Getting in on the Action

99.9% of all novels are going to involve action scenes. Okay, they might not all be sword-swinging, gun-blazing, fireball-whizzing, damsel-rescuing thrillathons, but at some point your characters are going to be doing something other than talking. Even if you’re writing an intense emotional drama set within a single location, your characters are unlikely to be sitting absolutely still talking at each other. With that in mind, and in consideration of the number of times people ask ‘how do you write a battle?’ or ‘how do action scenes work’, I’m going to take a look at creating action in your writing.


All writing has a tone, and it is defined by the nature of the setting, the characters, the story and the manner in which you actually write about these. Most Warhammer fiction is described as ‘low’ fantasy; gritty and dark. This is because the action scenes are detailed and very often graphic. It is visceral. Tolkien, on the other hand, is ‘high’ fantasy because the action is dealt with in sweeping, historical movements. On closer inspection, though, even the high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings has some pretty detailed action scenes – the fight in Moria against the goblins being a good example. Yet, there is a world of difference between the mention of Legolas shooting two orcs through the throat, and a passage describing that event; spattering blood and choking gargles and all.

‘Visceral action’ isn’t just about fighting and death. Your two characters are having a meal. How much do you describe them eating, and what they are eating, and how much do you concentrate on their other actions and their dialogue? How often do characters fumble for change, or go to the toilet, or forget something and have to go back for it? The more the external world imposes its uncertainties and randomness on your characters, the more real it feels. However, reading requires commitment and concentration and there can be a discord between the amount of effort required to read about something inconsequential and the amount of effort we would spend upon it in real life. Our brains are capable of processing huge amounts of information without us realising it, but as soon as we do it consciously, everything starts to get bogged down. We might notice in passing that someone fiddles with their wedding ring a lot, for example. If one were to continually describe this in a passage, having a character fiddle with their wedding ring every few sentences, this would quickly seem laboured. In this case, better to have a character note this and remark it to the reader second-hand.

Too much detail will overwhelm a scene with a big scope – the large ideas will be obscured by the minutiae. When your character is dashing through the streets trying to catch a terrorist with a nuke in a suitcase, the attention of the reader isn’t on the environment other than on how it relates to that chase – things getting in the way, and time passing until the explosion. On the other hand, a kitchen sink drama that doesn’t play with the symbolism of the characters’ movements, the colour of their clothes, the food they’re preparing or the subtexts of their actions is going to be a bit thin. These are meant to be full of meaning and interpretation that require examination by the reader.

Tone changes throughout a work depending on context, but you need to set an overall level at the outset and be aware when you are varying it. If the opening paragraph is highly descriptive, that is the standard you are setting and the reader will expect similar levels of detail throughout; they may feel you’ve skipped over something important later on if the style is changed. Conversely, if the opening breezes through the character and setting introductions and plunges into the big story, subsequent delves into detail are going to attract greater attention and focus and slow down the story.

Marathon or Sprint?

This brings me nicely to pacing. All storytelling has pacing, whether it is a film, a TV series, a novel or a short story. The overall length is the first port of call, but within the story itself there are moments when the audience is indulged with a more languid series of events, allowing characters to develop and storylines to proceed, and there are sections when there is a lot happening and the pace is quickened.

In pacing terms, action means drama. This isn’t all explosions and fistfights, it could be arguments between the characters, external interventions or particularly emotional scenes such as a funeral or birthday party. A story should have plenty of drama all of the way through, but just as an action film that is non-stop gunfights and big bangs starts to wear thin, a novel that is so intense with drama that there’s no let up can be very draining and become virtually unreadable.

Within a segment or scene there is also an internal pacing that must be considered. Changes of viewpoint, time or location can be used to speed up or slow down the portrayal of events. The most important thing to bear in mind in this regard is that the scene may end up being longer or shorter than you had planned, in terms of its word count. When working to a pretty strict plan, this can prove problematic. I have planned battle scenes to be 2,000 words long, for instance, only for them to be shorter or longer than this. Longer isn’t too much of a problem if there’s flex elsewhere to accommodate the extra length. The real trap lies in a scene coming out shorter than you thought. Writers may feel that perhaps they haven’t spent enough time describing events, or decide to insert some dialogue or extra actions to make up the length. This is padding! Don’t do it!

