Everybody loves action scenes. The thrill of the fight, the kinetic spectacle and suspense combine to create a high emotional beat in the story. Action scenes are also a great way to show the reader what kind of person a character is. To elevate action scenes to the next level and integrate them into the story, every action scene should reflect the personalities and backgrounds of every character involved.
Heart, Mind and Soul
Violence is the crucible that brings out the best and worst of people. Different people will react differently to violence. A 6’12 bodybuilder with huge, bulging muscles may cut and run at the first sight of blood. A 5′ soft-spoken woman may transform into a furious wolverine when gangsters threaten her children.
Fighting is not simply about techniques, angles, positioning or other technical matters. Every conflict is a clash of wills between everyone involved. When choreographing an action scene, delve into how every party involved will react to violence. What are their attitudes towards violence? What are they comfortable with? What hang-ups do they have? What are their goals in that scene? How far are they willing to go to achieve them? Do they think they are engaged in social violence or asocial violence?
For more information, please see my earlier post on the subject of writing violence.
Once you have an idea of what your characters can and cannot do, and will and will not do, see how these mesh with your characters’ personalities.
In Ken Bruen’s novels, his antiheroes and villains readily turn to violence to settle their affairs. In the stories set in Ireland, the hurley stick is the weapon of choice. Armed with these sticks, characters routinely beat down other characters to send a message or to kill them.
Here we see the characters’ personas . Weapons are highly limited in Ireland, but the characters don’t want to fight fair. They turn to hurley sticks because they are legal (“We’re just off to play a game of hurley, Garda!”), and because they are so widely and cheaply available they can be disposed of after the job. The use of legal sporting goods as weapons, the disposal of evidence and the use of seemingly unfair advantages emphasise the dark and criminal nature of these characters. When the characters go to work with the hurleys, they viciously batter their targets to a pulp, either killing them or sending a message the targets will never forget. The brutality of such scenes reflects the darkness in the attackers’ hearts and lives — either they feel they have no recourse to softer and more legal means, or they simply enjoy the violence.
Contrast this with Team Rainbow from Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six (the novel). Rainbow is a secret multinational counterterrorist organisation staffed by NATO military and police personnel. They operate with the latest equipment and hone their skills to a razor’s edge. When they are called up, they meticulously plan every step of the operation and seize every tactical advantage they can get. Once they blow in the doors, violence is swift and precise. They are all trained to perform headshots, and they never miss.
When put together, this portrays Rainbow as an elite group of special operators. They are swift and efficient, protecting the weak from terrorists. They also harbour a professional contempt for their prey. After a terrorist executes a child, a sniper punishes him with a highly painful and assuredly fatal wound. However, their focus is on preserving life: if a situation can be resolved through negotiations or arrests, they will take that option. As they operate with the blessings of national governments, they can focus on getting the job done with the best gear. Between their gear and the actions, the reader can believe that they are truly the best of the best soldiers in the world.
Violence is an expression of a character’s will. Understand the will and manifest it in his actions.
Personality, Skills and Physique
Let’s say your characters have more than a modicum of experience or training in violence. Maybe they are hardened street fighters, or they have training in martial arts and other combat skills. They aren’t going to react to violence like civilians (or, frankly, many Hollywood actors and fiction characters in action scenes). To portray them accurately, you want to go a step further.
Different people will have different ways of fighting. Scott Bab, Founder of Libre Fighting, says it best:
A martial arts system is a tool box. A tool box that was hopefully assembled by a skilled craftsman. The instructor shows the student how each tool works, but it is up to the student to determine which tools they will put on their tool belt and carry around with them.
Although each has been trained in person, by my own hands, when I look at my own senior ranks, in my own class, each of them fights entirely differently.
One is lightning fast and crafty. He teases his opponents with opportunities then exploits the openings when they take the bait. He rarely engages directly, he plays games and manipulates his opponents.
Another is a bruiser. He is stocky and powerful, and overwhelms his opponents with the sheer intensity of his presence. He yells, stomps, and powers forward like a machine tearing through whatever is in his path.
Yet another plays chess. He knows every angle that can come his way and knows how to negate each one. He has a deep inherent understanding of the tactics and approach I teach and relies on his technical proficiency to overcome opponents.
A character’s martial expression is the sum of his personality, skills and physique. A trained and/or experienced fighter will find a set of techniques that meshes well with his body dynamics and his expected threat. He will pick a set of tactics that enable him to make full use of his favourite techniques, be it charging in, deception or counterattacking. These techniques and tactics together reflect the person’s character.
