Lights! Camera! ...Now what?

Hey, everybody! Compared to some, I haven't been around the Chuck fandom for a long time. I mean, the great and mighty mxpw has a story on the second page of the archives at fanfiction.net, and if that's not a sign of old age, I don't know what—I mean, wow, mxpw is great, right? So full of wisdom and so smart, too!

Anyway, what I was getting at before I insulted Maximus, I haven't been around the fandom a long time in comparison to some of the greats, so I missed some big things in the early days. One of those things was Sharpasamarble, who's still working on his five-part series that starts with Chuck vs. Auld Lang Syne. And if you want a good measuring point as to how long this series has been around? Auld Lang Syne was started during season ONE. And Sharp still updates on the latest in the series, Chuck vs. the Watch. He was one of the first authors I read when I started reading Chuckfic and is one of my favorite authors today, so you can imagine my sheer excitement and glee when he volunteered to write something for Castle Inanity.

Yes, I said VOLUNTEERED. In no way, shape, or form do I have Sharpasamarble chained up in the basement next to Maximus.  That is RUMOR, people, not fact!

One of Sharp's writing strengths is writing action. I'm a bad person: I skip ahead during action scenes on the page, but with his, I usually end up paying attention, so I asked him to give some advice about just that today (how to write action, not how to pay attention). Recently, Sharp's taken some time off writing fanfiction, so you may not have seen him around. I kind of feel like he has a good excuse, though, since he's been focused on writing people actually pay him for. Check out his article after the break!

Anyone who has done any research on how to write better has no doubt read advice that, if you want a reader to stay engaged with your story, you had better not skimp on the action. While there is plenty of advice on topics such as including action in your scenes – I now make a face every time I read the advice “show, don’t tell” – there is surprisingly little advice out there on how to write effective scenes that are all action. That’s a shame, because writing memorable action scenes is trickier than one might think.

First and foremost, action scenes need to have a purpose in your story. Every written word should advance the plot, and action scenes do not get a pass. If the point of your action scene is simply that it has been a chapter or two since any action happened, I can pretty much guarantee that your scene is going to seem flat, no matter how talented a writer you are. An action scene isn’t only about a sense of danger to your characters. The scene needs to play into your story.

Neither the tone of your writing nor the content of your characters should completely shift during an action scene. As much as we want our hero to be, well, heroic, if your hero has a humorous side or clumsy side, that side should not disappear for action scenes. Your hero is most certainly allowed to come through in the clutch; he is not allowed to transform into somebody else for an entire action sequence.

The grammatical mechanics of an action sequence are about the only things about an action scene that are straight-forward. Use shorter sentences to convey urgency. Choose strong action verbs and cut back (even more) on adjectives and adverbs. Also, people have no time for long soliloquies, so don’t let your characters talk too long, and don’t let your narrator wax poetic for too long. The clock is ticking. Keep it moving.

I got back into writing a few years ago, and the first thing I wrote was a piece of fanfiction for season one of the television show Chuck. Overall, it’s a typical first work, with a fair bit of unevenness and some amateurish mistakes, but I’ve had people tell me that the climactic action scene is one of my best. If you haven’t, I suggest giving it a quick read.

In this chapter, Chuck (big box store employee with a heart full of fear and a head full of government secrets), Sarah (CIA agent and Chuck’s love interest) and Casey (NSA agent and somewhat of a grumpy gus) go to a defense contractor’s airfield to confront the bad guy. Action ensues.

Let’s take a moment to see what makes this scene work.

1. Pacing.

The action keeps moving, and I cut out everything that isn’t essential. For example, I could describe the transfer of the good guys from outside the hangar to their bound positions inside in about three paragraphs, but I don’t. Nothing interesting happens in those three paragraphs, so out they go. I do a scene break instead.

2. This is a long action scene, but it works because things keep shifting.

The intro sets the scene and the mood. At the beginning of the encounter, the balance feels 50/50 between the good guys and the bad guys. Then the bad guys get the upper hand. The good guys get the information they want from the bad guys, and they turn the tables. A chase begins. It looks like the good guys have the bad guys, but then they don’t. The good guys are unexpectedly in danger again. The scene moves to a warehouse, where the bad guy slips away. The protagonist helps save the day.

Because the circumstances keep changing, the action sequence can run on longer. This is key. If the circumstances are constant, the scene is not as exciting, nor can it run as long without boring the reader.

3. Plot advancement.

Every piece of the action scene moves the plot along, up to and including the way the chase plays into the denouement in the next chapter. That lends the story a more cohesive feel.

4. Story and character consistency.

The humorous side of the story doesn’t disappear just because the stakes are high, and those little humorous moments defuse the tension. Meanwhile, Sarah stays practical, Casey stays prickly, and Chuck isn’t always the ideal hero, but Casey and Sarah wouldn’t catch the bad guy without him.

5. The scene provides some imagery, but keeps these relatively brief and trusts in the readers to paint in most of the details for themselves.

