Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Thriller: Writing the Action Scene

By Linda Adams
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.

Unnecessary Details

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 going on.

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.

Books Referenced:

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

Temple, by Matthew Reilly.  Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks, 2002.  ISBN 0312981260