Most sci-fi and fantasy books include a fight scene. Or, at the very least, they’ll include fast-paced action to enhance the drama. Mastering action scenes is a valuable way to grip readers and amp up the tension.
A friend once asked me to edit his novel, in which the first scene featured the protagonist in a tavern brawl. Aside from the mistake of beginning with a fight in the first chapter (read more about why that’s a mistake here), the action scene was, and I say this in the nicest way possible, boring. It was just uninteresting—not what you want for a fight scene.
One of the scene’s problems was that it had too much going on. The writing described every single move the characters made and added paragraphs of exposition. Imagine watching the entire Matrix trilogy in slow motion—that’s the effect over-exposition can have. In short, the pacing was all wrong.
The Keys to Action
While it’s good to be descriptive—you don’t want readers getting lost, after all—action scenes need to be brimming with tension. You want readers to be gripping the book, eyes glued to the page, and holding their breath until they find out what happens. But overly descriptive writing and exposition slow down the pace and break up the action. The result is a slow action scene that easily loses readers’ attention.
The two keys to great action scenes are short, clean sentences and dynamic verbs. Short sentences keep the action flowing smoothly and quickly, and dynamic verbs make the action interesting.
For example, the following scene is from The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, in which the protagonist fights another student in an arena during training; the scene takes place a third into the book, after the rivalry between the two characters has been brewing for some time.
“Nezha kept his gaze trained intently on Rin’s, almond eyes narrowed in a tight focus. His lips were pressed in concentration. There were no jeers, no taunts. Not even a snarl.
Nezha was taking her seriously, Rin realized. He took her as an equal.
For some reason, this made her fiercely proud. They started at each other, daring each other to break eye contact first.
‘Begin,’ said Sonnen.
She leaped at him immediately. Her right leg lashed out again and again, forcing him back in retreat.
Kitay had spent all of lunch helping her strategize. She knew Nezha could be blindingly fast. Once he got momentum, he wouldn’t stop until his opponent was incapacitated or dead.
Rin needed to overwhelm him from the beginning. She needed to constantly put him on the defensive, because to be on the defensive against Nezha was certain defeat.”
Notice how the beginning of this scene isn’t a play-by-play of kicks and punches, but focuses on Rin’s thoughts as she is fighting. This helps readers root for her and get into her head. As the scene progresses and the tension increases, the paragraphs focus more on her movements, but still include her mental reactions:
“Nezha swept a low kick at the back of her knees. Rin made a frantic call and let him connect, sinking backward, pretending she’d lost her balance. He moved in immediately, looming over her. She grounded herself against the floor and kicked up.
She nailed him directly in his solar plexus with more force than she’d ever kicked with before—she could feel the air forced out of his lungs. She flipped up off the ground, and was astonished to find Nezha still reeling backward, gasping for air.
She flung herself forward and punched wildly at his head.
He dropped to the floor.”
Writers can have the tendency to focus on movements and not what is going on in the character’s head, which can contribute to a reader’s boredom. In a novel, as opposed to a movie, you can portray what’s going on in a character’s mind, so use that ability to your advantage.
How to Edit an Action Scene
Let’s take a look at what a poorly-written action sequence might look like and how to improve it. The following passage is from a book I edited last year (I’ve changed the names and some of the details to keep it anonymous):
“As the giant closed the gap between them, he squinted against the setting sun almost directly behind Finn’s head. In a single fluid movement, Graknar bent his knees, shoved one side of the spear down with his left hand, twisted his right wrist underneath it, and hefted it to rest on his right shoulder. As quickly and effortlessly as if he were nocking an arrow into his bow, he aimed it at Finn.
Finn dodged left and sprinted around the giant. The giant whirled around to relocate his target. With his weapon still hoisted on his right shoulder, he bent his knees, holding his left arm out in front of him for balance. He pulled his shoulder back as if preparing to launch the spear, but the movement caused the small, round rocks beneath his feet to roll. As he faltered to regain his footing, Finn scrambled behind him again.
When the giant turned to face his enemy, the uneven ground and the setting sun combined to create a moment of confusion, during which Finn wedged his staff into the opening under the giant’s metal elbow plate. With a strength far beyond what Finn had ever known, he thrust his staff into the only part of the giant’s body not fully protected by his armour.
Finn heard the crack of breaking bone. The giant winced. The spear clattered to the earth, then began to roll downhill, away from Graknar. The giant bent down and grasped for his quickly vanishing weapon, even though he would not be able to use it with his broken elbow. With great effort, Finn struck the giant’s helmet with a loud clang.
The giant’s head lolled from side to side for a moment, then he fell over, landing with a great thud.”
In this version, the action feels sluggish. The writer was too focused on describing every movement. Like in this sentence: “In a single fluid movement, Graknar bent his knees, shoved one side of the spear down with his left hand, twisted his right wrist underneath it, and hefted it to rest on his right shoulder.” Here, the giant’s movements actually weigh down the action so that it’s anything but fluid.
The writer also referred to Graknar as “the giant” more often, rather than by his name. This muddled the writing considerably. There are only two characters in this scene, so it’s not hard to keep track of them, but if there were three or more, the fight would get confusing quickly if the characters weren’t called by their names.
“Graknar closed the gap between them, squinting against the setting sun almost directly behind Finn’s head. Then, in a single, fluid movement, Graknar hefted the spear. As quickly and effortlessly as if he were nocking an arrow, he aimed it at Finn.
Finn skirted left and sprinted around the giant. Graknar whirled around. With his weapon still hoisted on his right shoulder, he held out his left arm for balance. He pulled back to launch the spear, but the movement caused the small, round rocks beneath his feet to roll. He faltered, and Finn scrambled behind him.
Graknar stumbled as he tried to track Finn’s movements, losing his balance on the uneven ground and blinded by the setting sun. Finn took advantage and thrust his staff into the opening under Graknar’s metal elbow plate, the only part not protected by armour.
Finn heard the crack of breaking bone. Graknar winced and dropped his spear. As he bent to grasp his weapon, Finn struck his helmet with a loud clang.
Graknar’s head lolled from side to side for a moment, and then he fell over, landing with a great thud.”
Here, I trimmed anything the wasn’t necessary to the direct action. I tightened up the sentences and removed exposition. We’re left with a shorter, cleaner, and faster action scene—one that keeps the tension.
When you edit your own action scenes, look for for opportunities to draw your readers into the protagonist’s perspective. Examine your text for confusing moments that need clarifying, and sluggish action that can be improved with succinct descriptions. Ask yourself: does the scene move the story along? Is it’s just there for action’s sake? Will readers learn anything new about your character because of it? Also, consider the consequences the violence will have on your character, either in that moment or later in the story. Action scenes are your opportunity to glue your readers to your pages. Use them well.