The focus is given to the characters and to the action. Emotions unrelated to the action at hand are left for later. Chuck might want to wallow in disappointment over his mistakes, but there’s no time, so he doesn’t. That keeps the scene feeling realistic.

Those are the basics that made this a solid action scene. But you’re looking for more than “solid,” right? Boost things up a couple notches.

Some things about this scene are more subtle, like forcing Chuck onto the back of a motorcycle. It’s something that would obviously be out of his comfort zone and therefore it doesn’t require much explaining to the reader. The reader has a pretty good idea how Chuck is going to feel, so I don’t need to dwell on that. And during action scenes, every little thing that saves words is gold.

Really, though, what takes the scene from good into memorable is Casey giving chase in a souped-up ice cream truck. This device gives him a chance to flash both his prickly side (when he thinks he got stuck with the worst chase vehicle) and his love of high-powered gadgets (when he finds out the truth about the truck), which lends to the consistency of character. More importantly, the ice cream truck creates an outrageous image in the mind of the reader. If Casey gives chase in a sports car, the scene just isn’t as memorable. The reader is entertained by the ice cream truck device – and some of the really basic mistakes in my writing disappear into the background.

So look for one or two ways to take things to that next level. Ask “what if” a lot. What if a chase car gradually gets pieces stripped away, and the scene ends with the car rolling to a halt on bare rims without any doors or windows? What if a police officer who teased his new partner about being scared earlier in the story cries like a girl during a later scene? Seen anything like that before? Figure out how to top it. But remember to treat these devices like spices – one or two of these go a long way. If you’re going to include a bunch of them in one scene, you’d better be a really good chef.

One last word of warning: be sure to avoid deus ex machina bits. “Deus ex machina” literally translates to “god out of the machine”, and dates back to the Greek scholar Horace. Essentially, deus ex machina is a plot device where, out of nowhere, a seemingly unsolvable problem is resolved. In olden times, this usually happened when one of the gods reached down from the heavens to intervene. In modern times, it happens when some previously unmentioned object, event, or character shows up and saves the day.

So if the 8-year-old girl wearing a scout sash is a bystander in a scene, that’s fine. She’s decoration. If she turns out to be a fifth degree black belt and starts kicking everybody’s ass, there had better be a reasonable explanation why she’s there, or she had better play a larger part in the story. Otherwise, her inclusion is going to feel contrived.

Action scenes are critical to the success of many stories, so it’s worth learning to do them well. Your stories will be much better for it.



  1. Nervert26.10.11

    All good points. I think the ones that have had the biggest effect for me when doing rewrites of action scenes are pacing (both in having short urgent sentences and in having the action evolve, either in location or in the sort of events taking place), word choice (using strong, evocative verbs and fewer adjectives), and using the unexpected.

  2. My biggest problem with writing action is always, always the description. I'm not a very descriptive writer, as I prefer to leave a lot to the readers' imaginations and give only impressions that the readers can fill in (a bit like Inception!), but this is something you have to be careful with when writing action. If you've got characters that are fighting in a room full of things, chances are, they're going to be using those things, and I'm never sure when exactly to introduce those things, you know?

    Thankfully, one great thing about action scenes and writing in general is that you can improve in writing the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice! I still cringe when I read Chapter 20 of Fates, but I think I improved by Chapter 34, for example (with a loooooong way to go). If you have a hard time with action scenes, write more of them. You don't even have to show them to anybody. The act of doing will teach you at least one thing.

    Another tip is to read authors you like, take a hard look at how they conduct action scenes. I like Jim Butcher bunches, but I was more impressed by Barry Eisler's fight scenes (except Jim Butcher's had magic). John Clark just did a fistpump in victory, I figure.

    But most of all: WRITE!

    Thanks for the great article, Sharp. I certainly learned quite a bit, though I doubt I'll be putting Chuck on a motorcycle anytime soon. ;)

  3. Anonymous27.10.11

    Thank you Sharp for taking the time and volunteering to share this with us. Unless the rumors are true, in which case than you Frea for taking the time to chain Sharp next to mxpw and make him share this with us.

    I was thinking i would try writing my first action scene (since elementry school in 1990) this week and now i have all kinds of goodness to think about while trying to write it. Vicarious experience is my friend.

    Mobi Cobbult (From FF)

  4. Haha, yes I just did a fist pump. Given your somewhat noncommittal response when I intially asked what you thought of Eisler's book I'm glad to see you got something of value from it. Eisler is by no means a perfect writer, he has a lot of bad habits namely getting too political, preachy, plugs to many things/places/products/websites he likes or just wanders off for a few hundred words on something that seems highly irrelevant.

    BUT, and it's a big but, the man knows how to choreograph a fight sequence like no one I've ever read. He builds tensions very well. Has an encyclopedic knowledge of martial arts and weapons. From a Chuck fic perspective that fact that he was actually a trained CIA agent and knows the trade craft of the real spy world first hand, I would imagine is of some value.


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