Writing the Action Scene

Appeared in Writers Digest.

Copyright (C) 1994 David Alexander. All rights reserved.

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Thirty-odd books ago, when I began writing my first action thriller, the initial installment of the Phoenix series (Leisure Books), I decided to take a critical look at the genre. I wanted to craft dynamic action scenes that would give the reader the most bang for the buck. I was anxious to try my hand at action writing because I have always been fascinated by the way objects move and interact with one another, and had always considered the ability to describe these processes effectively to be essential to the storyteller's craft.

To me there have always been two distinct types of image groups a writer works with, the one being word-based, the other being procedure-based. Each lends to prose distinct textural qualities. We've all heard the expression that "there are two types of..." this or that. If there are two types of writers, then there are those who are predominantly word-based and those who are predominantly procedure-based. James Joyce, using a word-rich style, is an example of the former; Ernest Hemingway, using his much-ballyhooed "stripped" style, of the latter.

But to get back to my original point; as I investigated the action genre in those early days of writing novels I discovered to my surprise that there was little to be found in the category that jibed with my personal vision of how action fiction should be written. I realized that what I had in mind was different from the way other writers worked. This heartened me, because I felt I had the opportunity to break new ground.

My writing has changed a great deal in many respects from those first efforts, and I no longer write category action books, but the central premises I initially formulated remain at the core of my theory of writing. A command of action, and the mastery of its methodology, is central to most forms of fiction writing, and especially to category or non-category thrillers of every type.

A mystery author writing a passage in which a detective stumbles upon a corpse, starts at a sound and gets caught up in a chase, needs to use action. A horror writer crafting a scene where the protagonist has come upon a cabal of neo-Druids about to resurrect some Stonehengian monstrosity, needs to use action. A writer of Gothic romances describing a climactic moment between heroine and hero, also needs to use action. And authors of so-called non-category thrillers too must master the use of action.

The art of crafting action scenes is critical to competence in writing fiction because the action scene is one in which the mechanics of movement must be described believably and with precision. Dialog too plays a part in these scenes; it must not be used in a manner that robs the scenes of narrative tension; anyone who has ever attempted to effectively integrate dialog into an action scene knows firsthand that achieving a natural flow can be a tricky matter.

The exploitation of psychological tension also plays an important role in action writing. The way characters feel and think, their emotions of panic, surprise, satisfaction or dismay, and their responses to sights, sounds and smells, can heighten an action scene's impact, with an effect like cinematic "reaction shots."

Let's survey a few examples that I hope will illustrate these observations. I'll take the liberty of drawing from my own body of published and soon-to-be-published work, and tender my apologies in advance to those who might object to such unabashed self-indulgence. Firstly, I've selected a passage from a forthcoming thriller, Bandit (Avon, 1994) in which one of the protagonists is about to settle an old score with a figure from his past.

Here, dialog, psychological tension and procedural action descriptions all combine to make the scene click.

Tallin fired the Spectre SMG, spraying a burst of parabellum bullets across the office that shattered glass and thudded into the wooden walls. With only his upper torso visible above the floor, Aleksiev returned fire using the RAK machinepistol, forcing Tallin to tuck back around the frame of the office doorway. In a heartbeat Aleksiev had dropped down into the guts of the tunnel. On a flat-out run Tallin followed, again catching sight of the running man about thirty yards ahead of him.

Shouting for Aleksiev to stop Tallin raised the Spectre to shoulder fire position with its wire buttstock extended and propped against his armpit for stabilized fire in single shot mode. The bratting of the Wz63 came in answer as Aleksiev snapped a burst over his shoulder. Hastily delivered, the wildfire burst was inaccurate but it succeeded in forcing Tallin to flatten against the tunnel wall as bullets whined past his position and the stray rounds buried themselves harmlessly in the earthen walls of the subterranean passage.

By the time Tallin had regained his footing and was in place for a clear shot at his quarry, Aleksiev was already out of sight around a dogleg bend in the tunnel. With a shouted oath, Tallin broke into a flat-out run, the Spectre clutched in his hand and back on full-auto fire select. He found Aleksiev waiting for him in ambush around the other side of the bend. Flattened against the wall, the general had leapt from cover and now trained the Wz63 at Tallin's midsection.

"We meet again at last, Boris Mikail'ch," Aleksiev said to Tallin who had pulled up to a dead stop. "It has been several years since we served the Motherland together. You look well."

"And you are stained with blood," Tallin snarled. "You slaughtered my men. You took loyal Spetsnaz and killed them like dogs in pursuit of your lust for the gold of Kabul, and then you left them to die in the dust."

"I did what I had to do," Aleksiev told Tallin with a shrug. "As we all must. Now you will slowly place your weapon on the ground and kick it away from you. Good. Proceed down the tunnel," he went on, gesturing with the muzzle of the small, deadly SMG in his fist after Tallin had complied. "I will have need of strong hands to help load some equipment aboard my vehicle."

