Updated: Mar 22, 2021
I have been complimented from time to time on the action scenes in my books, both in the adult and in the young-adult stories. Readers tell me the scenes seem real. They say they can easily picture the action that I’ve described. They tell me that my characters run or fight or climb or drive a car like actual human beings would. And then they ask me how I’m able to do that.
My answer is that, in my youth, I coached a variety of sports. If you coach, and if you’re going to be good at it, you’ll need to be able to break down movement into small parts. And then you’ll need to be able to teach your athletes exactly how to execute those movements. And this, in turn, will mean analyzing what they are doing now, and then showing them how to do it better.
For example, if a young person is having trouble catching a football, baseball, or softball, a coach might say things like this: Here’s how you relax your fingers. Here’s how you “look the ball all the way into your hands.” Here’s how you run smoothly enough so that you can follow the flight of the ball without the ball seeming to jump around as it approaches you.
You get the idea.
So, in Visioners2, when 14-year-old Joanna is in the park at night, exercising the border collie and the German shepherd, she tells us this:
“… The one who threw the net over Flurry [the family border collie in this book] runs to me and tackles me, lifting me up onto one shoulder, then turning and starting to run back toward the trees…. Everything is so confused I can hardly understand what else I am seeing other than the ground under my assailant’s feet as he runs with me on his shoulder…. “I am hanging upside down over my captor’s back, my long hair falling down toward his legs. I realize after a moment that I have begun to punch feebly at the man’s lower back, my skinny arms flailing away without having the slightest effect. “Suddenly I see a dark blur hurl itself through the air and fasten itself to my captor’s leg. I hear the man scream, then feel him stagger and fall, throwing me to the ground as he does, and I realize Max has torn into him from behind….” [Max is the family German shepherd.]
All of that action would happen in about 15 seconds or less, yet, in the book, I have taken more than three paragraphs to describe this. Good action-description has to be detailed enough so that the reader can truly picture how it would look if the reader were watching the scene unfold, as in the movies.
If you’re writing such a scene, use enough words to create a moving picture of the action. Use words and phrases that suggest the action you mean, such as “threw,” “runs,” “tackles,” “punch feebly,” “flailing away,” “suddenly,” “a dark blur,” “hurl itself,” “scream,” “stagger,” “fall,” “throwing me,” “torn into him.”
And don’t rush yourself when you’re writing such scenes. Although the action you just read might take just 15 seconds in “fiction-time,” I probably took three or four days to write those words: picturing the action, choosing the right phrases, revising and revising and revising until the paragraphs were just right. When you’re finally satisfied, show your work to someone else. That’s when you’ll find out if you wrote that scene so well that your readers say they feel like they were actually there.