Resist the urge to make a scene fit a pre-conceived notion of its length. Write it, edit it and rewrite it, but only with regard to its own internal pace. Nothing can stymie good pacing like a scene that feels too abrupt (as often happens at the end of novels that have run out of room), or a scene that just drags on and is obviously filler.

One trick to remember is to allow an extra 10% expansion of your manuscript. Okay, maybe not 10% for you, but for me that works out about right. An editor will always come back wanting a bit more explanation, or a little more description, or a couple of extra lines of dialogue. Leaving a 10% margin of expansion in your first draft means that you can accommodate this feedback without having to cut out other stuff.

Lost in Space and Time

The two most important things to convey in any action scene are time and space. The passage of time and the spatial relationships between the characters are the most important elements your reader requires to visualise what is happening. Given this most basic information, the reader can approximate the look and consequence of the events as they unfold. It is particularly relevant that you set out the spatial context for the scene as soon as possible. If you need your character to hide behind something, make sure that your reader knows there are going to be places for the character to hide – nobody likes a mystically-appearing pillar or table turning up to protect a character. Here, less is usually more, but all of the usual description caveats come into play – don’t forget sounds and smells, impressions and feelings as well as physical factors. For example, the character’s gun shots echoing around the vast chamber or retorting sharply from the confined tunnel walls makes two very different ‘pictures’ for the reader.

In some situations the setting will be obvious; a bar room brawl is taking place in an area with tables, chairs and other features that the reader can readily imagine, while a heart-wrenching visit to the cemetary will also be a scene that requires little physical introduction. In such familiar settings, description focuses upon aspects that are either very relevant – the actual grave being visited, for example – or that differ from the norm – the chairs in the bar are all heavy benches that would be difficult to lift. If the scene is taking place in a more foreign environment – the bridge of a starship or the basement of a serial killer – then a more detailed setup is required for the reader to paint the initial picture.

I’d like to go back to the idea of the reader as director/ actor that I discussed in relation to dialogue. The important point about describing action is that it evokes the correct image and sensation in the reader, who will then fully realise the scene as they see it. They are going to be picturing the characters and their actions based on what you tell them. If you describe a lot of detail, the reader’s mind is going to be  focused on specifics, while if you evoke a general sensation or motion, their interpretation is going to be a lot looser so you best not spring any relevant small details later.

Consider the following:

Jareka pulled out his pistol and fired twice.

Reading that sentence, what did you picture? Was the gun in Jareka’s shoulder holster or on his belt, or tucked into the back of his jeans, or shoved into a pocket? More importantly, does it matter? Is it more important that he’s fired twice?

Jareka whipped out his pistol and squeezed off a couple of shots.

This is more colloquial and laid back. It gives a greater sensation of relaxation and confidence.

Jereka wrenched his pistol from its holster and blazed away at the approaching shadow.

This is quicker, more strained and desperate.

Panting, Jereka wrestled his pistol free from its holster beneath his jacket, his heart pounding. Steadying his hand, he opened fire on the shadows further down the alley.

The simple action is now beginning to build a scene. Without any other context, the last example paints a picture of what is happening, and the character’s state of mind. None of these approaches is wrong. Think about the words you use in an action scene and make sure they not only describe events, but evoke a reaction from the reader.

Getting Touchy-feely.

A pitfall that I have found myself clambering out of a few times is the act of distancing the characters emotionally from the action. As a writer, one becomes so prepossessed on making sure that the reader understand what is happening, one forgets to tell the reader how the characters are feeling about events.

Act begets reaction. Not only physically, but emotionally. If a reader is to be drawn into the story, to have pathos for the character, they must be aware of their feelings at all times, and in particular when those feelings change from what has been established. All too often, particularly in pulpy, conflict-rich fiction, characters quickly become action automatons. A highly sensitive, well-realised protagonist is reduced to an Arniesque action statue as soon as a sword or pistol is drawn. Continuity of the character is important. Performing an action, and its resultant success or failure, will elicit involvement and response from the character, and so through them, the reader.

Some Examples to Work With

I’m going to indulge in a little exercise that you might like to try yourselves. I believe that exercises are good for attaining an approach and developing the appropriate state of mind, but never directly applied to ‘improve’ work in progress. Perhaps that’s just me… Anyway, I’m going to take a semi-random passage from Angels of Darkness (because I have a copy close at hand and it’s in Third Person) and I’m going to rewrite the action a few different ways to elicit different impressions of the scene.

