I write a lot of action scenes. Consider that, no matter the potential depth for narrative and character development, the genres I write in also demand a lot of action and direct conflict. One series of books is set in the superhero genre, a classification that can have entire comic book issues devoted to an extended action sequence, and the other is grounded in professional wrestling, a sport entirely about ‘let’s you and him fight!’. Certainly, I try to twist those genres and interject plenty of discussion, introspection, and character-building moments, but who am I to deny the fans of the genres I write in one of the things they expect? After four novels of action scenes, I think I’m starting to get a handle on it enough to talk about it in a more analytical sense. Today’s musings are part of that analysis. Specifically, what I want to talk about today is just how much detail and length should a writer devote to the action sequences in his book.
I think the first thing to note is that action isn’t always a direct physical conflict (though it often is). Moments of intense conflict where not a single punch is thrown can be a fulfilling form of action in and of itself, be it an emotion-laden argument between two lovers or a seemingly polite duel of wits between two enemies fought over a pleasant meal. Though much of my focus in this post is about physical action, you can transpose some of these ideas to other forms of action with minimal adjustments.
With that established, when contemplating how to approach an action scene, an author should consider how important this scene is to the overall plot. Is there any critical narrative or character impact in the scene or is it simply a minor plot point? The more important the scene is, the more length and detail should be devoted to it. While this seems really obvious, the fact is that it is easy to get carried away. Writing action scenes can be fun, after all, and it’s easy to invest yourself too much into lovingly detailing out every minor scrap you can find. Doing that, though, just bloats your scenes and bores the reader. Action has to lead to consequence or it’s wasted pages and the depth of that consequence should equal the length of the scene.
If you follow the traditional curve of a strong initial hook, then rising action to climax, the curve alone can provide a barometer of how deep you should make each sequence. The detail and strength of an action sequence should pretty closely map it’s position on the curve. Feel free to start an action novel with a bang, using a strongly written action sequence to start the book, then ramp down, using gradually swelling bits of action to lead to a showstopping climax. Again, this seems pretty logical, but if an author doesn’t properly structure the story, they can wind up fatiguing the reader with out-of-place intense sequences, leading them to just be, well, tired and burned-out by the actual climax. Left with a feeling of ‘what could possibly top that’, their suspension of disbelief can break and they may not buy into the importance of the true climax of the book.
If these main points seem to be saying the same thing in different ways, they are to a degree. The main rule of thumb should always be ‘importance = intensity’. No matter the type of conflict, the intensity of the action should never overstep the scene’s importance. Never use the genre as an excuse to overstuff your works with excess scenes and wordy baggage. This applies as much to a mystery or a disaster yarn as much as to a martial arts action novel. In a mystery, for instance, don’t waste excessive pages on the questioning of a minor witness that adds little to the unravelling or obfuscation of the ultimate mystery. That’s a waste of action as much as a two-chapter fight scene with a shoplifter in a superhero book.
How do you approach action in your own works? Do you see the action inherent in conflict that isn’t purely physical? Do you treat that conflict in a similar way as physical ones or do you approach them on a different level? Start the conversation in the comment section!