Nothing gets a reader’s palms sweating, nerves tingling, and heart racing like a well-crafted action scene. Even if you don’t write thrillers, don’t let that stop you from including a jaw-dropping action sequence in your next novel.
Now I know some of you might be thinking—”Hey, Brian, that sounds great but I’m not a military veteran, a black belt in martial arts, or someone with experience handling firearms…so there’s no way I can write compelling action. I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
Have no fear, Career Authors is here to provide you a roadmap!
USE THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE AS YOUR GUIDE
The 3 Act Structure is one of the most useful frameworks in storytelling. It’s been used by Shakespeare, Spielberg, and hundreds of other best-selling authors. If you’ve been to a writing conference or writing retreat odds are you’ve seen or attended a session on How to Use the 3 Act Structure to write your novel. There’s a reason why the 3 Act Structure is so celebrated and widely deployed—because it works!
Here’s the thing, the 3 Act Structure is not just for plays, screenplays, and full length novels. It’s an incredibly flexible framework that can also be applied to chapters or individual scenes. Most authors don’t talk about this. Heck, they might not even be aware they’re using it in this way, but I want to open your eyes to this paradigm shift.
Have you ever heard of fractals, the idea of geometric repeating patterns in nature that function like building blocks? Think of a Barnsley fern where a leaflet structure, repeats in the leaf, and then again in the frond. The same fractal pattern is present in a manuscript where a mini 3 Act structure exists in a scene, then in a chapter, and finally in the novel itself—each a repetitive, beautiful expansion of the formula building upon the other.
Still confused? Let’s break it down.
QUICK PRIMER ON THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE
In the 3 Act Structure, you have three major acts or components:
- The Inciting Event
- The Complication
- The Climax & Denouement
The First act, traditionally opens with the Inciting Event— something which sets the proverbial wheels in motion, forcing characters to make decisions and take actions. Classic examples of inciting events include:
- Someone is murdered
- Someone goes missing
- Something is stolen
- Something new is discovered
- Life changing information is revealed
In the first act, the hero is moved by the inciting event and makes the decision to respond with agency, thereby launching the story.
The Second act is all about complication. In the second act, the protagonist realizes that solving the problems created by the inciting event is more complicated and difficult than he or she imagined. Subplots and complications are introduced to create challenges and increase personal stakes for the hero and her allies.
In the Third act, all of the subplots and machinations of the villain come to a head and the hero must face a final test which will determine her fate and the fate of others. Win and everything is resolved, lose and a terrible price must be paid. In most cases, the hero prevails and the reader is rewarded with the denouement—the satisfying exhale at the end of the novel where all the questions are answered, subplots resolved, and the hero is freed of his burden and allowed to bask in catharsis.
APPLYING THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE TO ACTION SCENES
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or unequipped to write an action scene, but you’re totally onboard with using the 3 Act Structure, then congratulations I have good news for you…you’re already half way there. Remember what I said about fractals? Now that we’ve reviewed the basics of the 3 Act Structure, we’re ready to outline our action scene using the same framework!
Enough theory—let’s get to some examples. We’ll start simple but raise the stakes and the scope as we go:
Kick off the Action with an Inciting Event
The type of inciting event you choose for an action scene is important. Ideally, it should be tied to the plot, test the protagonist’s mettle and skills, and inform the reader (as well as excite). Some examples of inciting events for action scenes:
- Violence is threatened. Protagonist responds with pursuit or combat
- Violence is committed. Protagonist responds with pursuit or combat
- Protagonist seeks antagonist and gives chase
- Protagonist intervenes to stop a crime
- Protagonist must flee threat of violence he/she cannot survive
- Protagonist must flee natural danger (fire, flood, meteor, etcetera…)
For the purposes of this post, let’s arc out an action scene start to finish from scratch. Our hero—let’s call her Kate—is minding her own business, walking down the street when some guy runs past and steals her handbag. This purse-snatching will serve as the “inciting event” for the action scene we’re going to develop.
Protagonist’s Reaction to the Inciting Event
The moment the purse is snatched, our protagonist hits her first crossroads. Kate has to make a decision: “Do I try to get my purse back myself or not?” If the answer is “no,” then there’s no action scene. If the answer is “yes,” then the fun begins and here’s where things get interesting.
If Kate is a shy, risk adverse character, her initial reaction to the inciting event could be shock or “analysis paralysis.” At first, maybe Kate doesn’t react. She might hope a stranger or the police will intervene and catch the guy. Also, fear of personal injury might factor significantly into her cost benefit action/reaction calculus.
