Anatomy of an Action Scene
I was asked to write about action scenes, which made me happy since they’re one of my favorite things. Part of why I love Urban Fantasy is that it provides such a huge range of possibilities for truly amazing action sequences, far more than any other genre I can think of except maybe sci-fi. You get all the possibilities of human weapons with all the potential mayhem of magical ones, as many and as crazy as you want them to be. All it takes is imagination!
I decided to outline for you some of the things I look for in action scenes, using examples from my own writing. There’s plenty of ways to write action, of course, but these are the things that have worked for me. I decided to break it down into three main parts, which, taken together, add up to a wild, fun, and pulse pounding ride!
Bones: To start building our scene, we need scaffolding. Or to keep to the anatomy analogy, the bones that are going to support the story. And that means tension.
The absolute worst thing, the thing that will kill your action scene faster than anything else, is for the stakes to be too low. Tension breathes life into your story, gives people a reason to be on the edge of their seat from the beginning, and to nail bite over the fate of your protagonists, because they see them as being in serious peril. Overpowered heroes are the bane of all action, because you know they’re going to make it out okay.
That doesn’t mean that you don’t want your characters strong. Weak characters are rarely fun to read about, but there can be too much of a good thing. You want them tough, yet vulnerable. You want them with a chance to succeed, but with an equal chance not to. You want them to have to work for it.
Otherwise, where’s the fun?
Take, for example, the beginning of “Lover’s Knot”, a recent novella of mine. One of the protagonists is a vampire, part of a group that are normally seen—including in my books—as pretty tough characters. They’re inhumanely strong, blindingly fast, sneaky, smart and incredibly hard to kill. So what could possibly challenge such a creature?
Let’s take a look:
But he and his companion were already covered in it.
A stray beam of moonlight lit the tumbled blond hair and ivory features of the vampire Mircea was now less supporting than outright carrying. It also highlighted the fear in his eyes, because Jerome could sense their pursuers, too. And the fact that they were closing in.
“Leave me,” he whispered, barely a sigh on the wind. But right on cue, two more shadows altered course, converging on their position from several streets over. Or several canals, which was the only thing that had saved them so far. Walking on water was a skill set reserved for the undamned part of humanity, of which neither they nor their pursuers could number themselves any longer.
But it wasn’t going to be enough.
Mircea could see it in the slow but steady gain the leaders were making. Could taste it in the difference in the age and quality of the blood flowing through their veins, and that trickling down his own face. Could feel it every time one of those strange energy bolts they were throwing exploded against a building or hissed through the water in a canal. Only a superior knowledge of the city had kept him alive this long.
Alive, he thought derisively, a bitter gorge rising in his throat even as he leaped from the side of a canal. He hadn’t been alive for years now, as evidenced by the fact that, instead of taking a bath in the dirty water, his foot hit the bottom of a passing barge, using it as a springboard to the side of a building on the opposite shore. But he wasn’t ready to go into the great unknown that followed death just yet either, although that was starting to look like an inevitability.
At least, it was if he stayed on the ground.
“Hold on,” he told Jerome, and jumped for the roof.
There was a brief, very un-vampire-like scramble for purchase on crumbling brick, before his foot finally caught a piece of masonry that didn’t disintegrate under his heel. His free hand grabbed a gutter, his other foot found the top of a window, and there. Suddenly, they were tearing across the rain-slick rooftops of Venice, terracotta sliding under Mircea’s feet as he fought for balance and speed.
And he wasn’t the only one. The vampires were right behind them, dark, barely visible silhouettes against the star-strewn sky that were rapidly getting bigger. Because the ruse hadn’t worked.
“Leave me!” Jerome said again, grabbing the front of Mircea’s shirt.
“Be silent,” Mircea hissed, wishing passionately for a sword. But swords and armor were from his old life, and wouldn’t help him now. Not when all the rules had changed, and everything he’d ever been taught about life upended.
