I specialize in editing thrillers and other fast-paced, suspenseful fiction, and someone recently asked me how editing thrillers is different from editing other genres. That’s a huge topic, too much for one blog post, and would include differences in plot, characterization, pacing, word choice, and writing style, among many other considerations. For today, I thought I’d just talk about writing effective action scenes, which can also appear in romantic suspense, mysteries, action adventures, fantasies, and any other genre.
When your characters are running for their lives, write tight and leave out a lot of description, especially little insignificant details about their surroundings. Of course, if the details would somehow help them, then definitely include them.
Characters on the run don’t have time to sightsee, reminisce, deliberate at length, or have great long discussions. Their adrenaline is pumping and all they’re thinking of is survival. Show that in your writing style.
A few quick tips for writing strong action scenes:
~ Show, don’t tell (of course!).
~ Stay in the scene with the characters – don’t intrude as the author to explain anything.
~ Avoid lengthy discussions among characters or long, involved thought processes.
~ Cut out any little unneeded words that are cluttering up sentences and slowing down the pace.
~ Use short sentences and paragraphs.
~ Use the most powerful verbs you can find.
~ Show your viewpoint character’s sensory impressions to suck readers in more.
~ Show your POV character’s emotional and physical reactions, starting with visceral responses.
~ Show other characters’ reactions through their words, tone of voice, actions, body language, and facial expressions.
SOME BEFORE AND AFTER EXAMPLES OF ACTION SCENES, WELL-DISGUISED FROM MY EDITING:
Fortunately for Jennifer, the attacker was far enough away that when he attempted to grab her she sidestepped him and delivered a sharp kick to the outside of his left knee.
He grunted and fell back against the stack of wooden crates. He then got up clumsily, rubbing his arm, showing his anger at how easily Jennifer had dodged and hit him.
The attacker lunged at Jennifer. She dodged to the side and delivered a sharp kick to his knee.
He grunted and fell against the stack of wooden crates. He scrambled up, rubbing his arm, eyes full of hate. [or sneering at her. Or ….]
His facial expression changed from one showing loathing to one communicating unrestrained glee. Jennifer realized at that moment that she had made a fatal mistake. She looked to her right. The door leading out of the warehouse was about fifty feet from where she was standing.
His expression changed from loathing to unrestrained glee. Jennifer knew she had made a fatal mistake. She searched for the exit door. It was to her right, about fifty feet away.
Before: An inline skater came careening around the corner and skated fast towards them, shouting loudly. Josh shot a look back at Amy as he grabbed her arm and pulled her bodily to the edge of the street out of the path of the oncoming skater.
After: An inline skater came careening around the corner and barreled towards them, yelling. Josh grabbed Amy’s arm and pulled her out of the path of the oncoming skater.
Before: Moments later, another skater was coming at them at breakneck pace. This time it was Amy’s turn to save her companion as she pushed Josh flat against the gray-colored stone wall of the adjacent building.
[At times of stress, sentences need to be shorter. And leave out minor details, as Josh isn’t thinking that the stones are gray-colored right now.]
After: Moments later, another skater came at them at a breakneck pace. Amy shoved Josh against the stone wall of the building beside them. [or just: against the building.]
Kate and Lauren ran down the tunnel to an open doorway, then up some stone steps leading to a stone walkway. Kate hesitated for only a moment at the top in order to jam the hand gun she was holding into her waistband and give her time to figure out where to run.
In front of them was a huge stone courtyard, which was too open for them to safely cross before the smugglers would come looking for them. Kate knew she had to find a hiding place quickly. Then it came to her.
“Follow me,” Kate commanded, running off to her left.
Kate and Lauren sprinted down the tunnel, then up some stone steps to a walkway. At the top, Kate stopped to jam the gun into her waistband and figure out where to run.
In front of them was a wide open stone courtyard. They’d never get across without the smugglers spotting them. Kate knew she had to find a hiding place quickly. Then it came to her.
“Follow me,” Kate said, dashing off to her left.
So for tense action scenes, write tight, show character actions and reactions, and keep things moving!
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Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction. Please check out Jodie’s website and blog, as well as her group blog, Crime Fiction Collective.
Jodie’s craft-of-fiction articles are published regularly on various blogs, and she has written two popular books on writing fiction that sells, with more to follow. Jodie’s two books, both in the series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction, are: Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power, a how-to guide with examples for revving up your fiction-writing skills, also available in paperback, and her shorter e-booklet on writing riveting suspense fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller.