The Kung Fu Panda Guide to Writing Action Scenes

action scenesYou don’t have to love kung fuuuuuuu to enjoy a good action scene, but you do need to understand the basics of the action scenes 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 nine tips to make sure yours are legendary.

1. Realize Spectacle Doesn’t Translate Well to the Page

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

Kung Fu Panda Opening Scene

Action scenes are the stock-in-trade of Hollywood’s summer blockbuster. But if the likes of Kung Fu Panda (or The Matrix or Star Wars) were novels, they wouldn’t be able to use the same 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.

2. Make Your Action Scenes About the Characters

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

Tai Lung Kung Fu Panda

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 the 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?

3. Utilize Dialogue

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

Kung-Fu Panda Dream Prologue Po 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.

4. Up Tension by Increasing the Odds Your Character Will Lose

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

Kung Fu Panda Po vs Tai Lung

Even the Man of Steel needed a weakness to keep audiences from growing complacent with his inevitable victories. Your heroes should rarely, if ever, have the advantage in a fight. Give them a weakness—mental, moral, or physical–that will make readers fear for their victory.

5. Know Your Stuff

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

Po Kung Fu Panda Eating Noodles

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.

6. 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.

7. Make Your Action Scenes Unique

You never seen Bear style!

Action scenes can quickly take on a been-there-done-that feel, from book to book, and even 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.

8. Shorten Your Sentences

Skadoosh!

Po vs Tai Lung Kung-Fu Panda Wushi Fingerhold 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.

9. Know What Not to Show

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

Kung Fu Panda: There is no charge for awesomeness... or attractiveness.

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, 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 good guy hits the bad guy, 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!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s the most difficult part of writing action scenes? Tell me in the comments!

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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. I think often writers concentrate too much on describing the action, rather than making the action interesting or unexpected. Two men exchanging punches is dull no matter how well it’s written.

    I think if the action is surprising in some way it will be interesting even in the simplest language.

    @mooderino

  2. Pacing is so hard. Length too. I had one of my action scenes read in a class and learned it was too long and everyone got confused. I have since delighted in cutting huge chunks of it out.

    I’m bookmarking this post for future references.

  3. Great post!! 😀 And I love that movie!

    I love writing action scenes, but I have a hard time with the pacing. And length! I have an action scene that needs some serious trimming – and a part where my CPs wanted me to linger awhile on the image I created because it got lost in the quick pace. So hard to find that balance!

  4. Great comments above. I was going to say sounding cliche, because as you’ve mentioned its easy to make it feel like every other fight. You can only punch a guy so many ways before its all repeated.

    Anyway, I love the comments on pacing. That really is the kicker isn’t it?

  5. I think the hardest thing for a lot of people is that they think the scene itself needs to happen fast! Fast! Fast! Possibly owing to the speed a fight is portrayed in movies. The result is that instead of getting a 5-page scene that makes us wonder if the character is going to survive, we end up with a paragraph of 3-5 sentences where very little happens. It’s all the tension and the suspense.

    The hardest thing in writing them, I think — I’m doing an urban fantasy thriller — is running out of action words. I find myself having to revise sentences after I’ve used slammed more than once. I’ve been reading the sports section for descriptions that I can use. Hockey and probably football would be good choices.

  6. Ahh, thank you. I’ve been struggling with this question for the past week and this definitely helps!

    Linda- your idea of going to the sports section for words is great. I think I’m going to have to borrow that from you 🙂

  7. I have to add another thing I’ve observed people do — they watch movies and then try to do action from the movies. This makes for some very unrealistic action. Movies use cables and wires to get those fancy stunts. Plus, it moves by so fast, no one’s going to pay attention to the fact that it’s not really possible. In a book the reader is with the scene for a lot longer so people are seriously going to start questioning how your character survived jumping out of a plane without a parachute and making a “3 point landing” (which the author in question used incorrectly. He thought it was a good landing. Uh no.).

  8. Great advice – I’ll definitely be referring to this page. Thanks! 🙂

    So far, the previous actions of the characters lead me through the action scene. As for detail, I treat them the same as I treat love scenes – only writing to my comfort level.

  9. @Mooderino: Excellent point. We’ve all been to a blockbuster move that went overboard with the CG effects, but whose effect was yawn-worthy because it offered nothing new.

    @Miss Cole: It’s always better for action scenes to err on the side of too short rather than too long. Better to leave readers wanting more than to bore them.

