Four: Action!

Four: Action!

A Lesson by Belator Books

How to write action scenes in active voice.


Every book--even a more ‘fluffy’ romantic tale--has a bit of action embroiled within its pages. If you’ve read even one title from Lesson Three’s recommended reading list then you are aware of just how much of a fulcrum a good bit of action can be. The Hornblower series--but one example--is nearly riddled with it from stem to stern. The scarred, rather plain-looking crew dashes about in fearsome storms, fight desperate battles with muskets, daggers and the sword, all the while led by their mysteriously-brilliant captain who stands like a bird of prey upon the quarterdeck.

Not all books contain so much action but the things which happen to your characters act as a good stock does in a kitchen: it is the base of all main course recipes and the quality of it affects the flavor of the piece.

What qualifies such action? Dealing with trials, troubles, problems and issues are a part of everyday human life, and these make up the majority of most fictional pieces, regarding human characters. The fulcrum action, so to speak, which pivots the book up and causes the reader to sit forward just a a bit, comes usually from a different angle than the normal happenings of life. It is the event or events which constitute change in the general attitude of the characters in the scene and then follows a specific course of behavior which the writer has laid out in their mind: a building fire and subsequent rescue… or tragedy; a car accident with only moments for bystanders to act; the robbery in progress which the frightened victims either endure or escape from. It is the enemy arrows fired into the lord’s tent which causing a shift in the scene; the mood changes—rapidly--from placid to defensive, and then the adrenaline-backed anger floods in with adjacent grasping of nearby weaponry.

Some genres can only tolerate a little action, falling into the ‘enough is as good as a feast’ category. A few genres, however, like science fiction or adventure novels appear quite dead without a plethora of successive trials that the characters must endure. Then, there are the rare pieces which take a single bit of action and compile upon it, making it stretch out the entire length of the book, as in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Here are a few things to remember when planning out and writing your bit o’ action:

1. Tragedy is a part of life; if you choose to include it in your book, remember that Tragedy is just like salt; it should be used to enhance the story, not drown out the flavor in massive amounts. If you’ve read Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, then you understand what it looks like when fantastically-written characters, in wonderfully-sculpted scenes, are mercilessly tortured by the author again and again and again, and then killed off… apparently out of wine-induced boredom. Remember that in life the stories most remembered are the one in which humans come in contact with nearly insurmountable obstacles, perhaps even suffering a great woe or two, but then they shake themselves off and climb out of the pit into the sunlight, and so as wiser folks.

2. On the other hand, try very hard to avoid the obviously coincidental series of events which simply could not happen in Reality. In one of my earlier novels, the heroine was briefly embroiled in a building fire. I based the bit of action on real events, however, so instead of the hero magically appearing amid the smoke and carrying her to safety, she got out by following good advice and stood outside until her fiance (who was at work) came running up nearly a half-hour later. As tempting as it is to make things ‘work out’ all the time, in life they do only about 30% of the time, and if so it is because of logical and rapid decisions, coupled with decisive action. In looking at natural disasters of times past, for example, one can see that if a warning was given prior to the tragic event, some folks rallied themselves and fled the area, while others stayed (whether by choice or not) and suffered unduly because of it.

3. If including a natural or man-made disaster, then read up on real events in the past to get the ‘flavor’ of the human reactions (they are quite varied) as well as the emotions displayed prior, during and post. The sequence of the minor actions within the overall event is important to get right, almost as much as correctly guessing what your character(s) would do in such a situation.

4. The post-action scene goes hand in hand with the event itself; what the characters learn or feel can be conveyed simply by an expression or following actions. A hardened soul may find their compassion re-kindled, after aiding a fellow human-being in a tragic situation; a soul mired in misery may find renewed vigor upon weathering a particularly terrible storm (whether literal or figurative); a spoiled ungrateful soul may just learn the value of a hot meal after an extended period of want; a coward can find within themselves the qualities of a leader. The varieties are as endless as the differences between one human and the next.

5. Not all action needs to be ‘big’; some everyday scenes can be enhanced with just a touch of seasoning to provide the variance needed, and invoke the ‘lesson learned’ phenomena. Just as proportion is important in painting, sculpture and photography it is similarly vital in writing. In one of my books, for instance, the most pivotal action therein was a rather small scene between the heroine and her fiance’s ex-girlfriend, in which the rather timid main character finds that she has a bit of backbone after all, as well as the brains to wield it. She continued to utilize this lesson and her ensuing marriage was the better for it.

6. Bear in mind that the writer’s attitude will invariably sink more noticeably into an action scene than in the ‘normal’ parts of the narrative, for when humans are angered, excited or high on adrenaline they tend to be more honest than when exuding a reserved, calm facade. While it is good for a writer to pour their literary blood into a piece, there is a danger of giving away ‘too much’; this can be avoided by re-reading your action scene aloud a day or two later, when you in a relaxed state. The opinions of those close to you may help also in this matter, as they are most often emotionally invested in your well-being and will likely point out if you’ve opened up your soul a bit too widely to scrutiny.

7. Enjoy the writing; this is your book and these are your characters. Try hard to adhere to reality and the laws of physics, but this is after all ‘fiction’ and even in classic books of the great writers past, one knows that here and there the authors deviated a bit from the logical realm, if just for a unique flavor for the tongue, an intriguing perfume for the nose or an unusual hue for the eye.

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Posted 4 Years Ago

"you’ve opened up your soul a bit too widely to scrutiny. "

Thank you for pointing that out, my story has lots of action scenes so this is another thing to look for when revising.

Mine is of fantasy so while illogical in real life, but logical within the book it self (I hope any ways.)

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Posted 5 Years Ago

Wonderful lesson. In researching for my historical novel, I poured through books, old newspapers (microfiche), interviews and personal observations. My novel takes place in 1910 during the Mexican Revolution in the TX/MX border, and involves actual use of tragedy, murder and outright hatred of those of Mexican lineage. My critique group was of the opinion that I wrote scenes and settings heavy in racial hatred - they could not understand that such situations actually took place on both sides of the border. You advise, esp. at #2 &3 is what I shall abide by. Thanks.

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Posted 6 Years Ago

good advice.

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Posted 6 Years Ago

Thank you for the advice! I am having trouble though with the character just coming up with thoughts of the past. I am afraid the storyline suffers and confuses the readers.
This is a great lesson, thanks again

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Posted 7 Years Ago

One of the main problems I face while writing my books is the plot- I have a constant fear of boring the reader because my stories lack action and adventure. I simply can't seem to be able to think up twists and surprises. I must say, this lesson is therefore really helping me. Thanks!
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Belator Books
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The Styles are two fiction writers with day jobs. Married 17 years, 4 children and an organic garden. Twitter: @BelatorBooks & @writerlrstyles WordPress Blogs: www..