Conflict is key to a good story in any genre. Understanding how to write fight scenes and action scenes will help you punctuate your chapters with moments of gripping high drama. To write scenes that hold your readers’ attention, try the following:
1. Maintain and build tense tone and mood
Conflict is a situation boiling over. Too long a tyrant’s rule; too long two lovers’ nearness without breathing space. So how do you start bringing your story to a simmer? Using tone and mood:
What are tone and mood?
‘Tone’ in writing means the ‘general character or attitude’: feel, style and effect. The Oxford English Dictionary defines mood as ‘the atmosphere or pervading tone of something’. In other words, ‘mood’ in story writing is how the tone of individual actions, descriptions, and lines of dialogue build to form an overarching feeling.
How do you build tone and mood for fight and action scenes?
Conflict in a story has many forms. It may unfold at a low simmer – characters taking jibes at each other on a long car ride. Or it might be ‘balls-to-the-wall’ fighting in an epic fantasy battle scene. Whichever type of conflict scene you’re working on, build conflict-foreshadowing tone and mood by:
- Narrating a darkening, intensifying mood. Example: ‘She was quiet and sullen for the first half hour of the trip’; ‘He wiped the blood clinging to his sword on the last unstained grass, steeling himself for the onslaught’
- Showing factors aggravating the already-tense situation. Example: ‘He slid an Abba CD into the player, knowing full well, she thought, that she wanted to mull over their disagreement at the gas stop in silence’
- Showing setting description through characters’ moody perspectives. Example: ‘She glared out the window at the road that seemed to pass them by slower than treacle, the sky so cheery and blue it only made her fume more
The above tone and mood examples make it clear the unfolding narrative is ripe for escalating conflict.
2. Match the intensity of verbs and adjectives to the scene
Verb and adjective choices are key in how to write fight scenes and action scenes that sweep your reader along. Compare ‘he ran quickly under a burst of enemy fire’ to ‘he bolted for the next sand trap through scattershot enemy fire.’
Why is the second example better?
- ‘Bolted’ as a verb conveys a sense of hurry and an emotional component of fear, unlike ‘ran quickly’ which is nondescript (‘quickly’ describes the ‘how’, not the ‘why’, whereas ‘bolted’ gives us the character motivation – fear)
- There’s character direction (‘for the next sand trap’ gives us a sense of where the action takes place and adds intensity. There’s a sense of direction and progression. The same goes for the change of preposition from ‘under’ to ‘through’ – there’s a sense of the character being in the middle of a hazardous situation
- ‘Scattershot’ as an adjective suggests luck, haphazard conditions – there’s a sense of ‘hit or miss’ that adds to the tension. The percussive sound of the word mimics the sound of rattling gunfire
This all comes down to thinking about the emotional core of a scene. What would a character trying not to get shot be feeling? Fear, most likely. Maybe anger too. So find verbs and adjectives that make readers feel what your characters do.
3. Avoid effect-weakening cliches
If you want to write fight scenes and action scenes that feel like parody (poking fun at genres’ or authors’ indulgences), using cliches would be a good approach. Generally, action cliches and tropes in conflict scenes could distract your reader from the grit of unfolding events.
Unless you’re actively writing a parody or spoof of your genre, you’d want to avoid, for example, a villain revealing to your protagonist they’re a long lost parent at the height of a fight scene (as in the classic Star Wars scene).
Other fight scene and action tropes and cliches include:
- Villains blabbing and revealing all their plans at great length (e.g. villains in the James Bond franchise)
- Taunts and intimidation: There are stock phrases from movies and video games (e.g. ‘Go ahead, make my day’ in the Clint Eastwood movie Dirty Harry) that should be avoided. Instead, create your own memorable dialogue
- Physical improbability: Death-defying physics in movies often pass us by too quickly to notice. Yet readers have time to take everything in. If your protagonist is shot 10 times will they still sprint to the nearest emergency exit? Highly unlikely
Here’s a great list of action tropes and cliches to keep in mind when writing fight or action scenes.
4. Think ‘goals’, ‘obstacles’ and ‘confrontations’
Conflict can be broke down into three simple components: A character’s goal, an obstacle to said goal, and the confrontation that results.
Some genre-specific examples for conflict scenes:
Character goal: Intimacy with desirable character. Obstacle: Their own controlling, disapproving parents. Confrontation: Tense encounter with parents ending in a shouting match.
Character goal: Stop antagonist obtaining an emblem that will give them boundless power over the land. Obstacle: Henchmen the villain sends to slow the hero’s progress towards the emblem’s location. Confrontation: Interception of hero by henchmen, leading to a bloody duel.
Character goal: Uncover the identity of a killer to make an arrest. Obstacle: Mistrustful, non-cooperative townspeople. Confrontation: A local gives the detective false information about a dangerous overpass and they encounter environmental hazards.
As you can see in the above examples, boiling down action and fight scenes to character goals and the obstacles they have to confront en route gives you a clear breakdown of what needs to happen in a scene. Then remember the tips of the first point on tone and mood to create the build up.
5: Learn how to write fight scenes and action scenes that develop characters
What the above point clarifies is that fight and action scenes illustrate characters’ goals and their challenges or hurdles. They show us, among other things, a character’s:
- Level of determination
- Courage (or fear)
- Ability to solve problems (e.g. Time-based problems such as facilities entering lock-down, making fast escape vital)
- Vulnerability or mortality: We realise the lover can be hurt, the figher can be injured. We understand the stakes
So when you write fight scenes and action scenes involving central characters, ask:
- What does this scene help the reader learn about the character’s strengths or flaws?
- What does the scene help the character learn about their own strengths/flaws?
- How could this relate to what’s coming up (for example, does a fight scene between hero and villain reveal just how dangerous the villain is? Or perhaps what flaw the hero needs to work on to emerge victorious the next time?)
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