Well, almost everything.
“What are you doing?” Jerome whispered, as Mircea grabbed the heavy coin purse off his companion’s belt. And bounded to a house across a narrow alley. And scrambled over the pitch of the roof to stare down at the brilliantly lit square below, which was flooded with revelers now that the earlier squalls had dissipated.
“Mircea . . .”
“Buying time,” Mircea said, and threw a glittering arc into the teeming crowd.
So, here we have tension, from the very beginning. I always want to grab a reader by the throat and pull them at a breakneck speed through the story, so I often start in the middle of the action. You don’t have to; there’s plenty of other ways to design a scene. But however you choose to do it, that tension must be there. That feeling that, however powerful your characters are, whatever they’re fighting is more so. Make them have to work, and work hard, using everything they have—intellect as well as brawn—in order to survive. Your readers will thank you for it.
Flesh: Now that the main source of tension is there, and thus a reason for people to keep reading, you need to put some flesh on those bones. This isn’t just about setting the scene. Sure, you want to give readers a sense of place, so they can “see” the action playing out in their minds. And if your setting is an exotic or fantasy one, then you’ll have to spend a bit of time on this. But world building isn’t all you’re doing here.
What do I mean? Well, think of a couple of guys about to have a fight. They’re all alone on a hill, just a rolling grassland all around, no trees, no buildings, no other combatants. Just them and nothing more. I’m not saying a clever writer couldn’t make that work, but it would be a hell of an ask. You’d have to depend on backstory, the clash of personalities, the mental part of a fight, to create tension and interest, because the landscape you’ve given yourself isn’t going to do it for you. You’ve basically given yourself nothing to work with here.
Contrast this with Mircea and Jerome, still struggling to survive in my crazy version of Renaissance Venice:
But because the square was dazzling.
The quiet, moon-drenched canals had suddenly been replaced by a dizzying kaleidoscope of senses. Light streamed across Mircea’s vision from torches and windows and lanterns and candles. Sound hit his ears like battlefield bombardment, full of shouts and squeals, calls and curses. Scuffling feet and flying elbows were everywhere, along with gleaming dark eyes behind leering masks, and glittering jeweled necks, and reaching dirty hands, and incense and mildew and bad breath and alcohol. Even for a human, it would have been stunning; for someone with a vampire’s abilities, it was like being hit with a fist, disorienting as all hell.
Mircea badly needed a moment.
But he didn’t have one, because that was the point: to lead his pursuers somewhere where their elevated senses would actually work against them. So he pushed forward, onto a side street, while hunching over and throwing his cape across Jerome. And hoping that nobody had gotten a good look at him.
But they’d certainly gotten a good smell.
Smell this, Mircea thought, as a hand like a vise grabbed his arm, and he grabbed minds in houses all along the narrow street. Shutters slammed open, people appeared on balconies, and a rain of trash started pelting down all around them. Old fish heads, rotting vegetables, and the contents of a day’s worth of chamber pots filled the skies and splattered the already rain-slick streets, sending beautifully dressed revelers slipping and sliding and screaming invective. And Mircea tearing away from his pursuer in the chaos.
If they didn’t want us dead before, they do now, Jerome sent him mentally, as another vampire lunged for them. Only to be hit by a fetid stream from above that soaked his clothes and sent his feet flying out from under him.
But he was the only one. The others were briefly held up by the crowd’s churning outrage, but they were still coming. His trick had bought seconds only and Mircea couldn’t pull a stunt like that again. As it was, controlling that many minds at once had his vision pulsing in and out and his heart pounding as it hadn’t in a decade.
What a time to feel human again, he thought grimly, and darted down another street, this one filled with fishermen.
They were coming in from a long day on the boats, and cutting an odorous swath through the glittering throng. Mircea dove through a cloud reeking of their trade, overlaid with stale sweat, cheap wine, and rotting teeth. And then into another composed of frying oil and frittelle from a peddler’s cart, pungent with vanilla and orange. And finally into a perfume explosion around a crowd of yellow-garbed girls, in the particular hue that Venice reserved for its whores.
