Action scenes strap readers in for a thrilling ride—or at least that’s what they’re supposed to do. Every millisecond must be engaging and accurately portray what’s happening. If the action crawls, it loses its impact or, worse, readers’ interest. And if the action hits light speed, readers crave more details, similar to the dissatisfaction of eating a fun-size piece of chocolate instead of a whole candy bar.
Readers want to experience the same adrenaline rush as the characters—to hold their breath and feel their hearts beat in tandem with the hero’s. They yearn for the tension, the struggle, the uncertainty, the risk, the gut-wrenching disappointment, the victory. With razor-sharp pacing, writers can fulfill those desires, and practicing the five simple tactics I’m going to share below can help you achieve better precision.
1. Act Out the Scene
To gauge the ebb and flow of a scene, walk yourself through it step by step. This exercise allows you to visualize a character’s movements, his thought process, the time he needs to execute a decision, and even his emotions.
Let’s say your scene begins with a gunshot. Bang. The hero topples. If you stop there, it’s instantly over. The action needs to progress in a way that paints vivid images in readers’ minds.
Try again. Bang. The blast stabs your eardrums. You wince, covering your ears, and turn toward the source of the noise. A wisp of gunpowder taints the air, making your nostrils flare. You taste blood, warm and metallic. Panic wells up from the pit of your stomach and throttles your throat. The crowd flees, shoving and tripping over each other, jostling you in their haste to escape. You stumble after them.
Admittedly, some scenes will be difficult to act out. But Rhonda Dragomir, author of Ravenwood: Destiny Delayed, cleverly bypasses that roadblock when she’s depicting swordplay: “I’ve watched videos on YouTube to prompt me with accurate descriptions of the physical interaction between combatants. It helped me understand the combination of footwork, balance, and natural motions involved.”
My YA novel contains a scene where a car races the wrong direction down a street. Replicating that could lead to serious consequences and injury. But I’ve seen news reports and movie clips of reckless driving. Revisiting that media supplied the sounds, the sweat, and the dangers, which I could then capture with words.
If an action scene in your current WIP lacks luster, acting it out (either personally or vicariously) may give you ideas to enhance it.
2. Streamline Word Choices
When time is short and the stakes are high, every word counts. Chances are, if you select stronger nouns, verbs, and modifiers, you’ll trim unnecessary words, such as very, feeling, a little bit, kind of, and just. Use the find tool in your word processor’s menubar to easily root out these freeloaders. As I’ll talk about in the next tip, fewer words in a sentence accelerate the pace. For now, though, watch how much power a paragraph gains when I replace the following weak phrases.
- Very cold versus freezing
- Just the idea versus the prospect
- Feeling scared versus terrified
- A little bit angry versus irritated
- Kind of interesting versus intriguing
Poor word choices: Very cold water leaked through the window. Just the idea of the car filling up to the roof made Madison feel scared. Then she got a little bit angry with herself. She had trained for situations like this. To face one in reality was kind of interesting.
Better word choices: Freezing water leaked through the window. The prospect of the car submerging terrified Madison. Irritation overrode that emotion. She’d trained for situations like this. Facing one now? Intriguing.
Word choice has far-reaching effects and can set the mood as well. Compare these two sentences:
Option 1: “Make up your mind.” Emily started her car and sped away.
Option 2: “Make up your mind.” Emily revved the engine and peeled out.
Though both of these lines describe the same action, the connotations are subtly different. In the first, Emily seems to be in a hurry, whereas the second carries a sense of impatience, anger, and frustration.
With that in mind, think about the tones these pairs of synonyms convey. How can one word versus another change readers’ perception?
- cold, cool
- snug, cozy
- deserted, abandoned
- strike, hit
- squeeze, hug
- run, sprint
- surprise, shock
Review the section of your story that contains action. What nouns, verbs, or modifiers can you beef up? Could a synonym more clearly reveal the underlying emotion?
3. Vary Sentence Length
Brevity ramps up the pace. Tightens it. Makes it compelling. In contrast, an extended string of description or details (or just plain rambling) drags the pacing to a halt because readers must hold on to the meaning the author is trying to communicate from the capital letter at the beginning of the sentence to the period at the end. This paragraph alone demonstrates how sentence size controls the pace.
With action scenes, shoot for fastness. Sentences can be a single word. Paragraphs can be a single line. The resulting white space hustles readers along.