In my American Heirs series, Master Sergeant Christopher Miller is a soldier with a distinguished career in the Combat Studies Unit of the Cascadian Defense Force. He doesn’t have any formal training in martial arts, just generic military combatives and other specialised programs for Spec Ops types. His training emphasises fighting as a unit instead of working solo, seizing every advantage possible, and taking no chances. He would rather shoot a threat than touch him, but he won’t hesitate to go hands-on if he must.
This is portrayed in the combat scenes. If a subject tries to grapple with a Unit operator in close quarters battle, the operator will shove the subject aside into a corner, clearing the way for his buddies to continue the fight. After gunning down a threat, Miller and his fellow operators will fire insurance shots if they hadn’t landed a headshot. In the latest story, I, Eschaton, Miller employs stealth, speed and violence of action to overcome his tactical disadvantages. At the same time, he takes care to avoid hurting innocents and will not engage in gratuitous violence. Miller is a professional soldier par excellence: decisive, cunning and ruthless, but he will never harm anyone who doesn’t deserve it.
Contrast this with Luke Landon from my upcoming novel No Gods, Only Daimons. Landon is a black ops agent, and often has to improvise weapons in denied environments. His preferred weapon is a knife, and he is an expert in Filipino martial arts. While Landon is no slouch with a firearm, he is far more skilled with a blade. He is also a highly intelligent operator who regularly employs deception. Before opening combat, he employs deceptive speech and body language to get his enemy to drop his guard, then lunges in for a pre-emptive strike. When engaging threats, he uses feints and footwork to set up and exploit openings, crashing in for the kill. Where possible, he will make use of the environment, slamming targets into walls, objects or each other. Landon knows that he is not fighting bodies; he is fighting minds. He approaches combat like a high-speed chess game with the highest stakes, creating and exploiting advantages.
Everybody has preferences. Discover your character’s preferences and employ them in action scenes, distinguishing them from other characters and other stories.
The Cost of It
Violence is a two-way street. Violence professionals will stack the deck in their favour as far as they can, but the other guy always get a vote. Injuries and diseases and fatalities are the price of the profession. They stack up over time, changing how a person views the world. And even if a person walks away physically unscathed, his mind may not.
Combat is the most toxic environment known to man. A single exposure alters the brain forever. It shakes up the soul, alters brain chemistry, and leaves psychic scars — especially if combat were particularly intense, harrowing and emotional. After the action scene is over, show your reader how your characters cope with their experiences.
Take the case of Audie Murphy. Murphy is one of the most decorated American soldiers of the Second World War, winning every US military award for valour, including the Second World War. But his wartime experiences shook him deeply, leaving him afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder. He became addicted to drugs, and suffered from insomnia and depression. Murphy is clearly brave, skilled combatant — but even he was not immune to the psychological ravages of war.
Looking at fiction, Barry Eisler’s John Rain is a hitman who kills without remorse…but his conscience droves him to make amends. In Redemption Games, his conscience causes him to botch a job, turning him into a target. At the end, his guilt drives him to atone for his deeds.
Here we see people dealing with the cost of violence in markedly different ways. Murphy was clearly shaken by the war, affecting his everyday life. In contrast, Rain experiences no psychological stress from the act of killing, but he is haunted by the knowledge of the long-term impact on the people affected by his kills. Rain isn’t a wreck, but his guilt informs his future actions and mindset.
The more intense an actions scene, the higher the price the character has to pay. This comes in the form of injuries, permanent loss of function, maladjustment to civilian life, psychological trauma, and more. How they cope with this trauma shows the reader the depths of their souls. Is a character prone to spiralling into self-destruction? Or will he rise above his new wounds and strive to overcome them? This drama creates greater depth in writing.
Putting Everything Together
Violence is a tool for people to impose their wills on others to achieve their goals. Every act of violence is an expression of the actor’s being. His physique tells you what he can and cannot do. His mindset and beliefs show what he will or will not do. His tactics show his preferences. The best action scenes combine these three elements, bringing out the actor’s character. And when the action is over, different people will find different ways to cope with what they have done.
To create top-notch action scenes, learn your characters inside and out, pit them against each other, and let them be themselves.
This is just an overview. To create verisimilitude, you have to do your research. Study the techniques and mindsets of fighters and warriors and survivors, and embody them in your characters. Here are some books that point the way.
- On Combat, Dave Grossman and Loren W. Christensen
- On Killing, David Grossman
- Meditations on Violence, Rory Miller
- Warrior Mindset, Dr Michael Asken