Revisions Made Easy (Part Three): Action Scenes

I love a good action scene. I write urban fantasy, and I love nothing more than to throw some punches, swing some swords, and draw back a bowstring.

Good action scenes can propel a story forward. It’s a good opportunity to reveal a new side to a character. (People react very differently under pressure, and a fight scene brings out all kinds of emotion.) Fights can let you show empathy, cruelty, courage, fear, anger, fury, humiliation…I could go on all night.

Bad action scenes suck.

Do you ever find yourself reading a fight scene in a book, and you start to skim? The biggest problem I see with action scenes is too much detail. Detail slows pacing. You want the reader’s eyes to fly down the page–and that’s not going to happen if you’re writing about the feel of the grip of the gun in your heroine’s hands, the sounds of the bullet leaving the chamber, the echo of the gunshot in the room…again, you’re bored already, aren’t you?

I think movies kill our writing. In a movie, you can zero in on the barrel of a gun, crank up the tense music, and have a heavy pause before the bullet explodes from the weapon. It’s instinctive to try to make your writing emulate a movie experience. But the problem is that slowing down a moment in a movie builds tension. Slowing down a moment in a novel breeds boredom. They’re two different mediums. In a book, if you want to ramp up the pacing, use shorter sentences. Fragments, if you have to. Make it fly.

It’s not just details. Remember on Sunday when we talked about the reader making leaps with you? It’s never truer than in an action scene. You don’t need to write every swing of the sword, every footstep, every motion. Leave some of that to the imagination.

Here, I found an old scene that’s almost embarrassing to post. Here’s the unedited version.

The vampire went very still. “You do not want to challenge me.”

“Wrong.”

Gabriel felt a flicker of inquiry brush his mind. An evaluation. The vampire laughed. “I don’t think so.”

Gabriel shifted sideways, edging around the bench, dropping his center of gravity. Preparing to fight.

Any trace of humor disappeared from the vampire’s face. “You’ll get yourself hurt.”

Gabriel took another step, closer, yet still sideways, beginning to circle. “I’ll take my chances.”

The vampire lunged forward and spun, aiming a kick high. Gabriel dodged, pivoting to block with his arms, and found himself taking the brunt of a sudden volley of rapid-fire punches. He had no opportunity to strike back. He could barely defend himself.

He leapt backwards to earn himself a moment to retaliate. When the vampire pursued, Gabriel swung his arm wide and low, aiming below the ribcage.

The punch met air, and his wrist was seized out of the darkness in a grip of iron. The vampire held fast and swung his other arm around in an arc, driving a fist into Gabriel’s elbow.

The pain was blinding. Gabriel hardly felt his knees hit the pavement.

Relentless, the vampire threw a punch that connected with Gabriel’s jaw, threw his head back, and stole his balance. The next strike connected with his sternum and laid him on the ground.

The back of his head struck the pavement, hard, followed by his arm. Gabriel cried out and tried to roll to his feet.

The vampire caught him by the throat and shoved him back down. He gripped tight and knelt on Gabriel’s unbroken wrist to pin him there.

Then the vampire simply looked down at him. “I told you.”

Lots of action. Too much detail, too much telling. Part of the fun of reading is imagining some of it. Hearing every detail starts to feel like reading a textbook.

Details kill pacing.

Let’s try the same scene again, and I’ll take a heavy hand to the delete key.

The vampire went very still. “You do not want to challenge me.”

“Wrong.”

Gabriel felt a flicker of inquiry brush his mind. An evaluation. The vampire laughed. “I don’t think so.”

Gabriel edged around the bench, dropping his center of gravity. Preparing to fight.

Any trace of humor disappeared from the vampire’s face. “You’ll get yourself hurt.”

Gabriel took another step. “I’ll take my chances.”

The vampire lunged forward, aiming a kick high. Gabriel dodged, pivoting to block with his arms, and found himself taking the brunt of a sudden volley of rapid-fire punches.

Gabriel swung his arm wide and low, aiming below the ribcage. The punch met air, and his wrist was seized in a grip of iron. The vampire swung his other arm in an arc, driving a fist into Gabriel’s elbow.

The pain stole his vision. Gabriel hardly felt his knees hit the pavement.

The next strike connected with his sternum and laid him on the ground.

The back of his head struck the pavement, hard, followed by his arm. Gabriel cried out and tried to roll to his feet.

The vampire caught him by the throat and shoved him back down. He knelt on Gabriel’s unbroken wrist to pin him there. “I told you.”

Far fewer words, much less unnecessary detail.

I recognize that the delete key has been a recurring theme over the last few days. I cannot emphasize how much pruning will improve your manuscript. Don’t think of it as cutting words. Think of it as cutting fat. You’re turning that side of beef into a filet mignon.

3 thoughts on “Revisions Made Easy (Part Three): Action Scenes

  1. Wow…thanks…usally i’m too scared to do action scenes, i don’t really know how to write them…when i get to one i’ll look back on this and i hope i do well ^^
    thanks.

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