Kaitlyn King, author of Carried on a Christmas Wind, further explains how to be intentional in this area and why it’s important: “The pacing should be a direct reflection of what your character is experiencing. If he’s waiting for his adversary to throw the first punch, draw out those sentences to create anticipation in the reader. Then, when the blows start to fly, use short, quick sentences to give the feeling of a punch.”
Listening to King’s advice often requires chopping out chunks, which you might be hesitant to do at first. But look at how these deletions intensify an overweight paragraph:
Slow: As consciousness faded from Gwen’s bloodshot eyes, her face turned pale and waxy. Swallowing a lump in my throat, I let the juice box drop to the ground next to her slack body. My pulse raced because I had to leave the area right now. With a madman tracking me, I couldn’t wait for her to recover.
Fast: Gwen paled, then fainted. Swallowing hard, I dropped the juice box beside her. I had to leave. Now. Before the madman came.
If you suspect your action scenes are languishing, read your manuscript out loud. Break longer sentences into shorter ones, then reevaluate. If the pacing improves, keep the tweaks.
4. Transition from Action to Reaction
A pace that’s too rapid may lead you to neglect an essential aspect of a nerve-wracking event: the reaction. What is the protagonist thinking and feeling? Without a peek inside her head, your action scene may read like a grocery list.
Linda Yezak, author of Give the Lady a Ride, defines the connection between action and reaction like this: “Action is the pulse of any good story, but the character is the heart. If the action has no consequence to the character, the story loses heart.”
Marie Sontag, author of the YA Warsaw Rising series, demonstrates the necessity of introspection in the revisions to her latest novel. Her before sample had decent pacing with snappy sentences, but it lacked a response from the character. Her rewrite introduces concerns about the main character’s physical and mental well-being.
Before: Suddenly, machine gun fire rained down the staircase. Two nurses at the bottom of the steps fell to the floor. Blood oozed from their chests.
After: The crackling of machine gun fire cut through their conversation and reverberated off the basement walls. Two nurses near the bottom of the staircase crashed to the floor. Blood oozed from their chests.
A scream froze in Magdalena’s throat. Her clipboard clattered to the ground.
In the first version, we view the scene from the outside, safe and detached. In the second, we’re no longer spectators, and Magdalena’s pain and horror become ours. Whatever happens next, because our emotions are entangled, we care about the outcome. That makes us read faster and more intently.
Skim through your WIP for action scenes and check whether the character reacted to the threat or disaster. If not, fix the issue.
5. Learn from Masters
When you’re studying any fiction technique, published novels can be a great asset. Flip through ones with action scenes and pay attention to how the authors employ the strategies I listed above. Where do they rely on short sentences? Longer sentences? What makes one more effective than the other at that particular point in the narrative? How much white space do you notice? How do the words fit together as they roll off your tongue? What is the passage’s tone? What words contribute to it?
No matter what genre interests you, you can find storytellers to mentor you through their work. Recently, I took a poll to gather names of authors who are popular for their action scene pacing.
- Lovers of Christian suspense, sci-fi, and thrillers mentioned Ted Dekker, Joel Rosenberg, and Ronie Kendig for their infusion of tension and movement.
- Western fans gravitated to Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour for their gunfights.
- Author Cole Claybourn enjoys Ray Bradbury’s mixture of fantasy, mystery, and horror because “he shows that a powerful, exciting action scene will crescendo, almost like a symphony orchestra.”
- Kaitlyn King gets inspiration from short stories, such as “The Pearl” by John Steinbeck, “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, and “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst.
My personal favorite is speculative fiction author Brandon Sanderson. His highly creative approach, precise details, and seamless prose bring his action scenes to life. His Mistborn series stands out, as does his YA The Reckoners series.
The next time you read a masterpiece, take notes. Absorb all you can, then apply those lessons to your own project.
Put the Pedal to the Metal
As a writer, you’re in the driver’s seat. You get to regulate how fast or slow your story develops. Recognizing when to brake and when to floor it can be tricky, but it’s a skill you’ll hone over time.
Acting out a scene helps you imagine all the motion and tension. Word choices set the overall mood and tighten writing. Sentence structure, whether curt or flowing, causes readers to either hold their breath or relax. Revealing the action’s emotional impact on the character invests readers in the outcome. And books by master storytellers provide vivid examples to learn from. Applying one or all of these tips can sharpen your story’s pacing. Who knows? You just might write that page-turner you’ve always dreamed about.
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?