The Literary Assassin

Fiction, fashion, and hand-to-hand combat by Holly Messinger


by Holly Messinger

free for private use, but please credit me

Writers often have difficulty crafting compelling action scenes because their minds are too saturated with the highly visual experience of fight scenes in the movies. Describing action on the page has different considerations. All of these rules can be broadened to apply to good scene-writing in general.

  1. First and foremost, DO YOUR RESEARCH. Learn the differences between a rifle and a shotgun, a revolver and a semi-automatic pistol, a sword and a sabre. Take a gun safety class. Make friends with an ex-military commando, and the sensai at your local stripmall dojo. Find out what the human body is capable of. Take weight discrepancies into account (N.B.: most women, no matter how highly-trained, cannot take on a full-grown male in the real world. Period.) Research what happens when people get angry, scared, or injured. Some knowledge of first aid in the field would not be amiss.
  2. Fight scenes in books should generally be kept short. Fighting is TIRING. A hand-to-hand confrontation between experienced fighters who are trying to kill each other probably won't last longer than a few minutes. A clash between an experienced fighter and a novice will be even shorter. Unlike in movies, in a book the fight is less interesting than the tension leading up to it and the resolution following it. So don't try to describe every single blow your combatants land on each other--your reader will just skip to the scene in the police station where there's actually some story going on.
    Corollary 1: If your characters are in a siege, war, or hostage situation, there will be longer stretches of inaction or tension, punctuated by moments of high intensity action. Use the stretches of downtime for plot and character development.
  3. Don't try to handle exposition and action in the same scene. Plot generates intellectual tension and action generates a visceral reaction. Trying to do both at once will distract from each other.
    Corollary 2: There is a time-honored tradition of the bad guy revealing his plans to the hero whilst they try to kill each other. It's a cliche and should be approached with caution. Furthermore, few people have the brains, or the breath, or the time, to be witty and fight at the same time. Keep the trash-talk to a minimum.

Action sequences are where mid-level writers tend to overstuff their prose. I blame this on insecurity about the subject matter–as if throwing in a bunch of adjectives and dropping some gun names/calibers could cover up a lack of understanding combat principles. But in a fight scene, Strunk and White's rules of good style become especially relevant:

  1. Use subject-verb-object construction as often as possible: "He struck Bob in the face." This is the simplest form of construction in English and so communicates as efficiently as possible. Also it has a direct, aggressive quality that is appropriate to an action scene. Unless you have to do it for clarity's sake, be wary of beginning a sentence with a dependent clause, because the comma slows the action. ("Aiming carefully, he drew a bead on Mac's head and pulled the trigger.")
  2. Use simple words. You can get a nice primal atmosphere by using short words, short sentences, and subject-object-verb construction. Experiment with broken sentences and caveman-talk narration. Conversely, if you want to draw out a moment for effect, switch to longer sentences, dependent clauses, more descriptors.
  3. Too many descriptors can give your prose a weird epic-verse quality: "He raised the gleaming, power-blackened assault rifle, now emptied of its deadly projectiles, and brought the butt of it singing through the air in a beautiful backhanded stroke, compressing the skull of the Captain into blood-matted pulp." This is what's referred to as purple prose, and it doesn't belong in an action sequence.
  4. Describe actions in chronological sequence. If you write, "Before opening the door, he drew his knife," it's like saying, "Cut the green wire. But first..." You could say, "As he was opening the door, he drew his knife," which is fine grammatically, but the clause at the beginning slows the action. If you are trying to build suspense, this would be an effective sentence. If, on the other hand, you're already in the middle of a fight, use "He drew his knife and yanked open the door." It has more movement.
  5. Tell us what is happening, not why or how. Don't analyze the action. "Nick threw himself into a devastating butterfly kick designed to disorient Lord Odious before pummeling both Nick's feet into his skull." It's probably not important why the hero used that particular move--if he's really good he's reacting, not thinking--and if the move is somehow relevant to the plot you should have explained it long before we got to this point. Similarly, although you should have done your research, don't show it off by packing the scene with weapons-porn or karate terminology. Bending your reader's brain around unfamiliar words is counterproductive to the mood you're trying to create. "He kicked," "She spun," "They opened fire and smeared the guy" is about all we need.
  6. Don't waste time telling us how fast things are happening. "In the blink of an eye, Nick whipped out his butterfly knife and unzipped Larry's guts." "The whole fight lasted only seconds." Most of these phrases have been done to death anyway.
  7. Action sequences, like sex scenes, are best when they further the character development in some way. People take specific actions because of who they are, even when fighting: an honorable man will let his opponent retrieve his sword if he slips; a dirty fighter will take every advantage he can get.

Action scenes are like any other scene in the book: they must be relevant and supportive to the story in some way. Sometimes you have fight scenes because they resolve conflict. Sometimes they create more, or different conflict. Make sure there's a point to the fight. Don't just slip it in because it's cool (although it should be that, too!).

Corollary 3: All rules can be broken if done with skill and deliberation. All's fair in war, and writing!

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