    @Marisa: Fight scenes need to be paced quickly to convey the speed and excitement, but sometimes we can find a beautiful contrast by slowing a moment down (think slow motion in the movies).

    @Charity: Ultimately, there are only so many moves a character can run through in an action scene (particularly within the limitations of written fiction). It’s the characters’ motivations and dialogue that will make the scene unique.

    @Linda: Brilliant! My own action words always get a work out. Physical sports are a great place to look for new recruits. And your point about mimicking action in movies is also great, not just because much of what happens in the movies is unrealistic but simply because the over-the-top unrealism doesn’t translate to the same “coolness” on the page.

    @Juliana: Glad the post was helpful!

    @Cathryn: That’s always a good measuring stick. Violence will very likely appear in our pages for good reason; it’s only when it becomes gratuitous that it’s problematic.

  10. Helpful info. I’ve never written a battle/fight scene (except a verbal argument, no bloodshed), but I’m considering a fight in a future scene in my WIP between my MC and his best friend/sidekick. Saved this blog for reference.

    BTW: your suggestion of closing the blinds before blocking out a fight scene so the neighbors won’t call the cops gave me a chuckle. 😉

  11. Most of these points apply just as much to any other type of action scene (chase scene, sports scene, physical comedy scene, etc.) as they do to actual fight scenes.

  12. This one’ll go down as one of my favorites among your posts. Great setup, great delivery (and great movie to use as fodder!).

    The key to this–as with so many other elements of writing–is finding the right balance. You absolutely need some measure of detail in order to make the scene real for the reader. I’m reminded of the behind-the-scenes segment from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith in which George Lucas turns up with the first draft of the screenplay. It’s a pathetically thin stack of paper about which he depricatingly confesses, “Most of it is twenty pages of ‘They fight.'” (Which means that, even from its earliest incarnation, the script reflected the final film, most of which is repeated twenty-minute segments of “They fight.”) As a novelist, you MUST say more than “they fight” if you want your audience to remain interested.

    On the other hand, too much detail is a pace-killer. Writers need to learn to trust their readers–who will quite willingly “cinematize” a scene for you if you give them the right details in the right fashion.

    Loved this post, Kathryn. Great stuff.

  13. Thanks! It was a sinfully fun post to write. 😀

    The Sith anecdote is a great example, IMO, of why blockbuster movies are so often disappointing. The action may be stunning – but story cannot live on action alone.

  14. Loved this post! THANKS! Using Kung Fu Panda helped a lot 🙂

  15. Yay! I’m always glad to hear a post was useful.

  16. Great title that drew me in from Twitter. It begged to be checked out! The article itself has me going back in my mind over actions scenes I’ve written to analyze them. I will be saving this article to critique my next action scene!

  17. Glad you stopped by – and even gladder the article was of use. Happy editing!

  18. For me, it’s knowing what level of detail to use. If I don’t use enough, the scene feels short and my MC wins the day too easily. If it’s too long, or paced incorrectly, the opposite is true.

    Also, I think it’s important to have a feel for how things are supposed to work. While I can’t admit to ever blocking out a scene physically, I have definitely done it mentally. Being someone who can visualize movement over area better, I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem.

    I would suggest if you have never taken any form of martial arts, though, to consider taking a few classes (I’ve had some karate personally) or to go observe at a local studio. I’ve been eyeing this Krav Maga studio near me… 🙂

  19. Nice article, thanks for the information.

  20. Write what you know – and, if you don’t know it, learn it! That definitely applies (at least up to a point) with physical action. If your story includes a horse, you’ll do yourself legions of favors by learning how to ride. If your story has a gun, learn how to shoot. Etc.

  21. @Rental: Thanks for reading!

  22. Keeping the action flowing in logical sequence is my biggest concern. I have a lot of fight scenes in all my books, but each time I look for something unique to add to the battle. The climax of all three of my Coalition Trilogy stories has the Justice Coalition as a team taking on impossible odds. Against excavation machines, against a rape gang near a band shell, and miners inside a cavern.

    Indeed, since the Coalition consists of handicapped members, it definitely fulfills the part of the characters having a weakness.

    ~ VT

  23. The whole idea of a gang of handicapped people fighting evildoers is a pretty unique slant in itself.

  24. I describe too much. And also, I don’t know how to swordfight, so it’s not as easy to write about it XD

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

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

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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. 😉

  31. 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.

  32. @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!

  33. 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!

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

  35. @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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

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

  41. 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.

  42. 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” […]

  2. […] The Kung Fu Panda Guide to Writing Action Scenes by K.M. Weiland […]

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