Writing Action Scenes: Part 1, by Harry Wegley

Today I welcome Harry (H.L.) Wegley to A Bed of Roses…Thorns Included.

Harry has retired from careers as a Meteorologist, Computer Systems Programmer, Intelligence Analyst. He just recently began writing novels and is a member ACFW, OCW, & NCWA (per his blog profile).

He enjoys writing and reading and makes his home in the upper Northwest. You can find out more about Harry here.

Writing Action Scenes: Part 1 – Advice from the Pros
Harry (H. L.) Wegley
Lee Lofland on his web site, The Graveyard Shift, gives a cardinal rule to follow for action scenes. Keep things realistic by giving your protagonist a plausible way out. http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/place-your-hero-in-a-good-light/
One thing I like to do is make it appear there’s no way out, then using clues I’ve already given the reader, find a clever, but dangerous, way out that was there all along but no one, including the reader, sees it until the last second, when it pops into the mind of the protagonist.
One of the best basic articles on writing action scenes that I’ve seen is by Linda Adams, Thriller: Writing the Action Scene http://fmwriters.com/Visionback/Issue32/thriller.htm
Here’s a subset of things Linda talks about in her article. The writer must plan the scene in advance and make the stakes high enough to justify dangerous or desperate action. Our protagonists don’t do dangerous things without very compelling reasons. Also, you must pace the action so the reader can catch their breath. Personally I like to hold them under water until just before they drown, then let them draw just enough air to sustain life and shove them down again. But don’t continue doing this for too long because the reader will take a break from your story if you don’t give them one – maybe a permanent break. Linda also says scenes should be credible, and they should have a goal. That goal must be relevant to the story. You should not be putting in action just for action’s sake.
Other things Linda mentions are omitting unnecessary details that slow the story down. It’s OK to have those details in your mind as you write, but you can’t convey them all to the reader without bogging down the story. Another effective mechanism is to maintain a ticking time bomb to keep the reader white-knuckled as they hold the book (or e-reader).
Finally, keep it simple. If complex logic or abstract thinking are required to follow the fast moving action, the reader is lost. To follow your story, they either have to reread the entire scene or move on, scratching their heads and wondering if there will be more stuff they won’t be able to follow.
There are other techniques you can use to enhance your action scenes, such as using short choppy sentences with single actions in them during the fast-moving parts of the scene.
Comic relief is sometimes needed. I like to use a five or ten second lull as an opportunity for one of the protagonists to say something funny (sometimes ironic) to the other. It may not be intentionally funny, but it gives the reader a smile and a little relief right before you sock them in the face with something really dangerous, something that makes the protagonist’s words even more saturated with irony.

A final guideline comes from Jeff Gerke, who says we should emphasize the “or else factor.” What happens if the protagonist fails during the action scene? Make the stakes clear and high for maximum impact.
Let’s look at the list of guidelines for writing action scenes we have accumulated so far:
  1. your protagonist(s) should have a goal that’s relevant to the story
  2. give your protagonist(s) a plausible path of escape
  3. high danger should be accompanied by equally high stakes
  4. pace the action, let the reader catch their breath
  5. omit unnecessary detail
  6. keep things simple during the action
  7. shorten your sentences during the height of action
  8. use an “or else factor” or a ticking time bomb to heighten suspense
  9. don’t be afraid to inject a little humor for relief
Any given action scene will seldom use all of these guidelines. But any plausible action scene will have a thread of logic running through it. By ensuring that this thread is a logically connected sequence of plausible events, we can extend or intensify the action as needed. With a little analysis of our scenes, we can find places to intensify the action.
In the next post on action scenes, I’ll provide some examples taken from my book, Hide and Seek. While these are not perfect examples, they will show how I introduced elements into the scene that intensified the action.
Writer’s Digest October 2012, Raising the Stakes in Your First 50 Pages, Jeff Gerke pp50-52

Thank you, Harry. I will have to think of ways to incorporate this information into my own writing.

Okay my little readers (spoken with the voice of the wicked witch of the west from the Wizard of Oz) what is your favorite action scene, either from a book or a movie? Why? What pulled you in?

Mine is the very first scene of Mary Conneally’s Sharpshooter in Petticoats when Tom is dangling on the edge of the cliff waiting for Lady Gray to look away so he could climb up and capture her heart. Just loved that scene. Of course, Harry put so many such scenes in Hide and Seek it would be hard to name just one, but the one that sticks out the most is when Jennifer and Lee are in a cave, free-climbing the wall to escape, and their pursuers enter and start shining a light on the walls looking for them. Action packed for sure. 🙂


5 thoughts on “Writing Action Scenes: Part 1, by Harry Wegley

  1. Thanks for hosting me, Ginger. I’ll get the ball rolling here. To be honest, my favorite action scene is one you can’t read for a while because it’s in my current WIP, a story requested by my editor. I’ll just say that it involves my two college-age MC’s, a gondola, and a ski resort … oh, and a bad dude and dudess. I read it to my wife. She didn’t like it. But then she has acrophobia.

    1. I don’t care for heights much myself, says the woman who used to climb trees to hide during games of hide-and-seek as a girl. The older I get the less I like them. 😉

      Thanks for coming Harry, and I look forward to that new MS. 🙂

  2. The beginning of Kristen Heitzman’s “Freefall”–just the idea of waking up in the middle of a waterfall. Then when he hears a woman below… All incredible. Plus, the incredible setting of Hawaii.

    1. Waking up in a waterfall would be eye-opening. LOL Hmmm… there might be something to that…sleeping in the shower. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting Vonildawrites

  3. Haven’t read Freefall yet. And I love Hawaii, but waking up in the Jolly Green Giant’s shower … that could dampen one’s spirits a bit.

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