Story Development and Execution Part 9: Writing Action

Ciao, SEers. Today is part nine of the series: writing action. While this is important for the thriller genre, I mean the more general term, which all stories need. Action is what drives the story. It can mean shoot-outs, it can mean physical brawls, it can mean nasty arguments. On the other hand, it can mean proposals, love scenes, births. If you’ve got an emotionally charged activity, you have action. If you’re looking for tips on the “traditional” action scene, Mae has written a great post on the topic. I’m going to address “action” in the broader sense of the word.

When we think “action” scenes, we often think short and fast. That works. It’s excellent for pacing and creating a sense of urgency. But there’s an alternative that can be quite effective. Consider slowing the pace. Let the reader experience every infinitesimal thought, feeling, action, and response to what’s going on. This method increases tension. Both ways are powerful techniques. They just have different results.

Use action to convey information. Based on what a character is doing, we can learn a lot about him, about the setting, about the people he’s dealing with. Don’t miss the opportunity to reveal character through action. A man who continues to ruthlessly beat an opponent after he’s down is a very different person from a man who pulls his punches so he doesn’t hurt his opponent too badly. Work in internalization so readers understand motive. Show how observers react so we can understand the community in which the characters live or work. Actions and reactions can go a long way toward revealing character and societal norms.

Going back to The Wizard of Oz, consider the scene where Dorothy smacks the Cowardly Lion upon meeting him. On the surface, this is a traditional action scene. Our heroes meet a predator, they cower in fear, our heroine puts him in his place, then he’s revealed to be the opposite of what they expected. But dig deeper. What did we learn about Dorothy? She’s brave. She’s willing to risk her safety to defend her friends. And she’s generous. She offers to take the Cowardly Lion with her and request help from the Wizard. Action can always reveal character and/or setting if it’s more than a surface act.

Take the time to choreograph your physical actions. Make sure it’s possible to do the things you have your characters doing. Both of my kids have black belts in taekwondo. I used to have them act out my fight scenes to make sure they were accurate. I’ve even heard of romance writers using dolls to make sure their love scenes worked. Whatever the action is, choreographing every step guarantees accuracy and believability.

Make sure your actions are grounded in reality. After the action, the characters will have responses. If a man breaks an ankle in a fall, he’s not going to be able to run to his brother’s aid if he’s in danger. A sprain, maybe. A break? No. Think through the consequences of the actions with the same attention to detail as the actions themselves.

To summarize:

  • Play with pacing.
  • Reveal character through action and reaction.
  • Choreograph the physical.
  • Make sure actions and reactions can really happen.

We’ve now covered the pre-writing process and the during-writing process. Next time, we’ll delve into the post-writing process and discuss self-editing on the macro level. Until then, I’d love to know more about how you use action in your stories. Please leave a comment below. Grazie!

Links to the Whole Series:

January 7: Idea Generation
February 2: Story Bible
February 28: Character
March 25: Dialogue
April 20: Plot
May 16: Constructing Chapters
June 10: Pacing/Tension/Suspense
July 6: Writing Suspense
August 1: Writing Action
August 26: Macro-Level Self-Editing
September 21: Mid-Level Self-Editing
October 17: Micro-Level Self-Editing
December 7: Planning a Series

Note: Links will only work on and after the date the post goes live.

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75 thoughts on “Story Development and Execution Part 9: Writing Action

  1. Excellent post, Staci, and some great thoughts about action doing double duty. Some of my books have sword fighting scenes, so I took a class in sword fighting to make sure I was getting it right. What a hoot that was! I was terrible and laughed the whole way through, but I learned a lot. It helped immensely with the choreography and the details. Excellent point about using action to reveal character too. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

      • It was only over a weekend and I was TERRIBLE! It’s hard as heck. But I learned a lot, especially details about certain moves, as well as the general feel of having a sword at your belt. (It bumps into everything!) Ha ha.

        Liked by 1 person

      • My kids used single and double swords in tae kwon do. I know it’s not the same thing, and I never took a class, but I did play with all the weapons they used (kali sticks, staff, single and double swords). Nothing like the feel in your hands to learn what it’s really like. And so what if you were terrible? All beginners are. It’s the learning that counts.

