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The key to writing thrilling action scenes

All of my novels have a big emphasis on action. It follows directly from the types of books that I love to read and the movies that I watch. The key to action scenes, obviously, is to make them dramatic! Sounds simple, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

A really good piece of writing advice that I heard is “write the slow stuff fast and the fast stuff slow”. It’s a great way of thinking. Action scenes are by their very nature supposed to be fast and frenetic. But don’t rush them. I think it’s really important to slow the scene down, to show the reader exactly what is happening.

“Show don’t tell” is an age-old adage always worth remembering when writing such scenes. I love the quote by Anton Chekhov which captures this sentiment perfectly:

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

And this is absolutely essential when writing an action scene, when you’re trying to slow the scene down and show the reader everything. So don’t just write “Johnny stabbed Vinny in the gut”. What was really happening in that scene? Describe the people, their movements, the looks on their faces, the smells, all of the things that are necessary to put the reader right there in the action.

So what was going through Johnny’s mind as he plunged the razor-sharp blade into Vinny’s abdomen? What sound did the knife make as it pierced the skin and sliced through flesh? What was the look on Vinny’s face and what pained noises escaped his lips?

With all that detail, though, what you can’t do is to bore the reader, or drag things out unnecessarily. You have to make it exciting. You want the readers on the edge of their seats, totally gripped, in suspense for what is about to happen. Using lots of sharp, punchy language always helps. Short sentences and paragraphs. It creates the sense of pace even though you’ve slowed the scene right down.

As a very general rule I always like to keep sentences below 25 words. Don’t ask me why, it’s just a habit. I’m sure there are plenty of sentences in all my books that exceed 25 words, but I analyse each and every one to make sure I’m happy with the exceptions. And I always cut them down whenever I can. For an action scene, I trim them down even further. You want a nice staccato rhythm. Boom. Boom. Boom. Imagine the heart beat of the protagonist. That of the reader too. Make the words fit that rhythm. The pace quickening as you go. Building to a crescendo. All of the excitement. All of the drama. All of the blood. The sweat and the tears. You reach the climax…

And then you're done.

Press return. Start new chapter. Nailed it.

This blog was conceived for Break A Leg Review as part of the Rise of the Enemy blog tour - original post here!

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