The Kung Fu Panda Guide to Writing Action Scenes

You don’t have to love kung fuuuuuuu to enjoy a good action scene, but you do need to understand the basics of this integral type of scene if you’re going to blind readers from overexposure to your action awesomeness. Fight scenes, chase scenes, and other action extravaganzas appear in stories of every genre, so consider the following to make sure yours are legendary.

Realize spectacle doesn’t translate well to the page

It mattered not how many foes he faced. They were no match for his bodacity.

Action scenes are the stock-in-trade of Hollywood’s summer blockbuster. But the likes of Kung Fu Panda (or The Matrix or Star Wars) can’t use extravagant visuals to wow readers on the page. Describing, in detail, the flying fists and impressive footwork of a kung-fu battle just isn’t quite as spectacular on the page. Authors need to recognize this limitation and work around it.

Make it about the characters

He’s a panda! You’re a panda! What are you gonna do, big guy? Sit on me?

If you’ve stuck in an action scene just because it’s cool or just because you feel you’re supposed to have an action scene about now, it’s probably going to fall flat. Action, no matter what form it takes, must advance the plot and deepen characterization. The interaction between the protagonist and his opponent must go deeper than just exchanged blows. Who are these people, why are they fighting, and what does their fight tell you about them and their relationship?

Utilize dialogue

The warrior said nothing, for his mouth was full. And then he swallowed… and then he spoke: “Enough talk, let’s fight!”

Action movies can sometimes get away without much in the way of dialogue, since the visual representation of the action is enough to carry the story (in The Bourne Supremacy, Jason Bourne says hardly anything throughout the movie’s second half). But, in written fiction, dialogue is the most vibrant part of storytelling. Make sure you use it to your advantage by breaking up descriptions of action with story-advancing (and perhaps scintillatingly witty?) dialogue.

Up the tension by increasing the odds

You can’t defeat me! You… you’re just a big… fat… panda!

Even the Man of Steel needed a weakness to keep audiences from growing complacent with his inevitable victories. Your hero should rarely, if ever, have the advantage in a fight. Give him a weakness—mentally, morally, or physically—that will make readers fearful he won’t win.

Know your stuff

I just ate, so I’m still digesting, so my kung fu may not be as good as later on.

Whether you’re writing about warfare in the middle ages, urban street fighting, or an entirely original form of martial arts, do your research. Not everyone is going to be able to spot the inconsistencies, but some readers will—and if it’s obvious you don’t know the difference between a backfist and a shadowless kick, readers who do know will drop your book in disgust.

Choreograph the moves

Uh… I don’t think I can do all those moves right away.

Sometimes it’s impossible to accurately visualize the intricacies of a fight scene. Sometimes we just have to get out of the chair, grab a prop or two, and block them out for ourselves. Just make sure you draw the blinds, so the neighbors don’t call the cops.

Make your scenes unique

You never seen Bear style!

Action scenes can quickly take on a been-there-done-that feel, from book to book, and within the same book. Strive to give your action scenes a unique element or slant. If, when you reread it, it feels just like that last action blockbuster you saw, it’s probably clichéd at best. Action scenes, just like dialogue, must avoid repetition under threat of reader boredom.

Shorten your sentences

Skadoosh!

Ramp up the speed and excitement in your action scenes by choosing short, punchy words and rapid-fire sentences. Vary your short sentences with the occasional compound or complex sentence, so readers don’t feel you’re bludgeoning them, but if you find your fight scene slogging along, the slow pacing is likely due to overweight phrasing.

Know what not to show

Legend tells of a legendary warrior whose kung fu skills were the stuff of legend.

Fights don’t need to be blow for blow. Just show us the high points. Except for moments when you’re slowing down the pacing for emphasis’ sake, we don’t need to see the character’s muscles tightening, his fingers curling into a fist, his hand drawing back and then swinging forward to connect with the opponent’s nose, knocking him slobberless. Sometimes you’re better off summarizing your character’s brilliant moves. Just say the white hat hits the black hat, and you’ll be good to go.

Action scenes can be more fun than slurping a bowl of noodles. Study to become a master of these finer points of the action, so readers can share your fun. Shashabooey!

