I have trouble writing action sequences. Scenes that positively glitter with excitement and portent in my mind sometimes elicit nothing from readers beyond question marks. I’m getting better, though. Here are two analogies and two concrete steps that have helped me write stronger action.
First, the analogies. There are two activities that are not directly related to writing but that provide a way of thinking that is useful here. They both carry the same message, so feel free to choose whichever one best connects with you.
- Sailing. I’m not really a sailor (as I’ve mentioned before), but my husband is, and I hang around sailors a lot. On a sailboat, rigging refers to the system of ropes, cables, wires, and rods that support and control the mast and sail. This system has two components. Standing rigging basically holds the mast up. It is generally set in place at the beginning of the sailing system and left alone after that. Running rigging, on the other hand, adjusts the position and shape of the sails. A sailor will constantly adjust the running rigging as conditions change or the boat changes heading. It is this distinction between standing and running rigging that proves helpful (I’ll explain how in a minute).
- Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). I’ve been playing tabletop role playing games since the 1970s (as I’ve mentioned before), using a variety of systems and with a variety of groups. A battle scene in D&D often begins (after the Dungeon Master says, “Roll init!”) with the battle map. This is generally laid out on a mat with a pre-drawn one-inch grid, where the DM indicates the locations of fixed objects: walls, trees, giant spider webs, bottomless pits of hellfire, or whatever. Once the battle map is established, players place their minis, the tiny figurines that represent their characters, in the proper locations. During the battle itself the battle map changes little if at all, but the minis dart around as they face and overcome their many opponents. The key here is the distinction between the nearly-static battle map and the often-moving minis.
Now that you’ve seen the two analogies and picked the one you are more comfortable with, here’s how to apply them in two steps.
- Before the action begins, you need to set up your standing rigging or establish your battle map. You start by making sure the setting is completely clear in your own mind (I have maps and floor plans for all the key locations in my WIP), but you also need to make it clear in your reader’s mind. Find a scene that occurs before the action sequence that takes place in the same location. Make sure something happens there in that earlier scene, because every scene needs to advance the story, but it shouldn’t be a high-intensity action scene of its own. If this requires some plot adjustment, it will be worth it. Spend some words in that earlier scene firmly establishing the setting, making sure it is crystal clear how everything is arranged. It will be helpful to give a handy label to locations that will be important during the upcoming action scene: the south window, Fred’s armchair.
- During the action scene itself, you can invoke the reader’s already-solid image of the location and focus on describing just the action itself: the adjustment of the running rigging, the movements of the minis. If you haven’t firmly established the setting earlier, you will need to make a terrible choice. You can slow down the action by describing everything in detail: “Tanya saw a convenient upholstered chair off to her left, right in front of a window that offered a view of the back yard, and realized she could bounce off that chair to escape.” Or you can use vague, generic language that leaves the reader with no clear image of what is happening: “Tanya bounced off an armchair and escaped through a window.” With the proper rigging/map in place, though, you can say, “Tanya used Fred’s armchair like a trampoline to vault through the south window to freedom,” and the reader will be able to clearly picture exactly this sequence.
Of course, these two steps aren’t really enough; you need two more. Step 3 is to get feedback from readers, which is where critique partners and beta readers come in. They can tell you whether you were successful in setting up the action in their minds. Step 4 is the key to all of this: practice. Just keep writing. Keep trying, keep getting feedback, and keep improving. It’s the only way.