The Balancing Act – Specificity in Action Scenes

Very recently, I took part in a workshop with twenty or so other aspiring novelists in the SF and Fantasy genres, and one of the most common problems I ran across was in writing action scenes. Often the scenes came out jumbled and confusing, or the writer simply skipped it. Writing action can be intimidating. It was for me. My first action scene, I confess, was first written by a friend of mine. He did the draft, and I had to fiddle with it until I figured out how it worked.

For me, action scenes have myriad issues that make it difficult to navigate. Here I’m going to focus on one of those issues – the difficult balancing act of how much detail to include. Too much description is much the same as too little; both will leave the reader confused.

The lack of description, I think, is at least partially based on the fact that we hear, again and again, how too much description slows the pacing down. In most cases this is correct, most description is unnecessary because the reader can assume certain things.

Example: He parked and went into the building.

I don’t put in the step by step detail about navigating the parking lot or getting out of the car- putting his foot on the break, turning off the ignition, unlatching his seat belt, opening the door, getting out, and closing the door behind him. Most people know how to get out of a car, so the detail is unnecessary.

Let’s look at the same idea put into an action scene. Take this example I saw recently: I lunged. He landed on the ground with a heavy thud, and I got back to my feet.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have no idea what just happened. What made the other guy fall? When did the narrator end up on the floor and why? The detail is now a true necessity for the reader to experience what they are reading.

That’s the irony. While, in another type of scene, description can be problematic, it’s necessary for action scenes. Quite simply, most people don’t know what it’s like to be in a gun or sword fight, a space battle, a horse charge, or a kung fu brawl. They don’t have the experience to fill in the gaps, and so the writer has to do the heavy lifting.

The problem comes when the writer moves too far in the other direction. As I said above, too much is just as bad as too little. Get too detailed, and the reader might lose the focus of the scene in all the minutia and become confused anyway.

The way out of this is to be specific rather than wordy. Slamming to the ground, for instance, implies something very different from hitting the ground or slipping to the ground. Also, words that mimic what’s going on can help cut down the word count while still keeping the pacing going. Hard consonants can help a reader hear a gun fight in their heads. Short, concise words echo the pace of a fast moving chase.

Another good thing to remember is the use of paragraphing – shorter paragraphs that describe only one character’s actions can keep what’s going on clear to the reader. Get too long, or put more than one character’s actions in a paragraph, and things start getting muddled again.

So, while finding the right balance can be difficult, it’s by no means impossible. There are plenty of ways to counteract the need for the additional description an action scene requires. The key is to keep the action simple and clear.

2 responses on “The Balancing Act – Specificity in Action Scenes

  1. Colette Vernon

    Great comments, Leigh. I think it’s also important to pay close attention to the cadence of your sentences. Too many short sentences one right after another makes the action sound too choppy, unnatural. You need the immediacy short sentences create, but you have to break it up with slightly longer ones to keep the prose flowing and natural. You’re right, it’s a very delicate balancing act. Good post!

    1. leigh Post author

      Very true, Colette. One should never go to an extreme either way. Of course, I must say that I’ve seen far more of the longer sentences in longer paragraphs than the other way around. I think that action is one of those places where you can get away with choppier prose because the action you’re describing is going to be choppier to reflect the sudden violence of what’s happening.

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