a stalemate, or a defeat.
Act 1: Inciting Incident
At the start of the scene, there needs to be an Inciting Incident that brings forth the reason why the action is occurring while simultaneously setting up the arc for the scene. An action scene for the sake of action tends to be stale and forced, so it is important to establish motivation for the action. What is the end goal of both the protagonist and antagonist? These motives do not have to be terribly complex either, a fight for survival is a common and simple motivation for characters to have in an action scene.
As with most scenes you are writing, you should evaluate how many characters are in an action scene, what their tools/capabilities are, and what their end goals are. It’s good to know what your characters’ limitations are so that they do not pull a random feat out of nowhere.
If Frodo suddenly showed expert swordsman skills after having no experience before, it causes confusion and can undermine what the character represents. This also plays into the purpose of an ensemble cast: that each member brings something unique to the table so that no one feels useless.
For example, in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, Chapter Nine – The Midnight Duel, the setup of broomstick flying lessons showcases Harry being a loyal friend to Neville. Opposing him, Malfoy is eager to bully anyone he deems beneath him. So on one side you have Harry who seeks to defend Neville whereas Malfoy seeks to antagonize Harry and anyone he is friends with. Here the motives have been established and the Inciting Incident is Malfoy stealing Neville’s Rememberall.
Act 2: Ebb and Flow
The action scene should improve characterization to avoid being a dull, bare-knuckles sequence. This is where you can delve into the inner monologue of the character, define their personal stakes, emphasize their inadequacies, and show their choices during a fight. They say we revert to our natural selves when faced with extreme circumstances, so how would your character react to a gunfight? Would they get excited, or cower in fear?
Action scenes are not just meant to be flashy set pieces to occasionally shake up the reader’s attention span. Action can serve as an effective tool to show who your character is by their actions rather than have them tell the reader who they are.
However, action is only as interesting as the drama that comes with it. Drama is added to action scenes by having an Ebb and Flow: a concept where one side might gain the advantage before the pendulum shifts to the opposite side.
If there is an escalation in the plot, then there should be the same in an action scene and the best way to implement this is to give the opposing forces an edge over the protagonists. Maybe it is strength in numbers, maybe it is better weaponry, or maybe it is smarter tactics. The goal of Ebb and Flow is to generate tension in the action so that readers can help empathize with the protagonist’s struggle.
Continuing the Harry Potter example, the Ebb and Flow of the action revolves around Harry’s inexperience at flying a broomstick versus Malfoy’s familiarity with it. Harry’s determinism is what keeps him going in the scene, so despite the danger he continues to confront Malfoy for Neville’s Rememberall. In contrast to Harry, Malfoy has much more confidence on a broomstick and is able to toy with him before escalating the conflict and tossing the Rememberall across the field.
Act 3: Resolution
Finally, there needs to be a resolution to the action that follows the logical flow of the story.
Action generally follows the formula of A + B = C, with A serving as the capabilities/allegiances of each fighter, B serving as how such things can affect the conflict, and C serving as how they resolve the conflict. If a character comes to an action scene with one skill but resolves it with something random, the scene feels confusing and cheap.
Another important aspect to consider in the resolution is: what purpose did it serve for the character?
Perhaps there was a life lesson in the conflict, or the character is meant to learn a specific skill for future use. At the end of an action scene, the characters should be in different places than they were at the start of it. These changes do not have to be super drastic; they can be as simple as building confidence, getting humbled, or practicing a skill.
How the action is resolved is generally what sticks in the minds of a reader, so it is important to remember that the Resolution needs to make sense due to the setup that came before. Subverting expectations can lead to quick shock value, but the aftertaste that results is usually bitter and unsatisfactory.
In the Harry Potter example, if Harry suddenly used his wand against Malfoy to resolve the conflict, it would feel like a hollow scene. Sure, it would have demonstrated Harry’s skill with spells and equally shown his loyalty to Neville, but it would not make sense in that part of the story. The arc of this particular action scene was that it should begin, take place, and be resolved on broomsticks. The Resolution of this sequence is that Harry follows his instincts, saves Neville’s Rememberall, and realizes his above-average reflexes when handling a broomstick. In the end, Harry is the victorious character, and not a single punch or spell was thrown in this scene yet it remains a memorable action scene in The Sorcerer’s Stone (pages 148-149).
More About Matthew
Matthew Romeo was born in Newport News, Virginia before moving and spending most of his life in Yorktown. He attended Randolph-Macon College and in 2014, he graduated with a B.A. in Communications. Throughout his school career he participated in forensics, creative writing, public speaking, broadcasting, and theater.
As an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy, he enjoys video games, table-top role playing games, films, anime, and reading.
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