Tricks for writing fast-paced action scenes.

A heart-pounding action scene from the movie Pearl Harbor.
A heart-pounding action scene from the movie Pearl Harbor.

IN SCENES WITH FAST ACTION – such as chases and fights – your writing style needs to reflect the speed. The words you choose, and the way you structure your sentences, can create a fast, exciting pace which takes the reader’s breath away.

SENTENCES

The length of your sentences creates the pace of your scene. In a fight scene, sentences need to be short, especially when the action speeds up.

If a sentence is more than twelve words long, split it into two shorter ones. Some sentences can be very short indeed:

He leaped.

She kicked.

Blades clanked.

To vary the rhythm, insert the occasional medium-length sentence, but avoid long ones with many clauses.

When the action happens really fast, you can use sentence fragments instead of complete sentences; For example:

He had to get through to the castle. Had to reach that door. He hacked, swung, slashed. Five paces left. He leaped.

Use this trick sparingly, only for the fastest-paced moments, since sentence fragments become tedious if overused.

WORDS

Short words create a fast, sharp rhythm, so use the shortest available word for the job. Words with single syllables are best. Two syllables are ok, three syllables are so-so, and anything longer doesn’t belong in a fight scene.

When revising your fight scene, replace long words with short ones. Instead of immediately write at once. Instead of endeavour write try. Instead of indicate write point at. Instead of investigate write check out.

Verbs (hack, swing, slash, kick) convey action and create a fast pace. You can use several verbs in a sentence, for example:

She bit, she scratched, she screamed.

or

They slashed and sliced, they blocked and parried.

Simple Past Tense (hacked, swung, slashed, kicked) is the best for fast-paced action. Avoid Past Perfect Tense (had hacked, had swung, had slashed, had kicked) because it’s a pace-killer.

Be careful about using the ing-form of the verb (present participles and gerunds: hacking, swinging, slashing, kicking). Although it conveys immediacy, it sounds soft and can spoil the pace, so use it sparingly.

Adjectives (blunt, strong, irresistible) slow the pace, so use only a few. Adverbs (bluntly, strongly, irresistibly) slow the pace enormously, so you may want to avoid them in your fight scenes.

Use as few conjunctions and link words (and, but, or, when, then, after, before, while, because, in order to, therefore, thereby, as) as possible.

For example, instead of:

He grabbed the liana with both hands, and then he swung across the stream and landed in the mud.

write:

He grabbed the liana with both hands, swung across the stream, landed in the mud.

Instead of

After that, he raised his arm, thereby warding off blows.

write:

He raised his arm to ward off blows.

EUPHONICS

T, K and P sounds create a fast pace and a sense of aggressiveness, so use lots of them in action scenes. For example: Instead of swallow write gulp. Instead of hold write grip. The best sound for chases, races and anything happening really fast is R. Use it a lot: hurry, run, roll, race. Euphonics are especially important if you plan to publish your book in audio format or if you give public readings.

AVOID INTERNAL THOUGHTS

Don’t allow your protagonist to think, consider, wonder, analyse, realise, worry or contemplate while the action is on. Move any thoughts to before or after the action. Any kind of introspection slows the pace.

If it’s absolutely necessary to render his thoughts, do it as briefly as possible. Here are some examples:

Now.

He had to win.

There had to be a way out.

Where was the cavalry?

CONTRASTING PACE

To emphasise the fast pace of your scene, consider slowing the pace before and after the main action. During the build-up when the heroes lie waiting in ambush, and during the aftermath when they bandage their wounds you can slow the pace by inserting adjectives and using longer sentences.

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