Setting the Scene for Action

Writers spend a lot of time thinking about how to craft action scenes. We understand that every decision, every second, and every word counts but often struggle to maintain the all important tension and flow of our action. Why? It all boils down to forgetting the single most important rule for action: context is king.

Whether a Chuck Norris-esque roundhouse kick to the face, an Everdeenian battle for survival, or a Bourne inspired sprint through the streets, an action scene will only ever be as good as you allow your readers to make it.

You read that right. Action, like horror, or sex scenes (weird combo, sorry) are most effective when the reader is allowed to use context to create the scene for themselves. You want the reader to infer as much as possible during the action. The deeper their understanding of the situation leading to the action, the richer their inferences and thus their experience of your action scene, will be.

Herein lies the rub. A reader can’t build (infer) unless given the tools and supplies (context) to do so. That means that all of our important context has to be front loaded in order to maintain tension and flow. As writers, we often spend precious time and energy trying to shoehorn context into the middle of our action when we’ve already missed the boat.

Let’s dive into the nuts and bolts creating the necessary context for action by splitting the conversation in two.

Setting

The setting of an action scene should be viewed like a sporting arena. Picture a boxing match or a gymnastics competition. When the spectator enters the arena and sits down, they take in their surroundings. The sights, the smells, the energy in the room, the spectator soaks in sensory information as they prime themselves for what’s to come. This builds excitement, suspense, and above all, tension.

Before any action starts, we have to build the arena for our readers. Think vivid but general when it comes to descriptions. The reader needs to feel the space more than understand the minutiae of it. Sensation is key. Include lesser used sensations like smell, hearing, and touch to make things more visceral.

What are the bounds of the arena? A room? A field? A city street? This affects not only the character’s movement but the level of tension as well. The tension of trying to escape a pursuer in central park is very different from that of a confined stairwell. Either way, in order for a reader to effectively build these scenes in their mind, they must understand the layout of the court.

Breaking glass? Smoke? Whispers? A sudden gust? Small events can be a great way to both build tension and add emotional context to the scene. These are the announcements over the loudspeaker that let the audience know the main event is coming.

Who are the athletes? The number of participants in the action must also be well established. Help the reader picture them as the tension builds so they can let their imagination run free once the dam breaks. Any non-essential characters should feel as background as the reader themselves once the action begins.

Just as in a sporting event, once the action starts, the focus shifts entirely to the participants and how they interact with their immediate space. The parts of the arena that matter are the parts that the participant can sense around them. The gloves, the pommel horse, the ropes, the lights, these are the elements that will affect how the action is viewed and understood. All else fades away.

This holds true in writing. To establish the proper context, we have to decide what parts of the setting will be relevant to the action and focus our reader’s attention there. Just like the spotlight illuminates the canvas long before the boxing begins, so too must we make important now, what will become important later.

Characters

Motivation is everything when it comes to setting characters up for action. Action is all about tension and release. We use the characters to build that tension and then they relieve it for us. How they go about doing that must coincide with their emotions and motivations. This isn’t the time for surprises unless it’s integral to the plot (an alliance switch for example.) They say a watched pot never boils but that’s exactly what you want your readers to do as you build toward your action. They need to witness how the characters make the situation boil over.  

The reader should understand the intrinsic motivations of each character. Ideally we as the author, will have done a good job of spreading this information through out the entire story. As we build toward the action, we don’t need specific details but we do need to be able to trust that the character will act according to what the reader understands of their personality. This way, the reader can more easily visualize that character during the action.

Strong emotions should increase as the action nears. Unless zen and focus are the hallmark of your protagonist then go ahead and go full warrior-monk.

Anger, frustration, and fear are the easy emotions to utilize in an action scene but it can be interesting to play off of others such as grief, joy, or disgust. 

As the strong emotion rises, the dialogue has to change with it. The character’s emotion must be conveyed through their speech as well as their actions. Only Bond villains are allowed soliloquies in the middle of a fight or chase. To be honest, they should have that privilege revoked. Most if not all dialogue should come during the set up for your action and it should focus on building context for the action itself. If your characters need to speak at all during the action, it should come in quick bursts. If your characters aren’t too winded to speak, you’re action might be too tame. 

Finally, Let’s jump back to the idea of character actions. Restlessness, agitation, extra movement, nervousness, all help build the tension as the action nears. This is the equivalent of watching the athlete stretch, bounce, and loosen up right before they begin. It not only gets them limber for the competition, it builds audience anticipation.  

There you go. Use these tips the next time you sit down to write some action and see if it helps. I may come back and do a post about writing the actual action scene but the interwebs are full of those articles so in the meantime, there’s plenty of reading on the topic to be had.

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