I love action scenes. I love reading them, watching them, and most of all, I love writing them. When an action sequence works it can rip and roar and flow and take you away into a fictional world of excitement and adventure. It can make your heart race and your adrenaline surge as you turn the page or stay glued to the screen—perched on the edge of your seat with euphoric exhilaration as you anticipate what will come next.
When an action scene works, it moves and flows like an expertly choreographed dance number. When an action sequence hits all the right visceral and emotional notes, there is nothing quite like it. It can be a true work of art.
But as every writer (and director, choreographer, comic-book artist, and film composer) knows, creating a great action sequence takes work—a lot of work. It can be a daunting, and at times overwhelming task. And like all intricate and labor intensive tasks, the best way to attack it is with planning and preparation. Lots of planning and preparation. As a mentor of mine once told me, “You want to be the best? Then outwork and out hustle and out prepare everyone else. Do what no one else is willing to do.”
Here a few tips that may help when trying to create that killer action scene.
This is the tried and true technique used by filmmakers throughout the ages. There are a ton of great books out there on the subject. Put simply, storyboards are comic book style panels that visualize the scene or sequence. It is a great way to get a feel for the visual flow of the action and keep the imagery of the scene organized. Once you have your images down and sequenced, it can provide an excellent reference when novelizing the scene—keeping you organized and insuring the reader can follow the flow of the action. Always remember, confused readers become ex-readers.
Remember these storyboards are for you—a writing tool. No one else has to see them so you do not have to be Jim Lee or Jack Kirby. Spielberg was famous for doing stick figure storyboards—and created some of the most exhilarating action sequences in cinematic history.
A cousin of the storyboard and an option for those who hate to draw and think in more mechanical or mathematical terms. Essentially this means using a chalkboard or marker tablet (or digital tablet), and drawing up the scene as if you were executing a sports play in soccer, basketball, American football, hockey etc.
If you are physically able and healthy, do some type of exercise. The best time to visualize action scenes and work out all the details, is when working out, literally. I write several scenes a day during my two-a-day training sessions.
Oh you know exactly what I mean. Nothing, and I mean nothing is more a powerful creative enhancer than music. Listen to your favorite action music, and let it flow over you as the scene plays out. Learn to let go—really let go. Let the music transport you and take you inside the scene.
If this sounds a bit crazy then so be it. A creative writer is an artist and an artist needs to be a bit insane. You are creating imaginary worlds and making them real. If you want sane and normal, forget about writing and look into becoming an accountant or insurance salesman.
Get into character
I prefer to write novels sequentially—at least through the first two drafts. But often I will just leave some of the more complex action sequences to later. Writing a proper action sequence requires intense mental preparation. The storyboards and the diagrams and the music all help, but ultimately one must get into character. You need to FEEL the action. When you write an emotional scene your eyes better be filled with tears. When you write an action scene your pulse should be pounding—your heart ready to beat out of your chest. You need to live this stuff. If you do not feel it, then trust me, neither will your reader.
Read screenplays, in particular action screenplays. I will not tell you to go to the various well sites known to house various drafts of hundreds of thousands of scripts since technically these are illegal copyright violations. Instead, look into the officially published versions—almost all the best ones are available on the retail level. James Cameron writes (and directs) the best action scenes and his screenplays read like novels. Anything written by Shane Black is worth tracking down. I have a copy of the “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” screenplay (officially published by Lucasfilm in the true screenplay format) and I often read to get the juices flowing. Remember action scenes are all about planning and structure—the essence of screenwriting.