Film is a visual medium. Action works great in movies with the exception of when they are poorly edited, such as in the finale in the first live action Transformers movie, which seemed to have gone on for about half an hour, was super fast, and did not give me the ability to distinguish one giant robot from another.
As far as prose fiction, it is a lot more difficult for authors to write effective action scenes because authors depend entirely on text rather than images. And the intention for this text is to conjure images into the reader’s mind. Many readers may have no trouble making this transition, but there are certain readers such as myself who think in words rather than pictures. It takes a lot more than a general description of the visuals for me to enjoy an action scene in a book. If I am not engaged, action does not excite me. And I should be excited. I should be worried about the protagonist’s well-being. But usually I just don’t care and assume they will end up being perfectly fine considering it is rare for a protagonist to not survive until the end of the book, particularly if they are the narrator.
When I watch action scenes in movies, I am usually excited. I worry about the protagonist’s welfare. Even if I know before the scene begins that they will probably be alright in the long run, good action scenes cause me to forget this when they are in progress. Authors of prose fiction have their work cut out for them if they want their action scenes to have the same effect on me.
So why am I writing this?
Because bizarro fiction novels frequently have action scenes. Sometimes they really work for me, but the majority of them don’t. And it’s not as if I can claim I don’t write action myself. Action scenes often appear in my writing.
I taught an online class for bizarro writers a couple of years ago. One of the assignments was to write a fight scene. The instructions for the assignment were something like, “Fight scenes bore me. I want you to write a fight scene that excites me rather than bores me.” And I used one of my own fight scenes as an example of a scene that I did not find boring (although perhaps I should have used someone else’s considering our own writing rarely bores us).
I thought that was a pretty unique assignment for a writing class. I couldn’t imagine a creative writing teacher asking their students to write a fight scene. But I found out I was wrong when I was talking to a friend who was in a few creative writing classes that Stephen Graham Jones taught and he told me they did the same thing in one of them. So I can’t exactly say my idea for the assignment was unique anymore considering I went to graduate school at a college that was right next to the college where Stephen teaches (plus he taught at MY college’s summer writing program for a week during the past two summers).
So I guess I just want to mention the elements of an action scene that cause me to like them. Perhaps it would be helpful for some writers:
Writing style: Focus more on your style when writing action scenes than other scenes (although ignore this advice if you always focus strongly on your prose style). If your writing is fantastic, then I will be extremely engaged, regardless of the content.
Uniqueness: I don’t really care about action scenes that are the type scene in conventional movies: fist fights, knife fights, shooting, chases on foot and in cars. If your writing is wonderfully stylistic, I’m fine with this. But writing must compensate for an action scene’s conventionality. And if you’re writing bizarro fiction, why are you even writing convention fight scenes? Perhaps write a scene where one fighter has god-like reality bending powers while his opponent is just a normal dude. But the god-like character is an emotional wreck and the normal dude is able to hold his own against him by saying really mean things. If a god-like character has the ability to do anything and there is no limitation to your imagination, his “attacks” could be extremely entertaining to the reader. But he needs to have a weakness because characters without weaknesses are just boring, particularly protagonists.
Terseness: If the writing in your action scene is not highly stylistic and its uniqueness doesn’t entertain me, I won’t be bored if it’s short. If it’s mundane and long and drawn out then I’m going to get really bored.
Anyway, I wanted to end this with a recommendation for a book that I love with tons of actions scenes. And it’s not the most stylistic or unique book either. Plus there’s this incredibly long fight scene at the end that’s straight out of a kung-fu movie. And despite this, I still loved the book. The incredibly long fight scene at the end made me feel excited. I don’t know how. It’s not as if I analyzed it. So this book is:
It is one of the most violent books that I have ever read. It’s considered a Young Adult book, but I’m not entirely sure why besides all the characters being high school students. It is really awesome. And I think this quotation from a review was on the back of the book.
“Once upon a time, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho set the standard for insane violence, gruesome detail and plain upsetting excess. But Ellis is about to be eclipsed by another young American, Ryan Gattis. In Kung Fu High School the practise of total bodily destruction has never been more thorough, or more moving.” – Time Out
Check it out or wait for the movie (although you may be waiting quite a while).
Bradley Sands is the author of Rico Slade Will Fucking Kill You, Sorry I Ruined Your Orgy, and My Heart Said No, But the Camera Crew Said Yes! He edits Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens.