Posted by: Kathy Temean | November 23, 2010

12 Tips For Writing Action Scenes

The goal of most writers is to make their readers want to turn the page and keep reading.  One way to do this is to include some action scenes.  Clive Cussler says, his goal is to keep all his readers up all night, because they couldn’t put down his book. 

Here are some tips that will help you keep your readers reading all night or at least that agent you intend to submit your novel to when you are done with your revisions.

Before you add an action scene, spend the time you need to make your protagonist a sympathetic and emotionally involved character. Laying that groundwork will have your readers rooting for your main character, when they reach those action scenes.

1.  Make sure the stakes justify the action.  It is easy to go over the top when writing an action scene in an attempt to be more thrilling.  Your main character should not go around killing hundreds of people just because he is hungry and doesn’t have money for a peanut butter sandwich. 

2.  Plan for the action scenes well in advance. Find a question that brings into play an issue your hero has that is important for him to learn. If he learns it, then he can win the scene, otherwise, he should lose. In this way, the reader can see how the action sequence causes the character to grow and change.  If your main character is going to need some skill to win the action scene, plant the seed for that earlier in the book.

3.  Speed up the pace – Good action sequences are never slow. They grab the reader by the throat and force them to hang on white-knuckled until you decide to let up. Using short sentences will help pick up the pace. Too fast-paced, and the reader gets lost; too slowly-paced, and the reader gets bored; too over the top, and it starts to lose credibility. The intensity of the action should be heightened by having peaks and valleys-like a roller coaster.

4.  Keep dialogue to a minimum – when the adrenaline is flowing, people don’t stop to have lengthy conversations.  In a fight scene, you wouldn’t have time to think, so any dialogue should be short, sharp and punchy, usually only a few words that could be yelled out across the room.

5.  In action scenes verbs are the most important words, so when you revise find your thesaurus. Make sure they are full of energy and focus. Words like “zipped”, “snapped”, “whizzed” and “punched” are all great choices.

6.  No long scene descriptions when the action starts.  Unnecessary details disrupt the flow of the action.  Description is best left for other places in your novel, where the reader can enjoy them.  In an action scene, they are just distractions.

7.  Set up the action in an environment where the place can add to the excitement of the scene, where one false move could make things a lot harder for your heroes.  I guess that is why so many movies have fights on the edge of a rooftop.

8.   Make sure your action scene furthers the story and is not just stuck in for a little excitement. It shouldn’t stop your plot from developing.

9.  If you are not prepared to show blood, then don’t cut off an arm or a leg.  Make sure what you are putting in your scene rings true.  Act out the scene to see if something doesn’t work.

10.  Use the “ticking time bomb” technique to create a deadline that will devastate the hero.  Push your hero into situations where there’s real consequences if he or she fails.

11.  Write suspense sequences that require an action scene to be resolve. This suspense will keep your reader turning the pages to find out what happens next.

12.  Read books with action scenes.  Other authors can teach you a lot. Ask yourself questions like:  How do they get the action across? What gives these scenes a feeling of momentum?  What kinds of verbs do they use?  What kinds of sentences do they use in the faster scenes?

Take a look at Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed. You can read the first chapter at Amazon.  He does a terrific job of putting you in the action.  His action is not a fight, it is a memory years earlier as a child running away from the jackbooted thugs in Warsaw, Germany 1941.

Hope I gave you some food for thought.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Great list – although I would perhaps take exception to the no-dialogue suggestion. Unlike movies which can let their images speak for themselves and thus can sustain lengthy actions scenes in their own right, books that allow their action scenes to progress for too long without interjecting interesting dialogue risk boring readers.


    • K.M.

      Thank for the comment. I went back and read what I wrote and I can’t find where I said, “no-dialogue”. I suggested that you keep the dialogue to a minimum, because people ususally do not have time for a lengthy discussion when their life is on the line. You might yell, “Throw me the gun.” But you wouldn’t have time to say, “Bob, go to my desk and open the bottom draw and throw me my gun. This guy is about to kill me,” while you are slugging it out. Did you have a book in mind that does a good job in using lengthy dialogue in action scenes. I’m not arguing with you. I’m sure someone could pull it off. I would like to read how they did it, if you know of one.




  2. Great list, Kathy – especially the points about making sure the scene is justified in the first place. I’m glad also to see you’re someone who doesn’t think the thesaurus is evil – I use it all the time when honing scenes at the last stage.


    • Roz,

      No, I’m like you. I use my thesaurus all the time. It seems like there is always a better word.

      What are you working on now? I’m trying to put back a YA novel that I wrote and after revising, tore apart. It felt it was too long, so I took out scenes and characters, which caused almost a full re-write.

      Happy thanksgiving,



  3. Kathy, I will NEVER tire of this kind of info! Thank you SO much! 🙂


  4. Very helpful – thanks


  5. can you list some of the books that have elongated action literature something that relates to martial arts sword fighting and magicc action


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