I recently finished Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels, a historical fiction about the Battle of Gettysburg, a book which General Norman Schwarzkopf has called “the best and most realistic historical novel about war that I have ever read.”

The Killer Angels is what first stirred Ken Burns’ interest in the Civil War, and it’s even cited as the original inspiration for Joss Whedon’s Firefly series (according to Wikipedia).

It took me three days to read those 350 pages — very fast reading for me — and the whole experience felt a little something like this passage from the book:

In the presence of real tragedy you feel neither pain nor joy nor hatred, only a sense of enormous space and time suspended, the great doors open to black eternity, the rising across the terrible field of that last enormous, unanswerable question.

It was a haunting novel about great and terrible events, about clashing armies and clashing ideals, about the tension between the past and the future. Afterwards I spent days trying to figure out how a narrative which relies so heavily upon action could end up ringing such meditative and philosophical notes.

Here’s what I came up with, and I list them here as possible devices you might employ in your own writing:

1. SKIP the action

Some of the most effective writing about physical conflict (whether it involves some major battle, or a duel outside a saloon, or a scuffle in the playground after school) actually SKIPS the action scene entirely.

With this approach, you give the reader the intimacies of what happens just before and just after. There’s the suspense, the build-up, the fear, the hope, the nervous and crazed excitement. Then, of course, the aftermath: the elation or depression, the denial, relief, shock, grief, or celebration — or some combination of them all — that would follow such a heightened moment. Only in this case, you’re heightening through omission.

When you skip the action scene, you get to retell it in a more complex way later on. You can come to the events after-the-fact with all the emotional, ideological, or philosophical implications clinging to the present like barnacles. You get to provide the “meaning” of things, which, in the heat of the moment, wouldn’t yet have been seen with such clarity. And given that what sets us humans apart from other animals is our ability to think about what we’re thinking about, it seems only fitting to approach the description of dramatic conflict in much the same way.

Another benefit to this evasive maneuver (skipping the action scene) is that you can prolong a sense of mystery. For instance, in both The Killer Angels and in the Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire books (which I think must’ve been influenced by Shaara’s novel), the structure of the story depends upon multiple character perspectives being shared in alternating chapters. So you might not find out exactly what happened to Character X until you read another four or five chapters, though the suspense grows as rumors, news, or alternate accounts are shared about Character X in those subsequent chapters.

2. Stick to JUST the action

Conversely, if you choose to describe in-the-moment action (and I think a book about conflict should probably have at least a few of these kinds of scenes), it’s wise to keep much of the cerebral stuff out of it.

If Character X is in the middle of a fight to the death, that scene should probably have a flurry of fists, bayonets, arms, pounding hearts, choked breath, spilt blood, wide eyes, the feeling of a rock slamming into the back of the head, etc. He’s not going to be reminiscing in vivid detail about times gone by … or questioning the ramifications of an oath he swore… or doing much else, besides trying to win the fight!

Many authors make this mistake, and it always strikes me as somewhat unbelievable. If there’s a lull in the action, sure, get heady. But otherwise, keep us in the body.

3. Show us what’s at stake

It’s often more important to know WHY someone is fighting than to know how/when/where. If we feel connected to a character and know what they stand to gain or lose, even an average description of an action scene can take on added dimensions.

This is particularly true in cases where the reader already knows the outcome. Many fiction stories these days begin at the ending, jump back in time, and then work their way towards the conclusion. If the end is certain, then the meat of the story is in WHY that ending is important.

In the case of The Killer Angels, the outcome was set in stone. Names, dates, places. You know how it’s going to end. Hell, I’d even been to Gettysburg and toured the battlefields. I knew which side “won,” which generals made strategic blunders, which regiments succeeded at which engagements. But getting a glimpse inside their motivations, their regrets, and what they’d sacrificed up until that point — it gave some give to the givenness of history.

As readers, we have to feel the characters’ fear and always smell a hint of their victory, even if we know those hopes are futile.

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Do your books include depictions of physical or armed conflict? How do you write action scenes? What are your tricks? Let me know in the comments section below.

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Chris Robley

About Chris Robley

Chris Robley has written 571 posts in this blog.

is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."

3 thoughts on “3 tips to writing better action scenes

  1. Pingback: Writers Hamlet
  2. Thanks for the advice on how to write a better action scene. I would love to write a story in my spare time when I am older and so something like this is perfect for me. One thing that plays into a good action scene is the sense of defeat and suspense. When everything looks dim, the heroes find a light at the end of the tunnel. I love it! Thanks again!

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