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  2. HI Staci, it is so nice to see a post from you. I haven’t seen any for ages. Your comment about the dolls acting out the love scene made me laugh. I would never think of doing such a thing. Actually, I’ve never though about trying to act out any scenes from my books. I read tons of war books and I glean my information about war from them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Robbie. Im actually in the middle of a long-distance move and am not officially online right now. I had my Story Empire posts completed in advance and have been answering comments from my phone. I miss everyone terribly and hope to be at my destination in two weeks or so. (My son got Covid, and it delayed all my plans.)

      The dolls made me laugh, too. I don’t know how you could perform a military battle, but I’m certain research helps, particularly video. In the end, I’d rather know what a soldier was thinking rather than the mechanics of his or her actions, anyway. And I know you love to study characters, so that should be no problem for you.

      Thanks for the kind words!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thinking of the after-effect of the action is very important. I’m glad you pointed that out. From someone who has severely sprained her ankle, adrenaline may get a character up and moving to help his/her brother, but the agony will kick in soon enough. A lot of writers forget to incorporate the effects of the action after the event. I’ve read books where the characters duke it out and no one is left with any bruises or aches. It’s just not realistic. Great post, Staci! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve grown more cognizant of the aftereffects over the years. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of ignoring those results earlier in my career, but like you, injuries have taught me adrenaline only gets you so far. Sometimes I think the ramifications are more interesting than the actual action, anyway.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Yvette.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Super post, Staci! I think it’s natural to want to spill everything out in a rush during an action scene, but slowing the pace builds tension and is an exciting twist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suspect a whole novel written that way would be too much (though I’m kind of tempted to try), but I know slowing down when readers expect us to speed up can be refreshing and exciting, even with the unhurried pace. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent, Staci, as always. I’ve learned a lot through your series and, fingers crossed, your guidance will bear fruit in my writing. Thank you for this!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Another great post in this series, Staci! Thanks for such clear explanations and examples! And a special thanks for referring to my favorite movie of all time, The Wizard of Oz. I’ve loved it since I was 5 years old, and it’s good to know there are even more lessons to be learned from this film than I’d ever realized. Sharing this for sure! 😀 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I have used my son to help with fight scenes in my work. It helps to have someone demo to get the action correct. I also have asked for help from other authors for specific scenes that I need help with. Other times, I have asked people and places that I want to use if I can video to allow me to get the setting and the action correct. Great post, Staci.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wonderful post, Staci. I love the idea of choreographing fight scenes using your kids. I am a strong advocate for pacing. The slower pacing reminds me of seduction, of luring the reader into the story, careful not to rush it and ruin the potential. Well done!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. This is such a great post, Staci. The tips you share and examples make action scenes clear as to their purpose and importance. I love that you had your children act out fight scenes for you. That was brilliant. Thank you for sharing. I will refer back to this post often!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. A terrific post, Staci. I haven’t had many fight scenes in my books. However, I did include one in the latest, and I think I got it right looking at it from your tutorial. My protagonist takes a punch to the face and is immediately on the ground. Unfortunately, there is no recovery from that blow. This is a great series, and I look forward to future posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 9: Writing Action | Jeanne Owens, author

  12. Excellent post and tips, Staci. I agree completely with taking into account any consequences. I’ve lost count of the times a character received a seemingly devastating injury only to be up to fighting fitness in the next scene! Thanks for sharing 💕🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 9: Writing Action | Legends of Windemere

  14. Yet another great post, Staci! I agree with you 100%. Even small actions give insight into the character – aggression when something unimportant goes wrong or going to pieces. Getting your daughters to help with the fight choreography sounds like an excellent, but I can’t help but grin at the thought of those ‘romance’ dolls!! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • When I first read about the dolls, I chuckled, too. I can’t imagine… well, that’s the problem, I suppose, because I CAN imagine, and it’s hilarious to me. But I can see the usefulness. I’ve read romance novels where I’m certain the writer lost track of what the characters were doing because there was no way someone could do what was written.

      My son and daughter are great helps to me when I write. I can’t use them the way I used to for fight scenes, as they live five hours away from each other, but I can talk through the actions with one or both of them. And they’ve always been among my best sounding boards for plot (which is kind of funny to me, as both hate to read and write).

      Thanks, Trish.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. It occurs to me that if a character practices or is learning a skill or craft, a scene where they are doing whatever it is (painting, knitting, archery, pottery, etc.) can show things about the character and about their area of interest. Learning about uncommon skills in a work of fiction is a bonus.

    Liked by 4 people

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