On the other hand, maybe Kate is a scrappy girl who grew up in a rough neighborhood, is impulsive by nature, and hates nothing more in the world than bullies. This Kate takes off after the purse snatcher without a second thought. Concerns of her personal safety or worries about what she’ll do when she catches the jerk never enter her mind. She’s in pursuit like a lioness hunting a zebra on the Serengeti, and when she catches the guy—oh and she will catch him—she’s going to drag him down and make him pay.
As you can see, who Kate is as a person—including her backstory, age, physical capabilities / disabilities, personality, profession and special skills—all factor into the drama that is the action scene we’re trying to write. These elements make the action scene more interesting because (1) they define Kate’s personal stakes and (2) they help determine how determinedly and shrewdly the character responds to the inciting event.
The Narrative Position of Action Scenes Matters
Where a particular action scene occurs in a novel’s overall Three Act Structure matters. To illustrate this point, let’s compare and contrast our two possible Kates. If the purse snatching is set at the beginning of Shy Kate’s story, her reticence to pursue the thief is expected and in keeping with her character. If Shy Kate responded like Scrappy Kate in chapter two of the book, that would be out of character. But, if this purse snatching is meant to be the climatic finale of Shy Kate’s hero’s journey, then her charging after the thief without her normal reticence would be a big accomplishment and proof of her growth and evolution as a hero.
The same is true in reverse for Scrappy Kate. Scrappy Kate’s reaction in her default mode is to behave heroically. If the purse snatching happens in Chapter One, then Scrappy Kate’s gutsy, automatic pursuit of the thief is foundational to her character. But, what if in the middle of her saga—after a series of failures and missteps that makes her question herself—Scrappy Kate’s confidence and quick-courage is lacking? In that case, she might react like Shy Kate instead of her normal fearless and scrappy self and to do so would make sense in the narrative.
Too many authors don’t dig deep enough into the weeds when prepping and writing action scenes. Using the 3 Act Structure forces us to do this and be intentional as we create our action sequences.
Now that we’ve explained how to use an Inciting Event to kick off an action scene, it’s time to move onto the next phase: Complication.
Complication – Taking Action Scenes to the Next Level
By now, some of you might be wondering what I mean by complications in an action scene. Great question, let me illustrate.
In its simplest form, Kate chases the purse thief down a city street sidewalk, running in a straight line in good weather with clear visibility. She encounters no pedestrians in the way, has no intersections to cross, no vehicular traffic to worry about, no other actors interfere with her efforts, no accomplices of the thief help him escape, etcetera… In the base case scenario, it is simply a foot race between Kate and the thief. If Kate is faster or has more endurance, she will catch him. If not, he will escape. The purpose of this simplistic, linear scenario is to create a baseline so we can be very intentional about the complications we want to introduce.
Having established our baseline, we can now create a list of complications Kate must manage and order them in the temporal sequence she will face them. For example:
- Hot dog vendor rolls his cart in front of her
- Thief crosses an intersection
- Traffic signal changes to green, sending cross traffic in motion before Kate gets to intersection
- Thief pushes baby carriage into traffic and Kate must detour to save baby
- Thief rounds a corner, disappearing from view
- Kate trips over a curb, falls, and hits her knee hard
- Thief knocks a delivery guy off his motorbike and commandeers it
- Sitting on the motorbike, the thief pulls a gun and fires shots at Kate
Suddenly, our very boring baseline foot chase has gotten much more interesting and cinematic. Also, notice how each complication I introduced gradually increased the stakes, making the chase more difficult and risky for Kate. By the final complication, she is tired, has a hurt knee, and the thief has a motorbike and a pistol—all combined, these complications have dramatically shifted the advantage to the thief.
For Kate to continue pursuit at this point will require her to obtain transportation and she will have to risk being mortally wounded to get her purse back. For some readers, things have escalated to the point where they must suspend their disbelief now. Would Kate risk her life to get her purse back? Maybe, it all depends on what’s in that purse. The purpose and the goal of adding complication to the middle (Act 2) of your action scene is to increase the pace, suspense, thrill, and danger to the protagonist. We have certainly do that here if we use all eight complications.
A Final Word on Complications – The Trial Should Fit the Hero
How much complication we add to Act Two of our action scene, depends in large part on which Kate is in pursuit. If it’s Scrappy Kate—a girl with street smarts and fighting experience—then we can amp up the obstacles she faces and resistance from the thief. If we set the same high bar for Shy Kate, then we risk her exceeding unrealistic expectations and forcing the readers to suspend their disbelief.
Conversely, if we set the threshold too low for Scrappy Kate, then the action scene will underwhelm and not provide the tension and thrill we are trying to inject into the manuscript by inserting an action scene.
