Simple mistakes are killing your scene.
When writers send their action scenes to me complaining that they simply can’t nail down the writing or make it believable, I always check their pace first. The #1 mistake I see writers make again and again is to bog down their pacing during an action scene or to maintain the same breakneck speed throughout. If I am being honest, then I must admit that I spent many years making these mistakes as well. Thinking I simply wasn’t cut out for action, I abandoned projects only to return to them when I had discovered my awful roadblocks were easy fixes. Because I don’t want to pass up an object lesson on pacing, consider how you read this paragraph.
Feel the difference?
A riveting action scene will cause readers to sit up in their seats, or hold their breath, or bite their nails. They will lose track of the world around them and devour the scene with a storming heart. The key to creating that perfect action scene lies in controlling your readers’ heartrate. The simplest trick is to vary the length of your paragraphs and your sentences. Additionally, you must be strategic in the words you choose to use and the experiences you convey. They need to truly feel what the characters feel. That made all the difference for my story.
I have provided three examples that we will discuss below. The first is a common paragraph I find in many authors’ manuscript. Example B and C are two different styles to correct the sluggish pace of Example A. Take note of the speed with which you read, how you feel reading each, and your breathing and heartrate.
An icy finger of sweat traces a line down Cassy’s spine, sparking chills that snake throughout her body. The shadows are mocking her, catching the corner of her eye with movement only to reveal empty corners of darkness. The rocking chair perched upon the deck before her rocks steadily despite the smashed food trampled under the foot of panicked civilians. Cassy sees no one in sight. A clatter rings down the alley to her right. She jumps, clutches her gun, and aims her weapon. Before she can pull the trigger, hands wind their way around her neck and slide over her eyes, blinding her. Cassy screams.
An icy finger of sweat traces a line down Cassy’s spine, sparking chills that snake throughout her body. Shadows mock her with shifting shapes and glimpses of motion, only to reveal empty corners of darkness. She snaps her head to the side.
Wood creaks ahead. Cassy clutches her weapon as she approaches the abandoned deck. Smashed food in the shape of boot prints litters the rickety deck. A wooden chair rocks steadily. Creak. Creak. No one in sight.
Clattering in the alley. She jumps. Tightens her finger over the trigger.
Hands choke her. Blind her. Suffocate her.
An icy finger of sweat traces a line down Cassy’s spine, sparking chills that snake throughout her body. The shadows are mocking her, catching the corner of her eye with motion only to reveal empty corners of darkness. The rocking chair perched upon the deck before her rocks steadily despite the smashed food trampled under the foot of panicked civilians. No one in sight.
A clatter rings down the alley to her right. She jumps, clutches her gun, and aims her weapon.
Hands wind their way around her neck. Choke her. Blind her.
Example B has a faster pace than Example C, while example C provides slightly more exposition for authors who enjoy that style. While some might not find a problem with Example A, most experienced editors and writers will spot the problems immediately. An action scene shouldn’t merely have quality writing, but a pace which captures your reader. While it might seem obvious to vary sentence and paragraph length and to utilize sentence fragments, it can also be easy to overlook that we are neglecting to use these tools.
As tension builds, I recommend resorting to short and fast beats. Next, vary your sentence structure and incorporate more lengthy exposition. Continue to vary between the abrupt and more lengthy styles. Be mindful about how you want to physically affect your readers' heartrate and breathing with each line. By the time you reach the climax of that particular scene, you should be utilizing words and sentence structures which the reader can consume rapidly. You never want action as sudden as a gunshot to take twenty seconds to read. Pop. You want the injury to feel instant.
Make sure that you do not waste meticulously varied sentence structures by including narration that doesn’t need to be present in an action scene. This isn’t the time for your protagonist to spend five minutes thinking about the meaning of life. Your POV character should be feeling the experience of the moment. Never pass up a chance to allude to the themes of your book and the meaning of life, but use tact. A few words or a short thought will make more of an impact than an entire paragraph about how your character ruined her life by becoming a soldier rather than a receptionist like her mother said she would. Furthermore, truly capture what it feels like to be that character by including the five senses and evoking empathy from your reader for the emotional and psychological state of the character.
These are basics mechanics you can use to fine tune the pace of your scene. Feel free to review the examples to note the differences in each and how they change the pace of the writing. The only way these techniques will work, however, is if you have created characters who you readers care about and if you have given them a believable enough story that they can suspend disbelief. If you have all of the ingredients to make a killer action scene but you’re still missing the mark, check your pace.
Now, get to writing!
[For further examples of pacing action scenes, click here to study the techniques I use in Seasons of War.]