Action scenes are the bread and butter of pulp stories. When the story threatens to get too boring, throw in a fight scene and you revitalize it with fresh energy, stakes and momentum. When the hero finally confronts the main villain, readers expect a climactic battle to wrap up the book.
The art of the action scene is critical to writing a pulp-style tale. To craft a powerful action scene, write to what readers want from one.
Readers want the excitement and the drama of the fight, without the experience of danger. They want to feel the crunch of bone on bone, hear the crack of a bullet whipping past, see the blood spraying from a fresh wound.
Higher-level readers also want to see the technical aspects of the fight, and learn from it. They have an idea of how violence plays out in the real world, and they demand to see it on the page. They want to see violence that matches their experience — without the danger of it.
An action scene allows the reader to live vicariously through the characters, experiencing the intensity of a fight from the comfort and safety of their homes. It is a full-sensory assault, brimming with tension and drama and energy, with the characters gunning for the highest stakes.
Readers want intensity, velocity and characterisation. Write to what they want and they will flock to you.
The Spirit of the Fight
Many modern writers like to describe fights in excruciating detail. Every punch, every kick, every swipe, every little gesture.
This approach mirrors modern cinema. A movie can’t tell you the intensity of a fight scene; it can only show you. Therefore, with few exceptions, a movie shows the entire fight scene from start to finish.
In the prose world, this isn’t necessary.
There is no need to describe every blow in the scene if it’s not necessary. This is especially important for a drawn-out fight.
The act of reading, of visualising the events on the page, takes up energy. If a fight scene drags on for too long, it could exhaust the reader. It could exhaust you in writing it, which causes the story to flag.
Further, the more moving parts something has, the more likely it will fail. This includes fight scenes. If you’re not intimately familiar with violence and martial arts, a blow-by-blow account significantly increases your risk of making a mistake, one that a sharp-eyed reader will catch. This breaks suspension of disbelief, and with it, immersion.
When writing an action scene, it is enough to describe the important blows: the build up, opening shots, feints, turnabouts, significant attacks, the final strikes, the finishing blow.
The build up to a fight scene prepares the reader for the coming storm. It communicates the setting, the stakes, the characters, and with them the props and the type of violence to expect. It primes the reader for what is to come.
The opening shots signal the beginning of the fight scene. It is the explosion that sets the scene into motion.
Once in motion, maintaining the momentum becomes critical. Instead of describing attacks in exhaustive detail, strive to capture the intensity of violence, and how the characters express themselves through action. Paint the scene in broad strokes instead of getting down into the mud and blood.
Robert E Howard used this technique to mastery. Instead of describing how Conan, Solomon Kane, or any of his fighting-men fought, he used the action scenes to bring out the characters and the mood of the story.
Conan is likened to a wolf, striking with brute force and pure instinct, ripping through hordes of enemies. Solomon Kane is a cold, rational, defensive fighter, who meticulously prepares the battlefield if he has the opportunity to do so. Breckinridge Elkins is a poor dumb hillbilly who inhabits humorous stories, so his descriptions of fights elicit laughter and sympathy for the comic hero.
The readers want to experience the intensity of combat through the eyes of the character. Few actually want an exhaustive recount of battle. Focus on the characters, on their senses, on how their actions bring out their personalities.
The only blows you need to focus on are those that have an impact on the fight. A feint that sets up a counter, a critical hit (or miss), the final blow.
Significant blows in the middle of a scene should change the dynamic of the fight in some way. Someone loses a weapon, a limb, or both. Someone is cut, and the pain and blood reduces his ability to fight. Someone pulls off a trick, and suddenly the other fighter is on the back foot.
This change signals a fresh phase of combat. It re-engages the reader, keeps him on the edge of his seat, and pulls him along to the climax. If a blow doesn’t change the dynamics of the fight, you don’t have to describe it.
The final blow should never be left out. It is the climax of the scene, the decisive blow that ends it, and leads to the following scene. This is the moment you’ve been building up to, the moment the reader has been anticipating from the start. Do not let him down.
I recommend this approach to writers with little familiarity with martial arts, or to writers who write large-scale battles. For the former, this minimises the chance of making a mistake. For the latter, it allows him to keep the momentum of the battle going without being bogged down in the mud and blood.
There is also another advantage to this method: realism.
Movies cannot tell. They can only show. Fight scenes in movies are thus highly stylized. They start small, then ratchet up intensity and keep building it up to a climax.
In the real world, this isn’t always so.
Police and security personnel are often called upon to arrest or restrain people who are posing a harm to others, but not so much harm that they need to be shot (or cut down) in the moment. Such people may be highly combative, and will fight back or try to run.
In the real world, such confrontations take a long time to resolve. There could be a foot chase, an exchange of blows, wrestling and grappling over concrete or slippery grass. There is a lot of movement, it is exhausting, but unlike Hollywood, there isn’t much opportunity to escalate. Police officers cannot escalate unless the suspect escalates also.