Tell me your opinion: What’s the most difficult part of writing action scenes?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. YouTube tutorials are always a good place to start, since you can not only get advice straight from the experts, but you can also watch them in action.

  2. YouTube! What a great idea. I think that your note about making sure the hero appears to be in the losing position is great advice (keep the readers worried), as well as figuring out how the physicality works and doing research.

    This is a great post.

  3. The trick is putting the hero at a disadvantage without making is so *much* of a disadvantage that he can’t believably overcome it.

  4. One of the advantages to writing super-hero stories is that I can’t learn to teleport or fly, and neither can my reader!

    But that doesn’t make writing super-hero action scenes any easier since fans have their own ideas of how powers should work.

    The biggest challenges for me are 1) showing how the powers are different from what the reader might be expecting, and 2) establishing realistic limits so the characters do no appear omnipotent.

  5. Every Superman has to have his Kryptonite! Fantasy heroes are, in some ways, more difficult to write realistically simply because, in speculative fiction, it isn’t enough just to present the facts. We have to create our own facts that are just as convincing as the real deal.

  6. Awesome post! I adore the quotes from Kung Fu Panda! Love it love it love it!

    Being a martial arts instructor, the hardest part about writing fight scenes in particular is the urge to use overly technical words that non-practitioners of the art wouldn’t know. Having said that, I’d like to think I can write a decent fight scene. 😉

  7. My characters are so far on the bottom that they get slaughtered. Repeatedly. And it’s necessary for the plot…but it adds a whole nother monkey wrench to the scene.

  8. @J.C.: I think it’s a temptation for authors to overwrite in their area of expertise, no matter what it may be. As someone who’s very familiar with horses, I often have to resist using terms the average non-rider wouldn’t be familiar with. It’s a balancing act to include the proper terms while still making certain readers will understand their meanings.

    @Galadriel: Repeatedly slaughtered. Sounds like they have resurrection powers!

  9. I’ve never written a fight scene yet! I do know to ramp up my words–shorten them and use strong verbs–but those scenes are tough!

  10. Well, they only die once. But there’s more than one mass execuation

  11. @Terri: Physical violence doesn’t crop up in every story, but I bet you’ve written a fight scene. Arguments count! They just use words instead of weapons. 😉

    @Galadriel: Ah, I gotcha now.

  12. I’ve figured out that writing an action scene as witnessed through a character’s eyes works best for me. This way, you get a perspective and a personal angle and it is easier to grasp than trying to go, “and then… and then… and then…” Also, you get the emotional response served on a silver platter.

  13. Definitely. To begin with, if the action doesn’t matter to the character, why should it matter to the reader? And, secondly, writing an action scene in a voice integral to the character makes it that much more of a plot-progressing mechanism.

  14. I remind myself to get into the minds of the characters, making sure they act and fight in whatever way their nature dictates at the right time. Whether that means using cleverness or brutality or running away or enjoying the action themselves, that needs to come through to the reader. Whatever a character’s motivation, their part of the action should flow from it and must ring true.

    Coming from the position of having a lot of martial experience, I feel it helps a lot in understanding fights specifically and action generally. Whatever action you intend to write, having done it should only help in understanding how to describe it. Virgins probably shouldn’t bother trying to write about sex. For the rough stuff, though, (murders, eviscerations, etc.) I trust we’ll all just stick to our imaginations.

  15. Good point about characters needing to *act* in character within action scenes. We can’t have a mild-mannered clerk suddenly busting out with killer jujitsu moves.

  16. Those are some interesting points. I should try that.

  17. Thank you for this! I really like watching Kung Fu Panda and it is so amazing that you right this kind of guidelines for action scene. I’m a wannabe writer and I don’t know how to write an action scene. It helps me a lot.

  18. scenes must be realistic or lemme say easy to believe because viewers will critic it and if they do love the storyline they will surely recommend it to others and will write a good review about it. Yah action scenes are hard to write as it should captivate the reader’s attention. Thank you for your great tips!

Trackbacks

  1. […] I’ve found helpful: 5 Essential Tips for Writing Killer Action Scenes (Chuck Sambuchino) The Kung Fu Panda Guide to Writing Action Scenes (K.M. Weiland) Writing: Action Scenes (John Rogers) Just Google “writing action scenes” […]

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