To see the previous posts in this series on what makes a great story, check out these links:
Openings - Part 1
Openings - Part 2
Dialogue and Internal Thought
Writing a good action/battle/fight scene can be pretty hard. It seems like the line between too much and too little, too descriptive and not descriptive enough, too violent and not violent enough, etc., is a hard one to balance. Like romance, politics, and many other areas of creating a good story, some authors are stronger with this aspect of writing than others. And like those other areas, just because it may be a weakness for a writer, it shouldn’t be a reason for the author to avoid action all together.
Here a few things I both look for when reading and try to portray when writing action.
- Make it Personal – Whether you’re writing about a general watching a struggle from afar, a soldier on the front lines, a guy jumped in an alley, or a young child running from a Doberman, it needs to be personal. I want to know what that person is going through physically, mentally and emotionally. I want to know what they see, hear, and smell.
- Focus on the characters – At first glance, this may seem redundant to the point above, but it’s not. The above point deals with that moment in time. Within that moment characters still must act as themselves. Everything they experienced before the action scene factors into their behavior during the moment. And the action scene should also affect their behavior/motivations afterward in the story.
- Think about all the senses – It's easy for an author to only write what the character sees or even hears. However, don’t neglect smell or even taste. I have to remind myself of those senses from time to time. The taste of blood or the smell of someone voiding their bowels in fear has a much greater impact on the reader (and character) than just seeing those things.
- Leave the reader wanting more – Like most writers I had a tendency early on to give too many details. I think I've improved on cutting down the unnecessary elements. Details are good, but shouldn't be overdone. Otherwise, the fight can feel mechanical and void of emotion. On a grander scale, if you have the opportunity to tell a fight from multiple POVs, then use it. That gives the battle a greater sense of scope and urgency. Remember, we want the reader to wish we hadn’t stopped so soon, not to get bored or numb to the actual action.
The authors I think handle action the best are as follows (in order):
Paul Kearney – Land or sea, no one does a military battle better than Kearney.
Joe Abercrombie – Excellent at showing the personal stakes involved in any battle. You really get a feel of what each character is going through as the events unfold.
Larry Corriea – Larry is actually the only one on this list who hasn’t released any epic fantasy yet and instead sets his fantastical tales in a modern setting. Be prepared for the best gunfights you’ve ever read in your life.
Steven Erikson – Grand epic battles (sometimes lasting over a hundred pages) using explosives, swords, magic, spears, etc. or a personal duel up close and personal. No matter the setting, Erikson seems to get it right.
Ian Esslemont – He writes in the same world as Erikson and his battles have a similar feel to them.
Who do you feel does a great job of writing action (regardless of genre)?