In an action or dramatic scene, one in which the emotions are high and the reader is on the edge of the seat, the mood is tense, the writing tight. Define the emotional goal of the scene. Use all the senses, the coppery taste of blood, the cold sting of the rain, the smell of old fish. Limit the number of adjectives (descriptive words). Cut any that aren’t absolutely necessary. Find strong verbs and let them do the work. Avoid adverbs ( –ly words).
Make the main character (MC) want something badly, need it now. The reader must want the same outcome and want it now. Then deny them the desired outcome. It can be the discovery of a small puddle in the desert when he’s dying of thirst. Let it seep into the ground and disappear as he reaches for it. He can dig with his hands, ripping his fingernails, tearing his skin.
Or a woman is in labor and her car plunges over a bank. The baby starts to come. It’s night, there’s no moon, there’s no one around. She must save her baby and herself.
|Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid|
Or a man might be following his wife to see if his suspicions are true—who she’s meeting and why. What will happen to his child if he divorces her? All kinds of tense situations make up action scenes.
The pacing in an action scene is fast. There’s no room for background or description, which will slow the action. Save these things for slower scenes and when you want to give the reader a little time to catch her breath.
In action, every word must count. Vary the length of your sentences, using short, terse statements and fragments mixed with longer sentences. Keep paragraphs short. Eliminate “and” as much as possible. Don’t use words that dilute the meaning, such as “almost,” “seemed,” and “nearly.” Make it hard and fast; give it some punch.
Here’s a small piece of a tense scene from Time of Death:
Alex heard a whisper of air behind her. A hand grabbed the back of her shirt, jerked her to her feet.
“Move, girl.” The straw man pushed her forward toward the road, oblivious to the brush and vines in her path.
She jerked, tried to free herself, but he switched his grip to her arm, crushing it with steel strength. The man, Hunnicutt, wouldn’t let go no matter what she did. Save your strength. Wait for a chance.
The sentences are short, choppy. My goal was to have the reader share Alex's fear. There’s a small chance to catch your breath when she plans, then the action picks up again.
|The Long Riders|
Remember, any type of scene must advance the plot and develop the characters. It should show how people act during bad times or in difficult situations. Ask yourself how the scene shows action. It doesn't have to be physical action. The scene must have consequences. What happens as a result of this scene?
How do you write action scenes? What are the emotional goals?