So there you are writing along slinging letters at your computer screen and you come to it, that action sequence. It’s like your brain goes into a different sort of mode, actions taken on both sides seem to wrestle in weird sentences on the screen. Half formed threats cut off by brutal acts, verbal utterances involuntarily spurt from the mouths of your characters as they grapple with the situation and the pain of the conflict. The orderliness of the standard chain of events is balled up and thrown aside, and it can be wholly disastrous if you don’t keep a few things in mind. I don’t know about anyone else but when my mind comes up against such a scene it seems giddy to get into the thick of it, and the resulting first few drafts come out cruder than high tea with Bigfoot. You need to keep calm, even if your characters are not, and keep the following in mind:
Is the struggle interesting?
Robert E Howard stands out as being perhaps the first writer that I sat back after reading a scene and thought “damn that was a well written action sequence”. The push and pull of the characters as they strive for the upper hand are masterfully mixed with beautifully textured gore and inventive maneuvers. It is from him that I have really tried to learn how to immerse myself in the moment. Granted this is something that all writers do, but in a fight scene it is doubly important. Think about what the surroundings are and how they could influence the situation. Are there objects that could be used as improvised weapons? To blind an opponent? To deceive a true strategy?
Don’t be afraid to go for the gross out
Remember, injuries are messy and things don’t just keel over and die. Just because a mortal injury has been dealt doesn’t mean that the fight is over. Death throws are a great way to throw a character back into peril after they think a threat has been neutralized. Perhaps it’s a trope, but at least it’s a trope with legs! Injuries can be gross, so leverage it. Horror hits the brain at all sorts of levels, and perhaps the lowest level it can hit is disgust. If you can evoke a visceral reaction in your readers, make them squint and feel queasy at the page, then your scene will be all the more powerful.
Does it feel punchy?
Eliminate any unnecessary inner dialogue or depictions. Your characters can examine and analyze after the dust settles. Fight sequences benefit from a fast pace, so avoid too much inner dialogue or lengthy narrations. Flow is a hallmark of a great writer and when writing a scene that takes place at a different pace it can be a stumbling point. Have at your words with a chainsaw and know that concision is king.
Did everyone take a turn?
There are no wall flowers in a fight, everyone that has a stake in it should be accounted for and have equal actions as those that are the focus of the fight. It annoys me to no end when there are plenty of people that could have acted on behalf of a character (usually the villain) and didn’t. Your spotlight can still be on the protagonist, but give voice and motion to all of the players. If it helps think of the fight as a turn based game, each character acting in the sequence. You’ll weed out any dead space as you cycle through and build a more thorough and realistic scene.