Stripped of the Spectre SMG, Tallin marched ahead of the general, who pressed him forward down the tunnel at a brisk pace. They reached the end of the tunnel minutes later, and Aleksiev pushed aside a heavy steel door that gave access into the interior of a mountain cave. A few feet on, Aleksiev pulled a small flashlight from his pocket and shone its beam around until he located a powerful battery operated torch. Turning it on, it gave enough light to illuminate the cavern; Tallin saw a Volga all-terrain vehicle parked near a stack of wooden shipping crates.

"Those crates on the floor. Load them in back," Aleksiev said to Tallin, gesturing at the pile of wooden boxes against one of the cave walls. Tallin proceeded to load the boxes onboard the truck under Aleksiev's watchful eyes. "You're doing fine, Tallin," Aleksiev commented mockingly. "You were always a strong -- "

Tallin had wheeled around and heaved the crate toward the speaker, striking a glancing blow on Aleksiev's gun hand. The machinepistol went off, sending a burst of ricocheting 9 mm rounds into the black rock face of the cavern wall, but the weapon still remained clutched in the General's hand. Tallin grabbed hold of the big man's wrist, but Aleksiev was as strong as he was determined to retain his weapon and the thick fingers did not let go of the RAK, even after he repeatedly smashed Aleksiev's hand against the rock wall.

Determined to finish the fight, Tallin rammed his knee into Aleksiev's groin.The general sank down into a half crouch, gasping in pain as the machinepistol dropped from his numb fingers and clattered to the floor. Tallin followed through with a spinning side-kick to the general's face that missed its mark as the general rolled aside at the final instant before the foot blow connected. Aleksiev launched himself forward, bellowing in anger like the wounded bear he resembled, ignoring the searing pain in his crippled hand and wounded groin.

The impact of collision with the general's massive bulk sent Tallin windmilling backward against the steel bumper of the Volga ATV. Aleksiev pressed home his attack, hitting his adversary in the face with several piledriving, haymaker-style blows, then picked up a large stone and, lifting it high above him, prepared to smash it down on the head of his punch-drunk adversary. Recovering his wits in a surge of adrenaline, Tallin dodged the death blow and responded with a forearm smash to the side of Aleksiev's throat as the small boulder clanged against the chassis of the all terrain vehicle. The arm blow sent the general reeling sideways, gagging as he struggled to regain his breath.

Staggering like a drunken man as the cave swam before his eyes, his face livid, Aleksiev's gaze suddenly caught the dull gleam of the Wz63 machinepistol which had been knocked from his hand when Tallin had first attacked him. The general dived for the machinepistol but before he could bring it up to fire, Tallin, who had seen the RAK too and knew what Aleksiev intended, slid out the coffin-handled knife scabbarded at his boot-top and pitched it underhand. Luck was with him. The razor-sharp blade struck its target with clean precision. Burrowing into Aleksiev's heart it penetrated to the crossguard. Aleksiev dropped the machinepistol he had just picked up and tried to pull the knife from the blood-jetting wound on his upper left torso. Bubbles of bright blood escaped from his lips as his eyes rolled up in his head; he keeled sideways before crumpling to the cavern floor in a floundering heap and then, finally, went completely still.

In the foregoing excerpt, dialog helped communicate the psychological tension between the two antagonists. Procedural action writing is evident too in this passage, a third component of the writing techniques used to create the scene. And while this scene happens to come from a technothriller, it shares elements common to diverse forms of fiction writing where the mechanics of movement are central to the narrative and critical to getting the writer's point across; lessons learned from it are equally applicable to writing horror, romance, woman-in-jeopardy, mystery, or whatever the literary flavor of the month might be.

The above-cited passage featured only two characters. Where multiple character interactions and points of view are used in a scene, the dynamic changes somewhat. A passage from one of the books in the Nomad series (Worldwide Library) may illustrate what I'm talking about. The scene concerns an assault on a clandestine submarine base, one that must be destroyed so that advanced nuclear weapons onboard the sub are not fired at their intended targets by a global criminal conspiracy.

Machinegun fire cycled from fortified emplacements on the perimeter of the sub pens as defensive units became active, the slower, duller cadence of the heavy guns sounding in grim counterpoint to the staccato bolt clatter of automatic weapons ported by the raiders. A security cordon made up of NVG-equipped troops manning squad automatic weapons ringed the approaches to the base. Whatever else he might have been, Pisces was no fool. The rogue submarine commander had not ruled out the contingency of an assault and had taken the precautions dictated by warcraft.

Glowing green tracer fire lashed out from the defense positions on the high ground and flares lit up the night sky as the Cobra Teal and Axe Handle assault forces launched a two-pronged attack on the sub pens with Quinn's group sweeping in from one flank and Parana's crew hammering the mercs from the other. Parana and his commando team prosecuted the strike with speed and power, their holographic NVGs providing them with high-definition, bloom-resistant night vision in the battlezone with computer enhanced displays showing terrain features with extreme clarity. Dropping down and digging in, the assault force kept up its withering time-on-target fire. Laser targeted, the caseless weapons ejected no spent cartridges and were highly stable and accurate even when deployed in full burstfire mode.

