Write Better Action Scenes: Make It About the Characters

[From KMW: Since I am traveling this week, I’m offering up a shorter post today about how to write better action scenes. For my birthday, I gave myself a month-long “writing retreat” in the mountains! I’ll be posting regular content again next week, and you can check Instagram for some peeks into my adventures.]

As an author, you want to create characters so rich and compelling readers will carry a piece of the story with them for the rest of their lives. Then, once you’ve peopled your pages with vivid personalities, you want to shove them into the middle of the most gripping and exciting situations you can think of. The more readers care of about these people, the more likely they are to care about your book.

However, no matter how compelling your characters or how gripping your action, you may still run the great risk of losing readers if you’re employing a distant narrative that pulls readers out of the story, rather than pulling them in deeper.

Here’s an example: A fantasy I read recently featured some of the most brilliant actions scenes I’ve ever read… and yet it still had me yawning and peeking ahead to the next scene.

What went wrong?

In these scenes, the author chose to employ a distant narrative that skimmed over the entirety of the battle, rather than focusing on the personal involvement of the characters I cared about.

The writing went something like this (with a little help from ChatGPT):

Elada drew her slender elven longbow and nocked an arrow. In one fluid motion, she released the arrow, and it flew true, striking one of the bandits in the chest before he could react.

He fell to the ground with a cry.

The remaining bandits lunged at her.

Elada was already in motion. She somersaulted backward, cloak billowing like a shroud. She released arrow after arrow, and the bandits fell, silenced by her relentless assault.

Versus something like this that focuses on how the events are affecting the character:

Lourde’s breath came in ragged gasps. Sweat trickled down his temples beneath his helm. Fear surged through him, a gnawing dread that threatened to paralyze his every move.

But amidst the fear, there was something else, something powerful and relentless—the burning fire of determination. His chest swelled with resolve as he remembered the faces of those he fought for, the innocent villagers who depended on him, the homeland he was sworn to protect.

He let out a battle cry, a primal roar that shattered the suffocating grip of fear. With newfound strength, he charged into the fray, his sword slicing through the air like an extension of his very being. The clang of steel against steel, the roar of fireballs, and the screams of the enemy blended into a cacophonous symphony of battle.

With every swing of his blade, Alaric felt a surge of exhilaration. He was not just a soldier; he was a guardian, a protector. Each strike was a testament to his unyielding will to defend his people. His heart pounded with a fierce joy as he carved a path through the enemy ranks, his movements a dance of death and defiance.

The author was certainly employing all the important techniques of “showing” the action, rather than “telling” it. But because he wasn’t keeping (me) engaged with what was happening for the characters on a personal level, the effect was to distance me from what should have been intense and exciting scenes.

Even the most well-written action scenes grow boring if the reader isn’t given a character to root for. Distant narrative serve its purpose, but it’s largely fallen out of favor in recent decades, due to this very pitfall.

Take a look at your story, particularly your tense, high-emotion scenes, and evaluate them.

  • Are you allowing readers to experience the scene through the characters’ reactions and actions?
  • Are readers able to stick by the characters every step of the way, gasping when they stumble and cheering when they rally?

If not, consider tightening your narrative. Doing so will not only inject more excitement and interest into your scene, it will also be more likely to keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What techniques have you used to write better 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.


  1. I’ve just finished a battle scene. I’m now going to go over it to check I’m close to mt POV character.
    Many thanks for this post.

  2. First, and most important, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
    I agree with your points and I’ve definitely seen them in writing. I have a couple of other things that bother me. First, the writing can get too technical in describing the fight, finding an excuse to mention every piece of armor and weaponry in as specific a terminology as possible. A little of this is great. A lot comes off as showing off and it has most readers leaping to the dictionary at a point where they should be immersed in the writing.
    The other thing that bothers me is absurdly unrealistic combat. It’s extremely difficult to fight two people at once, much less ten or twenty, so if you are going to have a fight scene where your character needs to win against that many, there needs to be something that keeps that character from suddenly having opponents striking him from two or three sides simultaneously. The character can’t be just a great fighter and get out of this, it has to have a magical or technical edge.
    Those are my pet peeves.
    Blessing you on your birthday. May you have many more to follow as your life sings in words of delight.

    • Good points. I’m about to reread War and Peace – for the first time since my teenage hood – and I’m bracing myself for the battle scenes. I don’t remember at all what they were like, other than that they were very long and detailed. Hopefully I won’t have to skim through them.

      • Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve read War and Peace, but I’d like to think Tolstoy would be realistic. Particularly since he wasn’t writing a hero narrative – Conan the Barbarian with muskets.

    • I once came across a scene in a book where the main character went wandering and came across three hostile people wielding an axe, a sword, and a bow and arrow. He was able to fend off all three of them at once. The archer was behind him, the other two were in front. He was able to sense when arrows were coming from behind him, sway to the side slightly, and catch the arrows. All while fighting off the two men in front of him. No magic. He had never fought before either…

      • I feel your pain. That’s not only a bad action scene, it’s bad character development. It’s always easier to identify with a character who has to work for it – isn’t just born with invincible talent.

  3. Eric Troyer says

    Good point. Enjoy your retreat!

  4. John D Warfield says

    Happy BD, K.D. 🙂

    Combat can make or break a fantasy/history/adventure story. It needs to be infrequent, consequential, visceral, brutal, very personal to the POV character, and it must forward the plot. Superheroes fueled by mightiness and a general sense of duty or outrage wading through yet another horde of faceless opponents are tropes at best, but combat where the outcome is uncertain with regard to the POVs character arc, purpose, or even survival can immerse the reader like few other scenes.

    If writing through 1st or close/distant 3rd person POV, descriptions and action should be consistant with the POV. A veteran warrior will have a different perspective and experience from the matronly halfling wife struggling to ward off orcs with a cleaver in a doorway. Everything is different.

    Gratuitously or lengthy descriptions of weapons is boring to some, and can be troublesome if the reader is well informed and prone to nit-picking. To some extent, the later is unavoidable with some genres, but it can be lessoned by buffering through the POV. A GI won’t need to describe an M1 rifle at length any more than a archer his bow, but a little tip on what makes a particular weapon special might spark his or her interest.

    Combat should also be as short as possible, conveying the sense of urgency with the fewest words possible while focusing on very narrow sensual inputs. The ring on an axe glancing off a helm, or the broad spray of blood, brain and bone if the victim is ill equipped. The heavier boom of a main battle rifle versus the crack of a semi auto pistol. I won’t get into smells…

    Authors should spend a little time researching their weapons and combat techniques. You don’t need to be an armorer, or a SEAL, but conveying comfortable familiarity with the tools and craft of warfare will go a long way with readers.

    Write what you know, and know what you write 🙂

  5. John D Warfield says

    I typed K.D instead of K.M. Sorry. I know better.

    Know what you write..:)

    Enjoy your birthday 🙂

  6. Paul Forster says

    Happy Birthday and enjoy the mountains, they’re great hiding places for trolls and dragons. May you run into sone friendly ones.

  7. Heather Willis says

    Well timed post. I currently have a problem with my Midpoint action scene. There’s a lot of character focus in it, but my critique partner pointed out that the character’s development was a bit… disconnected from the main action. There were good reasons for the action, and good reasons for this next step in the character’s journey, but the two weren’t related. In these examples I note that the things the character is focusing on are related to the current action, and I’ll go back to some books that do this well as inspiration for fixing my scene. Thank you!

  8. This has truly changed the way I think about action scenes. That second example was far more interesting and engaging. Thank you! Off to editing I go!

  9. Thank you!! This is exactly what I’ve been needing to know, definitely ups my writing confidence!

  10. Patricia Reed says

    Yes! This is exactly what I love about the action scenes in The Princes Bride (the book). I keep coming back to it to review just how Goldman made the fencing duel between Inigo and the Man in Black, for instance, absolutely riveting. He lets us follow the duel through Inigo’s analysis and reactions to the skill of the Man in Black. Because we cheer for Inigo, we hope, and then despair, through his understanding of the duel. So well written!
    And a most happy birthday to you!

    • John D Warfield says

      This reply is actually directed to Patricia Reed’s post above….
      Goldman’s approach is one of several possibilities, but oh boy did it work. Great example.

