Writing Action Scenes

Hey Folks,

I’ve wanted to write a post on this for awhile now, and it’s finally time.

This post results directly from a high-action scene, a fight scene, I wrote back in April in my crime/action-adventure/thriller novel Blackwell Ops 5: Georgette Tilden. It was probably the best high-action scene I’d ever written, at least up to that point.

This isn’t so much a “how-to” as a “how-I-do-it” post. All of this will go to my individual “style” as a writer, which I define as the way a particular writer composes sentences and paragraphs, the writer’s use of simile and metaphor, pacing, etc.

I personally like to focus-in on high-action scenes. I want the reader to not only see the action but to feel it. I want him to experience it, albeit vicariously.

I want the reader to see what the POV character sees, hear what she hears, smell what she smells, and all of that while immersed in the heat of battle.

I want the reader to feel, both physically and emotionally, what the POV character feels as she’s going through the fast-action scene.

This is much easier done in “normal” scenes when lives are not at stake. Those can be as long as you like, take whatever time they take, and work themselves out. They’re also a little more bland. Bland is good sometimes, like when you’re giving the reader a break.

But in a high-action scene, you can’t have bland. You can’t have even one word of bland. You can’t write anything that will either gloss-over or take-away from the action.

In high-action scenes, the stakes are higher (usually life or death) and the scene is “shorter” and much more tense regardless of the number of words on the page.

In the scene I wrote yesterday (and incidentally, I love writing scenes like this) there were 994 words, yet it encapsulated maybe 5-10 seconds of time in the story. And it took me a couple of hours to write. (No, there was no conscious-mind rewriting involved. More on that later.)

I want the reader to experience the tension the POV character is experiencing. If the POV character’s heart is pounding in her chest, I want the reader’s heart rate to increase too.

As the POV character calms down in the aftermath, I want the reader to calm down too. If the POV character feels remorse of sadness or elation or relief or fatigue, I want the reader to feel it too.

There’s a way to do that.

If you’ve ever been in a high-tension situation (scene) in your own life, you know that your senses are heightened far beyond the norm and in odd directions. You notice things you wouldn’t notice in a normal situation, and you notice them much more intensely and with all your senses.

If your car is spinning out of control on an icy road, you might be trying to determine, through your windshield, where you’re going to end up. You’re very glad you aren’t on a road with a sheer cliff on one side and a sheer 500-foot drop-off on the other.

You might notice other vehicles, which also might or might not be out of control, and try to calculate in your mind whether you’re likely to collide with one of them.

You might notice how unbelievably white your knuckes are as you grip the steering wheel. You might notice the smell of your passenger’s fear. You might not even hear her scream, though you might wonder why her mouth’s so wide open and when she got that new cap on her incisor.

Got it?


So when I write a scene like that, I filter the setting through the POV character’s physical and emotional senses so the reader can experience it too. I also allow the POV character her opinons of the setting.

She might not only wonder when her passenger got that cap on her tooth. She might wonder when her passenger got that “stupid” or “gaudy” or “really cool” cap on her tooth.

Or she might wonder “is that real gold?” Or she might think “It looks horrible!” or “It looks good!” or “I wish I could afford to pamper myself like that” (envy). That’s the POV character’s opinion, one she would never say outright to her friend, but one that she feels.

And it all belongs right in the middle of the high-action scene.

Why? Because it’s real. It’s what she’s experiencing in the moment, and I want the reader to experience what the POV character is experiencing in the moment.

So to that end…

At first, I just wrote the scene into the dark (as I always do). I always write high-action or fast-action scenes very quickly. I wrote those 994 words in probably a little over a half-hour.

Then (as I always do) I cycled back over it. When I cycle back over a “normal” scene, I might add or remove a little description. I might even reparagraph a little to speed-up or slow-down the pacing.

If I make a lot of changes (I usually don’t) to a “normal” scene, it might take me up to an hour to cycle through 3000 or 4000 words.

Yet cycling through this little 994-word scene (two or three times, in segments) took me two hours or longer.

The seed of the scene was there. All the necessary good guys and bad guys were where they were supposed to be and doing what they were supposed to do. All of it written into the dark.

So when I cycled through it the first, second and however many other times…

▪ I changed a word here and there from a less-tense, less-descriptive term to one that was more tense and more descriptive.

▪ I moved a few clauses and phrases that were originally at the end of a sentence to the beginning of the same sentence (or from the beginning to the end) to give the sentence greater impact.

(Sentences have areas of greater and lesser impact and carry greater and lesser impactful information. Matching the information with the area makes all the difference.

For just one example, I’d originally written one sentence like this:

He frantically tugged at his tunic, still struggling to reach for something on his left side even as he fell away from me.

It now reads like this:

Even as he fell away from me, he frantically tugged at his tunic, still struggling to reach for something on his left side.

Exactly the same words, but do you feel the difference in tension? If not, try reading it aloud.)

