Eight Rules for Better Action Writing from Nick Cross

Happy New Year to everyone. Here’s hoping 2013 brings us all writing successes and is a time when our dreams will be fulfilled. To kick off the new year here’s a guest post from Nick Cross, who blogs over at Who Ate My Brain.

Eight Rules for Better Action Writing

I’ve always loved action sequences in films. Maybe it’s a boy thing, but I can’t get enough of inventive, kinetic, thrilling scenes that make me feel as if I’m dodging every punch. When I began writing novels, I naturally found myself adding fast-paced set pieces to liven up my plotline. However, I quickly discovered three things:

A) There wasn’t much advice available about writing action sequences.

B) The action sequences in books were very different to the ones I saw in printed screenplays.

C) My action sequences totally sucked.

What follows therefore, is the result of hard experience and a lot of time spent analysing action sequences in many different films and books. There’s quite a lot to get through and I’ve waffled too much already, so I’ll try to obey Rule Number One. What’s that, you ask?

Rule Number One: Make every word count. The middle of an action scene is not the place for evocative description, self-reflection or a 500 word monologue on the merits of different automatic weapons. Think about how much your characters actually have time to perceive and focus on basic “fight or flight” mechanics.

Rule Number Two: Use the environment. Great action heroes are constantly scanning their environment and using it to turn a losing situation to their advantage. Try putting unusual items in your action environments and then have fun working out what the characters will do with them (c.f. the Jason Bourne films)

Rule Number Three: Favour the underdog. Your audience naturally wants to root for the weaker party, so don’t give your hero or heroine the upper hand.

Rule Number Four: Ye cannae change the laws of physics. Unless your characters are fighting in The Matrix, the action choreography in your story will have to follow physical laws. So don’t ignore physics, but use it to your advantage to show cause and effect in every action and reaction.

Rule Number Five: It’s all in the edit. After reading Steve Hartley’s guest post about writing and editing humour, I realised how much of the impact of an action sequence comes from finding the key beats and ruthlessly pruning everything else. But it’s a delicate balance, which leads me to:

Rule Number Six: Don’t lose the reader. It’s easy to write a chase or fight scene that moves so fast that the reader can’t keep up. Make sure you include enough description of the environment so they can maintain their spatial awareness. A little disorientation in an action sequence can be thrilling, too much and you risk it turning into Quantum of Solace (for my money, one of the worst edited action films ever)

Rule Number Seven: If in doubt, externalise the action. This is a neat tip I got from SCBWI’s Benjamin Scott. If your visual imagination is a bit iffy (like mine), try moving the scene outside of your head by drawing a picture or building a model. Here’s a Lego model I made to help me with a difficult fight scene:

Lego Action

Rule Number Eight: Maintain tension dynamically. Use fast and slow, running and hiding mechanics to drive tension through an action sequence. Stretch out the “edge of the cliff” moments for as long as you possibly can. Try to vary the length and pace of your sentences to get the full dynamic effect.

OK, I’m out of space and there are two big guys chasing me with machine guns. Time to run!

About the Author

Nick Cross caught the writing bug as a teenager and hasn’t managed to shake it yet. A former winner of the SCBWI’s Undiscovered Voices competition, he is also an accomplished blogger, posting every Friday at www.whoatemybrain.com. Nick’s current project is an action comedy for 9-12 year-olds that he describes as Kick-Ass meets Transformers, but for girls.

If you’ve found this post helpful I’d love to hear from you, or you might like to use the Share buttons below to tell others about it.

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4 thoughts on “Eight Rules for Better Action Writing from Nick Cross

  1. Happy new year too! You have once again reminded me to put such rules into practice in my novel. Happy blogging friend!

  2. Let’s hope this year is full of good things for all of us.

  3. […] Eight Rules for Better Action Writing « This Craft Called Writing. […]

  4. […] your writing with Nick Cross’ 8 rules to write better action scenes and Jeannette Chesney’s advice about killing your […]

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