While the rifle team kept the shooters crewing the fire pits above them busy, Parana signaled to his missileers, who raised man-portable launchers to their shoulders and acquired targets through laser ranging. Soaring into the air to a height of some sixty feet, the warheads blew apart in brilliant orange fireballs. From the center of the fireballs preformed metal charges shaped themselves into lances of semimolten titanium, slamming downward into the cluster of squad gunners emplaced behind their earthen revetments. As the machinegun teams on the heights were consumed in a holocaust of fire and steel, Quinn's paracommando squad on the other flank of the pincer was pinned down by heavy fire, launched at them from the interior of the sub pen by determined troops.

On the gantry above the hijacked nuclear sub, Pisces pushed past the crew dog who had been hit in a vital spot by a high velocity 4.73 mm bullet fragment. His belly ripped open, he fell with a splash to the water below. Pisces had to reach Okeanos and put the sub out to sea before the commandos entered the pens, he knew. Once that critical point in the battle had been passed, it would be all over for his side. Picking up the bullpup dropped by the fallen crewman and putting it into play, Pisces launched a burst of automatic fire to cover his sprint down the gantry stairs just as its main portion was hit by a manpads HEMP round and disintegrated in a ragged puffball of flame.

While a fire team covered them, a spearhead with Quinn taking the point made a break from the unit's pinned-down position just outside the yawning mouth of the concrete bunker. Quinn's assault element sprinted through the dense black battle smoke across windswept, rocky ground toward the tunnel where the sub was berthed while the small arms team drew the fire of opposition forces. Taking heavy casualties during their frontal assault on the base, Quinn and his squad took up positions at either side of the opening and deployed their automatic weapons to lay down heavy suppressing fire. While an autogrenade launcher team set up and began pouring high explosive 40 mm submunitions into the interior of the pens, Quinn and the rest of the squad set up a shock front of massed autofire as they ramrodded into the entrance of the pens.

Tracking quickly, they trained their weapons for more focused precision shooting. Laser-targeted autobursts took out men high on the intact gantry segment overhead who were pouring sustained fire into the shock troops storming the sub pens. Struck by multiple hits, the defenders in positions on the concrete bulkheads bracketing the slips and on the catwalk above the sub pens plummeted into the waters, now afire with burning fuel and blazing debris from the leveled gantry. As the fire from the base interior abated somewhat due to attrition, the strikers' point element was joined by the rest of the squad, spreading out to secure the area.

Action writing is procedural writing. Always to be kept in mind are three things: What happened before? What is happening now? What will happen next? Action writing embodies the literary equivalent of the Newtonian laws of motion -- every action brings about a subsequent, though not necessarily equal or opposite, reaction. The writer must follow through from event to event in a believable and consistently defined manner. The action scene is like a string of dominoes in three dimensions or multiple strings that interact in time, space and depth.

In the passage excerpted above, procedural action writing is the main operating principle. The section is completely expository; there is no dialog, therefore the descriptive elements alone must carry the scene. Complex scenes with multiple interactions and multiple areas of focus must communicate a lot of information in a relatively small space. Intercutting between two or more simultaneous events in different locations can heighten tension and increase reader involvement, and section breaks can be a useful device to help pace the scene properly.

There is a great deal more that can be said on the subject of action writing, and space limitations bar more than a cursory exploration of a few main points. Additionally, some remarks I have made herein will inevitably apply to fiction writing in general, however most of what I've said, I believe, has special relevance to action writing. To place matters in perspective I would like to close with a quote from a writer who, while never having written a word of action, nevertheless seems to have addressed not only issues central to it but to all good writing. In a speech to the French Academy on August 25th, 1753, the writer and scientist George Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, made the following statement.

True eloquence [counts] for little the tone, the gestures, and the empty sound of words -- there must be substance, thought, and reason; there must be the art of presenting these, of defining and ordering them; it is not enough to strike the ears and catch the eyes; one must act upon the soul and touch the heart while speaking to the mind...All this is not yet style, but is its base; it sustains style, directs it, regulates its movement and submits to its laws. Without this the best writer loses himself [and] his pen wanders without a guide....

I think Buffon's precepts are as central to proficiency in writing action scenes as they are to writing in general, just as valid today as they were some two hundred forty years ago. Though I would be the last to argue that there are any hard-and-fast rules that writers must follow in crafting fiction, I, like every other writer, have nonetheless developed my share of guidelines, including those for action. In addition to those I've enumerated above, these final few are ones that I try to bear in mind at all times.

On the concept side two injunctions worthy of a Ch'an koan: seduce the reader while assaulting the reader; constantly shift your narrative focus but always keep your eye on the ball. When writing action you are like a juggler with some pins clutched firmly in your hands and others whirling through space; concentrate on those pins that are in play but remember that the ones you are holding are just as critical.

On the method side, build your paragraphs using a "brick-by-brick" approach where each sentence introduces a new twist or turn, assaults the reader from a new direction, moves the narrative focal point around in unpredictable, though interconnected, ways. Keep the sentences terse and lean, the style stripped, and try opening your sentences with action verbs to put the reader directly into the frame of reference. And, last but not least, never pull your punches.