Wednesday, March 2, 2011

WriteBrain Report: Action! Write Better Action Using Cinematic Techniques

Action!  Write Better Action Using Cinematic Techniques
February Write Brain – by DeAnna Knippling
Because movies have become so integral to our society, the way we read and what we enjoy has changed:  people want to read fiction that comes across with the same excitement as a movie. Denver-area writer Ian Healy showed us how at the February PPW Write Brain.
An action scene is plot or character development through violence—if not, then it’s gratuitous!
All action scenes focus on a main character and some kind of opponent.  While action scenes can be based on a character fighting themselves, society, or nature, it’s the conflicts in which another human being is involved that are the most gripping.
All action occurs in a set piece.  Authors have to know a lot about the set piece—what the layout is, what objects are at hand, if there are bystanders, etc.  Everything in a set piece can be used in an action scene to further the goals of one character over another, such as throwing a chair, hiding behind a bystander, or swinging from a chandelier.  
Building Blocks of Action
The basic building block of an action scene is the stunt, an individual action or flurry of actions between the character and opponent (for example, a sword thrust and parry). 
One step up from the stunt is the engagement or major action scene (such as a fight or chase scene).  An engagement is a single conflict, even though it may move through different set pieces.  Engagements usually lead to another engagement in a different set piece (for example, a chase leading to a shootout) or to a new plot point (the character’s mentor is killed). 
More complex than the engagement is the sequence, multiple engagements that form a major plot point (such as a car chase plus the subsequent shootout).  An action movie generally has three or four sequences through the course of the movie; the last one will be the climax of the story.
Types of Action Scenes
There are four basic types of action scenes:  the fight, shootout, chase, and battle (from least to most complex).  A variety of techniques should be used in different types of action scenes—don’t let your characters stand in one place hitting or shooting at each other.  In fights, you can use kicks, punches, slaps, weapons, throwing an opponent, tripping, sliding along the bar, grappling, using pieces of the set as weapons, ganging up on characters, etc.  People in shootouts use all kinds of cover—from the corner of a building to a human shield—to avoid being shot and chose their locations carefully (for example, taking the high ground).  They run out of ammo and have to take time to reload (a perfect moment to yell insults).  They have to deal with wounds in a way that people in fights (with their short time and high adrenaline) don’t notice. 
In chase scenes, you can create a hybrid between a pure chase scene and a fight or shootout; you can involve weapons to add to the excitement of pursuit and increase the range at which the characters can interact.  Your characters can interact with their set piece during chase scenes—they don’t have to race along a featureless strip of highway.  They can run, jump, climb, fall, and crash through their environments (like the classic running-through-the-hotel-kitchen scene).  Chase scenes are often used at the beginning or end of an action sequence to increase the tension of the sequence.  Make sure you use your vehicles to their full advantage, too, using them as weapons and projectiles if necessary.  Ian also noted that chase scenes involve a lot of collateral damage to their environments, and repercussions from that can be fun to play with (as in Lethal Weapon, for example).
Writers should do a lot of planning before tackling a battle scene but keep focused on their main characters.  One way to do this is to break huge groups into specific units, each of which has a specific goal, planning the events that the groups will accomplish, and deciding how the other groups successes and failures make your characters’ group’s goals harder or easier. 
  • Stage blocking.  Sketch out the set piece; it doesn’t have to be artistic. 
  • Vocabulary.  Learn at least the basic vocabulary for the type of stunts you’re writing (for example, sword fighting in 1800s France).  But don’t use words that are too obscure.
  • Pacing through sentence length.  Everybody pauses for a period:  to slow down action (think slo-mo), use short sentences (and thus a lot of periods).  To speed up pacing, use sentences with a lot of clauses.
  • Make sure you do your research (especially about guns).  Role-playing games (like Dungeons and Dragons or GURPS) often have extensive research material written for the lay reader.  Role-playing games can also help you get a feel for how to set up action scenes.
  • Don’t use quick cuts, that is, very short camera shots.  It makes the reader feel lost.  Follow a main character to give a sense of order.
  • Avoid purple prose.  Describing things in great detail during an action scene can slow your pace.  Pass along backstory or other information in another scene instead.
The best POVs for writing action scenes are first person or third person close.  Seeing an action scene in a book, no matter how complex, is a lot easier when you’re not jumping from POV to POV with a third person omniscient narrator.  As Ian said, “As fun as action scenes can be, they’re still about people.  Pulling [the camera] back makes the characters much smaller in relation to the whole story.  Nobody cares about Soldier 38.  The reader cares about the main characters.”
You can find additional information about Ian and how to write better action scenes (including worksheets) at and  As a bonus, you can also submit your action scenes to him for anonymous review on his Action! website.
Bio:  DeAnna Knippling is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs.  Her first book, Choose Your Doom:  Zombie Apocalypse, was published by Doom Press (  She blogs at

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