The original, which is pretty detailed, focussing on one small action in ‘slo-mo’:

Zaul and Hephaestus flanked Boreas as he levelled his bolt pistol at the nearest target, a man with a visored helmet who had paused to change the energy cell on his lasgun. An aiming reticule sprang up in Boreas’s sight as the bolt pistol’s targeter linked into his helmet. He squeezed the trigger softly as it changed to red [eww – sounds like the trigger rather than the reticule changed colour – Dennis], and a moment later a flickering trail of fire marked the bolt’s passage. It tore through the man’s padded vest without slowing before its mass-reactive warhead detonated, ripping his chest open from the inside. Boreas and the others advanced steadily down the corridor, each step punctuated by the bark of a bolter or pistol and the scream of a dying man.

A punchier, more hardcore, detached iteration:

Zaul and Hephaestus closed in protectively next to Boreas. The Chaplain set his eyes on his first target. The man struggled with his lasgun, fitting a new energy pack. His eyes widened in fear as Boreas raised his pistol. The weapon’s aiming reticule framed the rebels’ terrified expression. The pistol barked flame. The man’s chest exploded. The Space Marines advanced onwards, slaying a man with every stride.

A more ‘emotional’ scene:

Boreas felt the protective presences of Zaul and Haphaestus to either side of him. Resigned to the slaughter, the Chaplain raised his pistol and picked out the first unfortunate to feel his wrath. The man wrestled vainly with the power pack of his lasgun before Boreas’ shot tore cut him down. Supported by his battle-brothers, Boreas advanced pitilessly, gunning down the rebels without mercy. The retribution of the Dark Angels was swift and merciless.

The ‘righteous fury’ of a Space Marine:

With the comradely presence of his battle-brothers around him, Boreas advanced mercilessly down the corridor. His ire engorged by the thought of what the rebels represented, the Chaplain unleashed the angry roar of his bolt pistol at everything in his path. His first victim was a man struggling with the power pack of his lasgun. Boreas’s round tore his chest apart in a bloody explosion of wrath. Seeing his foes torn apart, Boreas exalted in their deaths, his every step accompanied by the retribution of gunfire and righteous anger.

So, just some simple examples there. Any one of these describes the same events in terms of the story, but each puts a slightly different spin on the proceedings. Why did I choose the original approach? Well, the scene is a fairly matter-of-fact affair for the Space Marines, so the extended scene spends a lot of time describing the impact on their enemies rather than them, distancing them from the carnage they are wreaking.

As I always say, think about how you want to write something, and then just write it. Don’t get too hung up on getting everything spot on in the first pass. Get the tempo and feel of the scene right first, and when editing and re-writing try not to lose those overall impressions by reworking too fiercely. With practice and experience, the flow will come more naturally.


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Wow. This is an excellent article; I love how you’ve constructed this.

    Thank you for sharing!


  2. Act begets reaction. I so love that. It would be an incredible adventure to explore how the laws of physics apply to writing. human interaction. world politics. or just writing:)

    Gav – Well if the universe is, at its sub-atomic level, merely* information and writing is a means of communicating information then quantum-writing must be the way of the future!

    * I use merely in its proper sense, that of purely and nothing more, without negative connotation.


  3. Chello!

    just wanted to let you know that I just finished “Angels of Darkness”…most excellent work!

    I identified with Astelan mostly. I’m getting back into WH40K after a long hiatus (my last ruleset was Rogue Trader) and feel somewhat bemused by some of the changes…no squats…Tau, wtf is a Tau, etc. 🙂

    Anyway, thanks for the good writing!

    Gav – Welcome back to the grim darkness of the far future. That is quite a long hiatus, for sure. You’ll find that much is very different, but I hope that the fundamental images and principles of the 40Kverse are still apparent. I’m glad you like Angels of Darkness, I reckon there’s probably something about Astelan’s story that appeals to certain people, while other readers are naturally drawn to Boreas. I’m not sure what that says about those two groups of people, perhaps there’s a psychological study that would benefit from analysing the phenomenon! Thanks again.


  4. Thank you very very much for this post. Really helped me get some of my thoughts straight about how to write a few action scenes I’ve been thinking about.


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