4 Tips For Writing Action Scenes

What makes the difference between a scene that flies by and one that drags or feels scattered? How do you write a page-turner of a scene?

Looking back on my time at Mount Hermon, the answer to those questions is one of the most valuable things I took away from the mentorship class led by Randy Ingermanson. The key is writing a proactive scene.

(I also had the privilege of receiving feedback from author Shawn Grady, and from my fellow mentees Jennifer Sienes, Carol Towriss, Lynn Squire, and Michael K. Reynolds. Thank you all for your encouragement and helpful critiques.)

Proactive Scene StructureProactive scenes look like the diagram to the left. Randy calls them proactive scenes because the POV character is seeking something rather than passively waiting for something to happen. (If you’re not sure what POV means, read our post on Problems With Point of View.)

(1) Give Your POV Character a Goal

GoalWithin the first few paragraphs of each scene, you need to set up your point-of-view character’s goal for that scene. What do they want? Does she want to be left alone? Does he want to arrest the bad guy? Get a decent night’s sleep?

Sometimes you’ll reveal this goal outright, sometimes you’ll hint at it, and sometimes (though more rarely) it will come out as the scene progresses. Regardless of how you bring in the goal, you need to be clear in your own mind about what the goal is. A scene without a clear goal sags.

A goal has to meet three criteria to work:

  • Measurable – The best goals are not only quantifiable but also photographable. At the end of the scene, we need to know whether the character achieved their goal or not.
  • Achievable – If your character has no hope of reaching their goal (for example, a man who wants to walk on water – and your book isn’t sci-fi/fantasy), you need to either pick a smaller goal (as a step towards the larger goal) or a different goal.
  • Worthwhile – Remember that the goal needs to be worthwhile to the POV character, not necessarily to the reader. Your villain might might be a rapist. Your reader won’t think raping the blonde next door is a worthwhile goal, but your character needs to, otherwise why would he fight hard enough to achieve it?

(2) Throw a Series of Obstacles in Their Path

The quickest path to boring is a scene where your character easily achieves his goal. If you want to engage your reader and show that the character’s goal has value, make him struggle to achieve it. Introduce conflict by throwing obstacles and challenges in his path. If you can make each one more difficult to overcome than the last, that’s even better.

(3) End With A Disaster

Too much success leads to your reader losing interest. What keeps a reader turning pages is a failure, setback, or defeat. Make things worse for your character, not better, at the end of the chapter.

(4) “Snatch Defeat From the Jaws of Victory”

Some scenes have to end with your character achieving their goal, but in these situations, Randy recommends “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” In other words, use your character’s win to actually make the situation worse for them, create more conflict, or lead to an even bigger failure in the coming chapters.

Proactive Scenes for Planners and Pantsers

If you’re a planner like me, you’re probably incredibly excited right now over having a pattern you can follow to plot your scenes. You probably immediately saw the usefulness of this concept.

Pansters, however, might be wondering if this was a waste of time to read. If you’re a pantser, don’t worry about this information until after you’ve written your scene. Let your unpredictable, chaotic juices flow, and then check your scenes against this pattern in the editing stage to see if any of them can be improved.

Reactive Scenes

Proactive scenes are often followed by “reactive” scenes, where–no big surprise–the POV character is reacting to the disaster they faced at the end of the previous scene. Come back on Thursday for the four ways to make reactive scenes as engaging as proactive scenes.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be checking all the scenes in the novel Lisa and I are writing to see if I can make them stronger. What about you? Can you now see a scene where you need to throw more challenges in your POV character’s path? What about scenes where you noticed they didn’t have a clear goal?


Books that talk about proactive scenes:

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain (Although he calls proactive scenes “scenes” and reactive scenes “sequels,” the theory behind them is the same.)

Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

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