TAKEAWAY: The complications you throw at your hero in a given action scene should be commensurate with their capabilities. In total, the complications should flirt with the threshold where the character risks failure. Victory should not be achieved too too easily, but nor should the it require the character employ skills beyond their physical capabilities and knowledge.
Climax – The Best Part of Every Action Scene
How we conclude the action scene is Act 3, the climax and denouement. When we last left Kate, she was being shot at by a purse thief who’d just obtained a motorbike. He has the advantage with faster transportation and a weapon. To beat this villain, Kate must first take steps to “level the playing field” and then she must work even harder to obtain a position of advantage—only then can she achieve victory. The climax is the place where this happens, and we have great flexibility in deciding how Kate will prevail.
For the sake of this post, let’s assume Kate is willing to risk her life to retrieve her purse from the thief because it contains an experimental cure that will save her ailing mother’s life.
Option 1: The chase continues on motorbikes. If you want the climax to happen at high speed to increase the thrill factor, then transition the foot chase to the road. For this to happen, Kate needs to get her own motorbike or get picked up by an ally on a motorcycle or in a car. This “phase two” of the chase is a new opportunity to add complication. Make a list just like you did before and work the new complicating elements and obstacles into the chase. The chase can conclude with the thief crashing, or being cut off by Kate, or being run off the road by another vehicle, and so on.
Option 2: The motorbike chase does not come to fruition. Instead, the thief and Kate have a gun battle or engage in hand-to-hand combat. If Kate is a cop, FBI agent, or former military then it would make sense for her to carry concealed weapon and know how to handle firearms. If Kate eschews guns, then it will be necessary for the thief to run out of ammunition before the hand-to-hand fighting starts. If Scrappy Kate has been in fights before and knows how to handle herself, then brawling with a thief makes sense.
You can map out the hand-t0-hand sequences with punches, kicks, hair pulls, elbows, and more just like you’re watching a movie. Use a strike-counter strike model for writing the sequence. It’s more exciting when the combatants are trading blows. If we’re talking about Shy Kate, then it would make more sense for the thief to potentially crash his motorbike and be injured before Kate is willing to fight him. It can still be suspenseful and dangerous, but we must achieve some level of parity when characters battle it out.
Option 3: For an even longer and more dramatic action scene (especially if this is the climax of the book itself) you can have a vehicle chase followed by a physical dual between Kate and the thief.
Regardless of which option we choose, the purpose of the climax is for Kate to use her wits, skills, and physical strengths to gain the upper hand over the thief. She must out drive him, out smart him, out fight him. Agency is the key. We cannot make the mistake of letting deus ex machina save the day. She must be active and striving for victory. The more she is directly responsible for the outcome, the more satisfying the climax will be to the reader.
A Word on Duals
Physical duals are archetypal, definitive (there is a clear winner and loser), and very satisfying for readers. That’s why we see them in so many books and movies. Physical duals may involve weapons but do not have to to be thrilling. Hand to hand combat, even unsophisticated brawling, is exciting so long as the reader cares about and is invested in the fate of the protagonist. Unless your hero is an avowed pacifist, you simply cannot go wrong by choosing to end your action scene climax with a physical dual between hero and villain.
COUNTERPOINT: Your action scene climax does not have to end in a physical duel, especially if the scene is not the climax of the novel. If the scene is in the beginning or middle of the book, and the antagonist of the scene must show up later then he or she may escape. The reader will accept this and the scene’s climax can still be thrilling and satisfying so long as the prospect of a second encounter is there.
After the thief is defeated or escapes, you must give the readers a denouement. Some authors forget about this or don’t think it matters for an action scene not in the novel’s climax. This is a big mistake. For Kate to risk her safety to pursue the thief, there must be a pay off. Even if the thief gets away, acknowledgement of what Kate did and why she did it must happen. The denouement is BOTH the character’s and the reader’s reward for the trauma of responding to the inciting event, navigating the obstacles during complication, and risking life and limb in the climax. Some examples of possible denouement elements for Kate could be:
- Kate gets the purse back
- Kate feels empowered by her courage
- The thief is identified because of Kate’s action
- The thief is arrested by the police because of Kate’s action
- New information is obtained that advances the plot because of the thief’s capture
Just one of these outcomes provide closure and make Kate’s efforts feel worthwhile, both for her and the reader. To make the denouement even more powerful and satisfying, we can stack multiple outcomes from our list or even use them all.
Phew, we’ve covered a lot of ground in this first installment of How to Write Amazing Action Scenes! And we’ve given you enough ammunition to start working on taking your action scenes to the next level. Please check back next month for Part 2 of this series as we dive deeper and move on from action scenes to how to craft a longer, more complex and thrilling multi-chapter action sequence and also talk “do’s and don’ts.”
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