▪ I shifted one paragraph to a slightly different, earlier place.

▪ I shifted three or four sentences to different places in the sequence in a paragraph.

▪ I hit the return key (the enter key) a few times to create new one-sentence paragraphs. (One-sentence paragraphs, if they’re the right sentences, enhance emotional impact.

▪ And finally I did a lot of mixing and matching, shifting the reader’s attention from one assailant to another and to an unseen assailant who was behind the POV character for almost the whole scene (and whom the POV character hoped was being handled by her partner) just as the POV character’s attention shifted.


Attention shifts are important in high-action scenes, just as they occur in high-action situations in real life.

Now for the “editing or rewriting vs. cycling” discussion.

The difference between editing or rewriting and cycling is not one of substance. It’s one of source.

Editing and rewriting is done from the conscious, critical mind. Any changes are most often based on a negative thought, such as “Ugh, that (word, sentence, paragraph) doesn’t work” or “That doesn’t belong there.”

Cycling, like writing, is done from the creative subconscious. Any changes occur naturally, come directly from the POV character, and always are based on a positive: “Harvey, I can see the third guy leaping over the first guy I put down to get to me even as the second one is reeling away after catching the buttstock of my rifle to his face. And I’m still worried about the guy behind me even while I’m fighting the one in front of me. See?” (Why does this remind me of something my friend Alison would say?)

My characters teach me a great deal both while writing and cycling.

As I mentioned, I cycled through this scene three or four times — maybe more — even though I usually cycle through “normal” scenes only once. That means I read it, beginning to end, and allowed my fingers to lie on the keyboard.

When something wasn’t “right” (as evidenced by a character tugging on my sleeve), I “fixed it” by adding, deleting, shifting, replacing, etc. And after the third or fourth time through, I knew it was golden. There was simply nothing more to do.

Every word, sentence and paragraph moved the scene forward. Every word, sentence and paragraph transmitted the tension to the reader (in the moment, me) and heightened or lessened that tension as necessary for that part of the scene: the winding-up, the fight itself (which was actually five individual fights all mixed up), and the winding-down.

I was so giddy when the scene was finished, I actually shared it with a few people. I very, very seldom do that.

But since I wrote all of this stuff, if any of you would like to see the finished scene to compare it with this topic, email me at harveystanbrough@gmail.com. I’d be happy to send it to you, along with a sentence to set the scene for you.

If you’re a regular reader of my work, I promise, it won’t “spoil” anything. (grin)

By the way, on Thursday, June 27th, Draft2Digital (D2D) will host their first-ever FREE “Ask Us Anything” with marketing masterminds Kevin Tumlinson, Mark Lefebvre, and Dan Wood. They will answer your questions live and on-air. If you’d like to join in for this FREE learning session, Click Here.

‘Til next time, happy writing!


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2 thoughts on “Writing Action Scenes”

  1. Great post, Harvey!

    Basically, I treat a many scenes the way you treat action scenes. I cycle through them multiple times and not with my conscious mind either. In addition to the MC, I try to get into the heads of other characters who are in the scene. They need to act the way they should and be consistent even if they are relatively minor characters. I find scenes where more than two characters are interacting to be tricky. For example, I just finished scene where a police detective, a lawyer, state senator and a doctor are discussing a possible murder. The scene is told from the POV of an eavesdropper who can hear the conversation, but not see any of the participants. Took many cycles to get it right.

    Some of this came from you. When you edited my first novel, you remarked that in your military experience, you’d never come across an NCO who did some of the things that my villainous NCO did…something like that. (I’m getting old and my rememberer isn’t what once was.) Anyway, the NCO was one of the villains and he did what he had to do in the plot as a villain. Sometimes that wasn’t what a sergeant would do, even a bad sergeant. So now when I cycle through scenes, I also look at actions/dialogue etc of other characters.

    When I’m doing this, I’m just trying to make the scene better. So I have to ask, why confine that kind of attention to just one kind of scene?

    • Hi Bob,

      Thanks for the comment. The one thing I’d caution you on is Be Sure any descriptions (even of voices, etc.) are Through the Senses of your POV character. You mention getting into the heads of the various characters. Have them do and say (and act) as they would, BUT be sure the “observer” of all that is your POV character.

      I DO actually cycle through everything I write at least one time, but only high-action scenes need the intensity of the slow-motion zoom-in that I’m talking about here. (Think of some of the old Sam Pekinpah films. Everything’s happening in real time, until suddenly an arrow is caught in flight just before it strikes the victim, whereupon the focus goes to the arrow and/or the victim (watching it come and unable to escape) and stays there through the moment of impact. Then everything returns to regular action.

      That’s what I was talking about above. The focus of the POV character in a high-action scene is more intense and more tightly focused than in “normal” times and situations. In the high-action scene, all the nerves of the POV character are standing on end.

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