  11. Ralph Livingston says

    Happy birthday. I turned 85 on October 22nd. I suspect that I’m a little older than you ……. OK, probably a lot!
    Here’s part of my action scene:
    April 6, 1862
    Chapter: In camp at Shiloh Church
    The morning of April 6th at long last gave us a reprieve form the incessant rains. We ate breakfast and prepared for inspection and drilling. I was with Captain Dorr in the rear, at the quartermaster’s tent, when then the sound of gunfire from Prentiss’s camps to the South of us became the rattle of musketry. Colonel Woods came back and told us to join the line, and we were hastily told to prepare for battle. The order was already too late. Streams of men from Prentiss’s camps ran through our lines with fear in their eyes. Many of them weren’t even clothed having been caught in their beds. It was unnerving to see such chaos, and our officers tried their best to calm us, and to prepare us for the onslaught. It came with a rush; hundreds of rebels were running toward us.
    At about 100 yards we opened up with our Enfield’s and their front line went down as if cut with a scythe. Staggering, they hesitated long enough for us to reload. We had been told in training that an experienced soldier could load and fire the Enfield three time per minute. Believe me when I say that our line of men became “experienced” very quickly.
    We could see the Confederate officers rallying their men for another assault. Perhaps their officers didn’t realize that our Enfield muskets could easily pick them off at 200 yards and even farther.
    But still they came on. I could see that many of them were poorly armed with old flintlock muskets that failed to fire because the rains had gotten their powder wet. Some of them were without muskets.
    Again, our Enfields’ mowed them down relentlessly. Still, they came on in large numbers. They got very close and gave us a volley before we could completely reload. We began to take heavy casualties. Captain Dorr was exposing himself to enemy fire as he went up and down the line, shoring up gaps and encouraging our men. He had gallantly assumed command from several of our officers who had been wounded.
    Then Captain Dorr came up to me and said, “Sergeant McKay, take your squad to our far left. The Rebels are massed to flank us there and take control of Pittsburg Landing”. Six of us moved quickly. Sure enough, our line was week there. We gathered up several more muskets lying on the ground and loaded them. A wounded officer gave me his Colt revolver. Grimacing in pain, he said, “unload all six shots into the bastards for me”. I replied, “yes sir, I’ll do that”. I also had a four- barrel Sharps derringer that I had brought at our store two weeks before.
    We set-up our defensive line in a sunken road. Several trees had been downed by artillery fire so we quickly piled trunks and branches out in front of us to slow down their advance. We didn’t have to wait long. On they came. Fortunately, their advance was piece meal and not well organized.
    Our first volley staggered their line. They were suffering horrible casualties as they kept coming at us in staggered waves. We were able to reload all our Enfield’s. Then I saw a well-uniformed rebel officer, probably a general, on a magnificent horse, riding back and forth around 200 yards distant. He was gathering the stragglers and organizing their lines. We could hear him shout. Steeling ourselves, we knew that an all-out assault was about to begin. Some of the early morning stragglers had come up to help bolster our defense. We also now had a couple of 12 pounders that had been brought up, and they opened on the rebels causing considerable carnage and confusion.
    On they came, with bugles and drums, flags flying with the rebel yell. I thought, “my God, where have they found so many men.” Again, at one-hundred yards, we gave them a murderous volley. Our cannons were now loaded with grape shot, and at close range their blast opened huge gaps in their line. This gave us time to reload our Enfields’, and we unleashed another volley into their staggering lines and many of them started running away. I noticed that the rebel general was no longer there.
    The air was thick with arid white smoke, choking us, and made our eyes water. Sensing victory, our whole line stood up. We raised our fists at them, as we loudly shouted…. hIzzaw…..hizzaw……hizzaw. We thought the battle was over.
    Then Captain Dorr came up to me and said, “sergeant, prepare your men for a hard fight. The rebels are bringing up a new division to try to push through our left to the landing before dark”. Sure enough, we could see new troops massing in front of us and they were getting organized.
    On they came. We were ready. Once again, we held our ground. Then more of them followed closely behind not giving us an opportunity to reload. I loudly gave the order, “fix bayonets”.
    We met them in hand-to-hand fighting. It emboldens me to see that they were exhausted from their long march to the front. We pressed forward. I sunk my bayonet deep into a rebel’s gut. He slithered to the ground. Another rebel, with a club, struck my musket out of my hands. My revolver was instantly in my hand, without me even realizing that I had pulled it out from my belt. I shot all six chambers, each into separate rebels. I was a tiger, still they came all around me. I took out my derringer. I put a 32-caliber slug into the face of a bearded sergeant. He had a surprised look in his eyes.
    I felt a sharp pain in my left leg as I put a second shot into another rebel’s gut. I was going to make them pay dearly for taking me. Then everything went dark.

  12. Happy Birthday!

    My favorite writer of action scenes is Jin Yong, and one of the things I picked up from him is that it’s important to tie the physical action techniques to what’s going on internally with the character (which means the fights aren’t totally realistic, but I don’t mind).

