The Key to Writing Good Action Scenes (Hint: It’s Not Just the Action)

This week’s video shows you how you can mimic Jurassic Park in streamlining your narrative and keeping your action scenes tight.

Video Transcript:

Two admissions to start off with today.

First, I admit the title is slightly misleading. The key to writing good action scenes isn’t action? What’s up with that? Because if action is the point of the scene, then obviously the action is important. I titled it that because we’re going to talk about an all-important aspect of action scenes that, indeed, has nothing to do with action.

Second admission: I really, really wanted to title this using Po’s great line from Kung-Fu Panda:

Enough talk, let’s fight.

Kung-Fu Panda Dream Prologue Po Enough Talk Let's Fight

But as apropos as that might be—as you’ll see—this isn’t about Po. It’s yet another example of fabulous storytelling from Jurassic Park.

The lesson we’re going to take away from this today is one about keeping the action tight by first and foremost keeping the narrative tight. By the time we get to our action scenes, we need to make sure all our working pieces are in place. We don’t want to bring the build-up of tension to a screeching halt in order to explain important aspects of the story. What we want to do is either get all that stuff out of the way far earlier or work it seamlessly into the action scene itself.

In the always high-tension Jurassic Park, we’ve got the Third Act opening with Ellie Sattler headed out into the wilds of the park to reboot the power system.

Ellie Sattler Laura Dern Jurassic Park

Now, perhaps it would have made more sense for park owner Mr. Hammond to explain the technicalities of finding and operating the system before she went out. But for the sake of the narrative flow and the overall tension within this scene, the movie made the admirable choice to have him walk her through the process in real time—with the raptors breathing down her neck.

The next time your characters are enacting a complicated plan, evaluate whether you can keep the pacing tighter by showing readers the plan in real time rather than stopping to explain it all to them beforehand.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What information do you need to explain before you get to your important action scenes? Tell me in the comments!

The Key to Writing Good Action Scenes (Hint: It’s Not Just the Action)

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Great advice! I’ll definitely keep this in mind when I write. I know that I’m guilty of bringing the action to a halt.

    Another issue that I’ve noticed is that some authors build up action, however, let it deflate too quickly as if it was unimportant.

    I think the bigger problem that we struggle with is reading flow, like when the readers need a break from the action or when they require more juice out of it. Can this only be resolved through experience or is there a way for us to consciously be aware?

    I would love if you could check out my blog http://www.laurendomagas.com! I write about my personal writing journey as well as writing advice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My best tip for pacing is always scene structure. Well-constructed scenes are broken into two halves: scene (action) and sequel (reaction). Those halves are then further broken down into three parts apiece:

      Scene: 1) Goal 2) Conflict 3) Outcome (Disaster)

      Sequel: 1) Reaction 2) Dilemma 3) Decision.

      When the scene is properly structured, we have a constant ebb and flow of action and reaction. More on that in this series: How to Structure Scenes in Your Story (Complete Series).

  2. Steve Mathisen says:

    Great post and I especially loved the Po outfit. Alas, it’s appearance was all too short! 🙁

  3. I recently watched Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” which I think is surprisingly effective for devoting most of the time to characterization, tension, and establishing details than to the action. When the action does come, it tends to be pretty quick with some cool down and tension for the next battle afterwards, but it works since the stakes are so well established and the battles (although brief) are very well done.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I really need to watch that one. The Magnificent Seven was one of my favorite movies growing up. I watched it probably once a week there for a while.

      • I haven’t watched “The Magnificent Seven”, but it sounds like fun. I’m curious about how it compares/contrasts to “Seven Samurai”. I guess I’ll just have to check it out sometime…

  4. There is also another risk, in my opinion. Sometimes, when you explain things beforehand, the reader don’t really have an idea that what you’re explaining is going to be important later on, so they may forget what you explained. Then, when they need the info, they don’t remember it and even if you don’t have to stop the action, the reader has to stop and go check the info, or go ahead blindly as if you never gave him any info.

    Still, sometimes giving the info beforehand is better, because it allows to create the world and especially expectations, so that when something happenes, it doesn’t seem to come out of the blue.

    It’s a very fine balance and – I think – one of the hardest decisions regarding storytelling, because depending on which route you go for, the structure of the story will change.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes. Pre-action information scenes can often turn into info dumps simply because readers don’t yet have a good reason to care about what they’re learning.

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