Action. Some individuals are adrenaline junkies, and others do not care for it, but in almost every type of novel, there is at least one scene with action. The word action is very broad and can cover many aspects, but typically, when you think about the word action, you think movies and fight scenes, superheroes flying around and crashing into things or destroying buildings. Even cinematography has changed to compensate for the action beats in movies. Take fight scenes from old Bruce Lee movies and compare them to Marvel, DC, or Transformers movies. The cuts are quick and come from a plethora of angles, giving you a choppy feeling infused with nitrous. In some movies, the action is so quick that you are left unsure of what you just watched, but the key point was that it was fast. How do we translate this to the novel, to show quickness of a fight, a chase, a moment without coming off as cliche?
Cliches hurt a story just as much as underwriting an action scene. What are some examples of cliched, quick writing?
As quick/fast as lightning…
Within a heartbeat…
Cliches are not bad, especially if they emphasize something specific, though I would caution using ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ unless it’s literally doing so. But how does this pertain to the action beats? Well, if time slowed, I would hope that whoever is slowing time actually has the power to do so. However, to express the same thing, you could say something about his or her reflexes or heightened senses. Don’t hinge the success of the entire scene by getting too hung up on the cliches on the first draft and possibly on the first revision. Leave them in there. Move past it and write the scene. Worry about your cliches in the editing phase, and be wary of the ones that don’t really seem like one.
Moving past this sore point for any writer and to the actual action, our goal is to express what is happening. What makes this an action beat? Is it driving a car? Well, no. Driving in itself isn’t action-driven, at least not in a sense we are talking. What about a sword fight or a battle with magic? Ah, there is our action, the clang of steel ringing throughout the battlefield with magic whooshing overhead in a glittering yet caustic stream. We know our characters are in mortal peril and if your reader doesn’t think so, we may have a problem. Either that or you have never read A Game of Thrones. Painting the risk to your character can be covered in another topic.
So, we know what we want and how the action plays out in our head, but how to write it down? There is a simple method of transitioning speed to the pages, and that is using short sentences. Have you ever read a novel that was filled with too many short or long sentences? It makes the novel either feel sporadic and jarring or convoluted and drawn out. Varying sentence length is crucial to the success of your scenes, but in action, we want to focus on the shorter sentences and have them broken up by a few, longer ones.
Another element that might be bogging down your writing is the vernacular or over-the-top flowery language. We want our sentences short and concise, but we also want the reader to understand the most basic elements. In a sword fight, your reader might not know what a riposte is, but you can educate and tell them at the same time. He executed the riposte flawlessly, countering on the heels of the villain’s attack.
It’s okay to tell every once in a while, just remember to not go so technical on the reader, not everyone is a fencing expert.
While swords may loop overhead and spells are cast with an intricate waving of the wand, don’t lose momentum by focusing on this aspect. Another element that will ground your writing is the emotional aspect and physical strain. Does your character suffer from a necessity to kill? Chance are, they don’t. Killing another human, an act far from natural, should have a heavy mental and emotional toll on your character. In one novel I wrote, an assassin took an apprentice. She threw herself into the training, the physicality, the fighting, joint manipulation, but throughout the entire novel, she doubted that she would actually be able to kill anyone. At the climax of the story, she faced a situation where it was kill or be killed, and she chose to save her own life. While some may consider this method a copout, it really honed her internal struggle, going from someone who vowed to never kill no matter the circumstance, to killing to save herself. What emotional hurdle does your character face? What drove them to this point? Are the consequences still warring within them?
Below is a snippet from one of my scenes. How did this passage succeed? Where did it fail? What could have been better?
The blow landed a deep cut on Andaxus’ left shoulder. The wound bled quick, red rivets down his flesh. He roared with pain and kicked out. Krisha’s black breastplate took the brunt of the force. The counter paused her long enough for Andaxus to strike. He swung with a mighty overhand chop to cleave her in half. She spun away, her blade slicing into his hamstring. A ferocious backhand knocked her sideways, and she clattering to the floor. He turned, stalking her with a limp.
His sword raised above for a killing blow, and her leg shot out, boot connecting to his knee. For one sick moment, it bent in the opposite direction, a cringing pop. Andaxus faltered, collapsing to his good knee. She gained her feet as quick as a viper, ready to strike. Krisha’s steel whistled, cutting through the air, the sharp edge a fraction too high, catching the bottom of his mask, stopping the decapitation.
Andaxus batted the blade aside with his left arm and rose, testing the strength of his knee. “You fight with fierce bravery,” he said, his voice warm with rage. “But you do not fight like you were born to die.”
She lunged in with her sword, to lance his stomach. In a streak of black, the blade bit into flesh and sunk to the hilt, bringing her body dangerously close to him. He made no move to block or counter the thrust. With blinding speed, he snatched her by the throat, hoisting her up into the air. His free hand pulled her helm off. “We are the first in, the first to die. We live and fight without regard for tomorrow, but you have forgotten. What else have you forgotten, my love?” He threw her, launching her through the air. She clattered to the floor, her metal echoing sharply off the stone.
He lumbered forward. “I am ready to die. Are you?”
If you enjoyed this content or you’re an avid, epic fantasy reader, check out my book, The Bearer of Secrets, on Amazon. It’s available on Kindle Unlimited, eBook, and print.