Monet & Me: the Art of Action Scenes

Actions scenes are tough to write.  Don’t believe me?  Try writing one – then let me know how you make out.  The problem is, there are precious few writing courses or “how to” books that teach a budding author how to do it properly.  Worse still, even fewer authors can write action scenes well, so studying other people’s work is hit and miss.

A while back I was reviewing a chapter of my book with Ed.  I’d spent a lot of time working out the action scene and was curious to hear his comments.  I was quite pleased with most of it, but there were still parts that didn’t quite work.  As he was giving me feedback, I sighed.  I suspect the poor man thought I was frustrated with him and he quickly added “Oh, action scenes can be devilishly difficult things to write.”  But it wasn’t him I was frustrated with – in fact he was right on the money, questioning the very parts I knew didn’t work.

Since then I’ve been studying action scenes and have tried to figure out what makes the good ones tick, and the awful ones stink.  It all boils down to this:  broad strokes, not detail.  Give the reader just enough information to understand what is going on, but not so much description that they get distracted.

It’s like being an impressionist painter.  It’s about creating an image with the least amount of brushstrokes (or words) possible.  The audience won’t even notice the missing detail.

Consider Monet’s painting Study of a Figure Outdoors: Woman with a Parasol, facing left.

Monet didn’t need to paint the details of Suzanne Hoschedé’s face for us to recognize the person as a woman.  Nor do we as authors, need to describe every parry for our audience to follow a sword fight.

So for the authors among you, if you want to write an effective action scene:

  1. use short, punchy sentences – every word must count
  2. ditch adjectives and adverbs in favour of active nouns and verbs
  3. focus on the action – this is not the place for a detailed description of the landscape
  4. edit the dialogue – dialogue can work well in an action scene, but only if it’s short, to the point and uses the least amount of tags (s/he said) possible
  5. walk away as soon the image takes shape – unnecessary detail will weigh it down
  6. practice, practice, practice – after all, action scenes are devilishly difficult things to write.

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