    An example of this is the fight scene between Linghu Chong and his teacher, Yue Buqun. Yue Buqun wants to uphold his reputation by proving he’s still superior to his former student in skill, whereas Linghu Chong refuses to take offense because he can’t bear the thought of attacking his teacher. Yet by evading Yue Buqun’s attacks, he happens to reveal he is superior in skill after all. Yue Buqun can’t bear this, so he plays a dirty trick: he knows that Linghu Chong has a crush on his daughter, Yue Lingshan, and that they created a sword move together. Yue Buqun uses that sword move to remind Linghu Chong of his feelings for Yue Lingshan and that distracts him enough for Yue Buqun to land a blow on him and win the fight.

    Even if you don’t understand Cantonese or the Chinese subtitles, I think you can feel what’s going on with these characters through the acting in this TV adaptation: https://youtu.be/H62rn4U3xYM?list=PLUxlohmoXrakPpJ0zHbg5MLXN_Rvv3GuD&t=1070

  13. Happy Birthday! I hope your writing retreat was fun. Thanks for posting this, it was such great advice. It makes me think about a few things for a re-release of my first book.

  14. Teddy Cat Hester says

    Hey, birthday girl!
    I had to laugh out loud when I saw this email in my inbox. I just wrote a romcom meet-cute where the FMC is almost mowed down by a snowboarding tween whose out-of-control antics were blunted by a Prince Charming, landing the three of them in a tangled pile on a ski slope. When I reread the scene, I closed Word in self-disgust–it read like I’d fallen into a still life instead of an action flick! Now I can go back and rewrite with some directions in my toolbox, thank you!

  15. You likely have a good point, but it’s not sold to me by those examples. I was no more engaged in the second than in the first because they’re both in a vacuum.
    I don’t care about either character without the context of the story, so I don’t really think any generic example is going to do much good here.

  16. Happy birthday! And thank you for this post. I was trying to figure out why one fight scene really grabbed a few beta readers, and another one didn’t. And Lo and behold, the one that grabbed readers followed Option 2, and the second one followed option 1. And voila, I now know how to fix it! Thanks!

  17. Dear Miss W:
    Yes — a mighty Happy B-Day to you! Here’s wishing today’s a great day as is every day of your new year!! But to perhaps give you ‘another’ different ‘topic’ while on the road, I’m curious about artificial intelligence (ai) apps or applications that run on desktop machines which will help with grammar, and most especially for me, verb tense — I’m always in the wrong ‘time.’ Anyway, maybe for another day, another post…? Sorry if this is incongruent with your normal process. Enjoy the Remainder! –B/

  18. Happy birthday!
    This is just the article I need. This post applies to steamy scenes in Romance as well. There is an author that I really want to like (good romance suspense plots), but there is something about her romance scenes that just doesn’t grab me and I couldn’t figure out why. This post nailed the problem!
    This article clarified why I found some romance scenes engaging and some left me bored.
    A very valuable post for my own writing. Definitely one to print out and pin near my desk!!

    • I grappled with romantic/sensual scenes in my first book, thinking “what will my family think of me for writing such things”. I believe that some writers feel a need to sanitize these scenes, which makes their characters seem artificial and unrealistic.
      My decision was to describe these engagements as they would really occur in real life between two lovers, including realistic dialog. You don’t have to get obscenely graphic (unless you are writing a porn script), but I came to the bottom line conclusion that life itself is not PG rated, so I might as well tell it like it is.
      Best wishes for success.

    • In case you and @R. Lauren are still reading this: Diana Gabaldon has an e-book on writing love scenes. I don’t write love scenes, but the book is valuable as well for her demonstrating how to use sensory details to bring a scene to life. It’s an inexpensive book titled, “I Give You My Body” and it’s worth a look. I hope it helps!

      • I think I read three of her “Claire and Jamie” series books and after a while I just gave up. The saga seemed to wander away from the basic theme, which was hard to identify, and thus the story seemed to wander also. I do remember that there was sex, but it seemed to be lightly mentioned and didn’t seem to arouse any emotion for the reader to experience.

  19. Kristin Spero says

    Happy Birthday Katie! Enjoy your retreat! It sounds wondrous!

    I will be draft some action scenes shortly, so I appreciate this article!
    Thank you!

  20. I have this little war going with Chat GPT where I insist that it never write “a testament to” or “a dance of”. I dare you to get it to write another 1,000 words without those phrases, without instructing it “do not use the word testament or dance” :P. Should any editor wonder how to catch it, that is how, lol.

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