Likewise, combats requiring lots of grappling, maneuvering and trading blows to little effect are better described in broad strokes than in detail. This keeps the action going without boring the reader.
It’s a lot easier to show this in prose than the screen without boring the reader. A canny writer can describe the general thrust of events, with the characters rolling around here and there, bumping into furniture, struggling to gain leverage. This keeps the reader engaged without drowning him in technical details.
Fiction opens the possibility for fights and confrontations that last for hours, even days. In the real world, it would be exhausting to live through this. Do this to a reader and he will close the book. By focusing on characters, senses and the energy of the fight, as opposed to the minutiae of combat, you can keep the reader engaged.
Going into broad strokes is like watching the scene on fast forward. It skips through the boring and exhausting parts, allowing the reader to focus on what is important: the characters, their senses, their emotions, and the blows that change the dynamics of the fight.
Velocity of Violence
All of the above will sound strange, coming from someone renowned for writing fight scenes in exhaustive detail. But that’s because I dive deep into action scenes for a specific purpose.
I grew up reading thrillers. Thrillers demand technical accuracy married to velocity of violence. Describing fights blow-by-blow is practically a genre necessity. Done poorly, it slows things down. Done right, it communicates a level of intensity broad strokes writing won’t.
Violence is fast. If you choose to describe a fight scene in detail, you must keep the violence fast and furious. Keep sentences short. Minimize descriptions. Emphasize senses, impact and reactions.
An action scene may be composed of multiple engagements, such as the hero fighting a bunch of goons at once. Keep each engagement short. No more than three moves per mook, preferably just one. In the real world, this is necessary for survival. In fiction, it maintains the momentum of combat.
When focusing on a single opponent, keep the action simple. Simple techniques like punches, kicks, cuts and thrusts are easy to write and easy to read. They speed the reader along the page.
Leave complex moves for finishing blows. Through describing the technique, you build up intensity and anticipation, resulting in an impactful and satisfying climax.
The chief advantage of this method is that it allows you to dive deeper into a fight scene to better draw out how characters think, move and act. This is especially important for characters explicitly described as masters of a martial art, with deeper knowledge and expertise than other characters.
In Babylon Blues, Yuri Yamamoto is a street samurai distinguished by his use of a sword in an age of guns and magic. It is an archaic weapon, meant for close quarters engagements.
Yuri Yamamoto fights monsters bigger, stronger, faster and more powerful than humans. He survives his encounters due to his superior grasp of timing, physics, biomechanics, psychology, and tactics.
When he draws his sword, I go into great detail to show how precisely he manages to survive what appears to be an impossible fight. This sells him as a master of the blade and empty hand, convincing the reader that someone with similar skills in a similar situation could indeed prevail.
The key to doing this is to avoid bogging down the reader in extraneous detail. Discuss only the absolute minimum needed to sell the scene. This can be a lot trickier than you may think.
Grappling arts like judo and jujitsu require profound knowledge of balance, physics, momentum and energy. The Chinese internal martial arts demand precise positioning and angles or a technique will fail. For a martial artist trained in such systems, it is tempting to go into exhaustive detail.
You’re not writing a textbook. You’re writing a story. Most readers won’t appreciate tiny details or fancy names. They just want excitement. You only need enough detail for the intended reader to visualize the scene.
The purpose of going into the details of a fight scene is to accelerate the action, show off a character’s technical skill, and magnify intensity. Anything that does not serve these three goals should be cut.
Intensity, Velocity, Character
When reading an action scene, the reader wants three things.
He wants the excitement of experiencing danger up close without putting himself at risk.
He wants to feel the sensation of moving at high speed while staying still.
He wants to see the scene through the character’s eyes without being there.
A powerful action scene speaks to these desires. It communicates the intensity of violence through sensory engagement. It shows the velocity of violence through combat choreography. It reveals the characters by going into details.
These three elements are locked in a dangerous dance. They must be perfectly balanced or the scene will be ruined.
Going too much into senses slows down the story and says nothing about the characters. Speed through the scene too quickly and there is nothing exciting or dramatic on the scene. Go into exhaustive detail and you exhaust the reader and slow down the scene.
Balancing all three elements requires a deft touch. Always maintain forward momentum. Everything committed to the page must move the story along. If a detail stalls the story, cut it out. If a scene yanks the story forward too quickly, slow it down. If a scene has too few details to sustain the story, flesh it out.
The action scene is the bread and butter of an action-packed pulp tale. A poor action scene will ruin a story long before the end. A powerful one creates an unforgettable experience.
Practice and master this skill, and let it become the pillar of your own work.
Want to see how I built a series on high-intensity action? Check out my cyberpunk action horror collection BABYLON BLUES!