Thriller: Writing the Action Scene
By Linda Adams
One of the things I like the most about
thrillers is action, action, and more action. The story is exciting,
dangerous, and suspenseful all at the same time. Action, high stakes, and a
ticking clock. What could be better?
But action is one of the most difficult
types of writing. 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 points. Worse, some writers simply duplicate what they saw
in the last Hollywood film.
However, Hollywood films are not
good examples of action scenes for books. Action scenes in movies are eye
candy, designed to give the viewer a visual "Wow!" at the awesome feats.
But all these action scenes flash by in just a few seconds. The viewer
doesn't have time to even think about how impossible that stunt is. In a
book, the reader is with that scene a lot longer. She has more opportunity
to say, "Wait a minute. They can't do that." And the moment she does,
you've lost her.
So what goes into an action scene? More
than just writing a lot of chaotic things going on at once and punctuating
it with short sentences.
The best way to write an action scene for a
thriller is to start with the stakes of the story. The stakes have to fit
the payoff of the action at the end. The reader won't believe it if a
villain kills 100 people, tries to kill the hero five times, and blows up a
bridge during rush hour -- and all he wants is money. The stakes must
justify the action.
Plan for the action scenes well in
advance. Let's suppose your heroine needs to know judo for the action
scene at the end of the story and maybe even one particular judo move that
saves her life. That means that, throughout the story, her judo skills need
to be brought up again and again. Particularly pay attention to anything
that will ultimately be critical for the reader to "get," and keep bringing
it back in where appropriate.
Likewise, if the story demonstrates that
the heroine has all these fantastic skills, have her use them at the end to
help herself. One of the most disappointing books I read was Dying to
Please by Linda Howard (spoiler alert). The author sets up that her
heroine is extremely competent -- a bodyguard who knows martial arts and is
an expert marksman. Even when she gets into trouble near the end, the
author continues to suggest that the heroine is going to use her skills to
find a way out. I'm expecting the heroine to do some serious action against
the villain, and instead she is rescued -- and uses none of her skills.
Plan for the action scenes and follow
through with the plans.
Pacing doesn't apply to just the action
scene itself; it also applies to the scenes before and after. Too much
sustained, uninterrupted action for too long can actually tire out the
reader. Eventually, it becomes boring. The intensity of the action is
heightened by having peaks and valleys -- places where the story changes
pace and slows down.
I treat it like a roller coaster ride.
When I know I have a big action scene coming up, I'll slow the pacing down,
and then start to ramp it up at the end of the chapter. Then, before
readers starts feeling overwhelmed by the action, I'll slow the pacing back
down again to break the tension and give them a breather. And, of course,
as the story nears the end, everything should come together in a major rush
of action and speed (it is a thriller, after all). But a functioning story
structure is necessary for this type of pacing to be possible.
Each action scene should have a goal.
Sometimes it's easy to say, "Well, I need an action scene," and drop one
in. But that disrupts the story. Like any other element of the story,
there should be a story-related reason why an action scene exists.
For the scenes themselves, start with the
credibility. Make sure the action is at least credible enough that the
reader can suspend disbelief and believe that it's possible. Particularly
with thrillers, it's easy to go overboard and shoot past the credibility
line in the attempt to be more thrilling. Dan Brown's Angels & Demons
has a scene (spoiler alert) where a character jumps out of a plane using
a small square of cloth as a parachute. I had a hard time believing the
character would survive such an action. You want people remembering the
great book, not the over-the-top action scene that didn't work.
Watch out for unnecessary details that can
disrupt the flow of the action. In one of Clive Cussler's books, he
interrupts a scene where a helicopter is about to crash to explain why the
helicopter has to crash on a particular side. This stops the fast pace of
the action scene, and it isn't needed for the reader to understand what's
Other unnecessary details include
descriptions of setting, descriptions of characters, and explanations of how
something works. These are better left to sections of the story where they
can be more effectively used and the reader can enjoy them. In an action
scene, they're just distractions.
Ticking Time Bomb
Whenever possible, use a "ticking time
bomb" to create a deadline that will be devastating to the hero. It can be
the real thing -- a bomb ticking away -- or some other deadline, as long as
something terrible will happen if the heroine is too late. Imagine your
hero trying to reach the heroine before the rope breaks and she falls to her
doom -- and he has to cross a field of bad guys who are determined to stop
him. Suddenly the scene takes on new dimensions as the reader grips the
arms of her chair wondering what's going to happen next.
Keep It Simple
Let's face it: it's both a strength and
weakness of the thriller genre that the stories can get very complex, and
this comes through in the action scenes. There can be so many different
elements that it can be hard to keep track of what's what. Too many things,
and the reader has trouble staying in the story. Matthew Reilly's Temple
had such an overcomplicated plot that it ultimately overwhelmed the final
action scene for me.
Select a primary point of view character
for the scene, and then focus on the thread for that character. Some
"channel surfing" between scenes may be necessary, but as stated above, each
in-between scene needs to have a strong reason for being there.
Again, overall story structure plays a huge
role. If the rest of the story isn't working well, the final action scene
of the book can become chaotic and confusing, and can fall apart.
Dot the I's and Cross the T's
Choreograph the action scene through a
character's eyes, working out all the details. The details go right down to
how many bullets there are, the layout of the room, where the gun lands when
it's dropped -- anything at all that influences the battle one way or
another. This can be such a complex process that it might actually take
longer to work through the writing of the scene than to live through it!
There isn't a black and white solution for
writing an action scene; it's something that is affected by how the entire
book is plotted and paced. Start planning your final action scenes as soon
as you write the first chapter.
Angels & Demons,
by Dan Brown. Published by Pocket Star, 2001. ISBN 0671027360
Dying to Please,
by Linda Howard. Published by Ballantine Books, 2003. ISBN 0345453409
by Matthew Reilly. Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks, 2002. ISBN