Story Bite #14: Writing Action (Part 1)

Writing action scenes can be a lot of fun. They’re energetic and your character is truly doing something. They can move along the story, end or begin a page with power, and hook your reader. For a lot of people, they’re easy to write—because it’s just movement. And that’s a great place to start. For this series of Story Bites, I’ll share some tips about writing action—and how we get our minds around the different kinds of action that a truly great action scene needs to have.

Here’s your picture to start:

Photo: Diane Magras

This is Abbotsford, a mansion that looks like a castle in Melrose, Scotland. It was built in 1824 by Sir Walter Scott, a historical novelist and poet. This is going to be the setting for our action scene.

Your character’s goal: to reach that house.

Who is your character? It’s important to know this before you begin. Choose one quickly: Is it you? The crow in the picture? A mouse or vole? A person (kid or grownup, and figure out the approximate age)? An animated carrot? A broken robot? An enderman? Any kind of creature at all!

What’s in the landscape? We have tall grass, an opening in a hedge, and what look like earthen fortifications. What else do you see?

What will be your character’s path? Draw a rough map showing how your character will reach their destination. What features of the landscape will they cross? What features will stand in their way?

How can you make your character’s path even more difficult? We’re talking about physical action in this post, so focus just on that. Make a list of all the things that could make your character’s journey to the house more challenging. For example:

  • Weather (torrential rain? poison rain? snow or sleet? hot sun?)
  • Insects and other such tiny beasts (bees? mosquitos? midges/blackflies? monstrous dragonflies? beetles? spiders?)
  • Larger beasts (guard dogs? cats? murderous crows? eagles? dragons? monsters?)
  • Mechanical (robots of various sizes? machines? projectiles? sensors?)
  • People (guards of various ages? the house’s owner? kids playing?)

Think about what would make this hard for your character specifically.

When you’re done, look over that list. Pick what you’d like to keep, and what you’d like to set aside to use only if you need it. Sometimes it’s fun to hit a character with literally everything, but that can be hard for you as the writer because your job will then be to figure out how your character succeeds. Sometimes it’s easier—and just as interesting—to pick only one or two challenges.

An Everything Approach
I might pick a mouse as my character. The landscape itself will be a challenge. My mouse is also dealing with hot sun, a nest of bees in the ground, a cat, a lawnmower, and kids playing. But my mouse is fast, smart, and tough. She’s young, but she’s dealt with infiltrating houses before. And she just needs to reach a tiny crack in the lower stones of that house. While writing this action scene, I’d have her hide in the shade from the hot sun but then have to deal with the nest of bees; and when she escapes from them, the cat is waiting for her. And then it becomes a chase through everything else, dodging the lawnmower and the kids. She loses the cat at times, but then it finds her again, and just barely makes it.

One Character, One Conflict
I’m still with my mouse as my character, but I’ve chosen to have only one challenge in the field: moving sensors. The mouse’s whole goal is to avoid the sensors (if she doesn’t, they’ll trap her). This action scene will involve a lot of problem-solving as my mouse figures out how to get above, below, and around the sensors. Oh, and how to hide from them.

Special Powers?
Want to give your character a special power or talent or advantage? You might have noticed that I did that with my mouse: She’s fast, smart, and tough. What does your character have within themselves that equips them for this challenge? Think also what they have on the outside that would help (a wand? Mechanical wings? A tiny weapon? A spray bottle? A bodyguard?). Come up with a list.

Now get to the scene. Start writing in the middle of an action. Something has just happened and your character needs to run. Make sure that your character encounters the problems and worries at least once (ideally twice or three times!) that they won’t make it.

Active Words
When writing an action scene, it’s crucial to use active language. If you’re having trouble thinking of active verbs, grab a thesaurus and make a list of synonyms. Describe how your character moves (do they bolt? sprint? pound? scamper? leap?). Think of how your character’s body is reacting (Is their heart pounding? Are they sweating? Are they cold with fear? Are they faint with terror?). What are the landscape and the challenges doing around your character?

Have fun with this scene! This is all about writing external action, so it might end up looking like a video game (in fact, a lot of external action often does). Absolutely use that inspiration if it helps!

In my next post, we’ll think about internal action. So keep your piece on hand!

Further Directions:

If you’d like to share your story bite with me, please submit it through your teacher or with your school email address or home email address and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. And share them! I’d love to see your students’ work.

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