One of them stuck a flower behind his ear when he paused to stare around. “Bona fortuna,” she laughed, and kissed him.
The low-cut top of her dress showed off a chest as flat as a boy’s, belying the promise of carmine lips and kohl-rimmed eyes.
She looked all of about twelve.
The dark-haired beauty had been plying her trade since Romulus was suckling on a hairy teat, as evidenced by the strength of the slender hand that gripped his arm. And by the mental command he couldn’t hear, because he wasn’t a master and it wasn’t directed at him. But which caused a cascade of silks to flutter into the street behind them.
“Marsilia,” Mircea gasped, in considerable relief.
“My girls can’t hold them for long,” she told him quickly. “Get to the square; I’ll send help to you there.”
He nodded, and pulled Jerome forward, while a commotion started up behind them. It wasn’t a fight, just a line of laughing girls playing one of the pranks carnival was famous for, and blocking the path. Of course, the crowd was doing the same thing to him, battering him on all sides, and pushing him and Jerome toward the edge of a canal. Where a smear of golden fire from a string of bobbing lanterns illuminated a floating, flower-festooned parade.
Venice’s high society was packed into boats along with their trains of hangers-on, sycophants and bodyguards, none of which reacted to having two panicked vampires plow through their midst. Because Mircea made sure that they were gone before their presence even registered, leaping from boat to boat to boat, working their way around the blockage. And then running down a narrow alley, before spilling out into the great square beside St. Mark’s.
The scene sets up one of the major conflicts of the story by using the city of Venice as a stage for the action. And you’ll notice that I said stage, not backdrop. In a play, the backdrop just hangs there, not really doing much except adding a little color. It’s detached from the action, lifeless, just a painted sheet. Whereas the Venice Mircea is flying through, desperately carrying his friend, is a living, breathing entity, fleshed out to be just as much of a character in the story as he is.
Instead of a windswept hillside, Venice provides all sorts of things to help engage a reader’s imagination: colors, sounds, smells—and obstacles. And not just the physical ones like buildings and canals. But people, too: scary villains, friendly courtesans, and clueless festival goers, all of whom act as living props, being so much more unpredictable—and therefore more fun—than static ones. Your setting is going to either help or hurt your ability to craft a fun, intense action scene, so do yourself a favor and pick a good one!
Skin: The thing about action scenes that a lot of people forget is that they are still scenes. In other words, yes, they should be fun or terrifying or heart-stopping or fast moving or all of the above. But they should also be useful, in some way, to the story. In other words, if you want people to engage with your action scenes, then they have to be about more than just action.
Let’s look at the ending of Mircea’s adventure to see what readers will learn from it:
It would have been perfect—if he and Jerome had been on the other side. As it was, there was no chance of battling their way through before their pursuers caught up. No chance at all.
His head tilted back.
Well, except for maybe one.
And then a leering jester jumped at him out of the crowd, right in his face. Mircea flinched back, before the exaggerated mask was pushed up, leaving him looking at the broad, familiar features of Nicolò, Marsilia’s right-hand man. The dimpled face under the mop of curly dark hair was usually grinning, to the point that people forgot how truly vicious he could be.
He wasn’t grinning now.
“How many?” Mircea yelled, the roar of the crowd making discretion impossible, and probably unnecessary.
“That we’ve counted so far—”
“And your men can’t take that many,” Mircea finished for him, because it wasn’t even a question.
Nicolò shook his head. “Not with a master among them, second level at a guess.”
Mircea swallowed. A second-level master was basically an army all on his own. But at least it explained how Jerome had ended up gutted. He was a master himself, as far above Mircea’s limited abilities as Mircea was to a human. Strong enough that he hadn’t bothered with bodyguards.
Might want to rethink that decision, Mircea thought, and pushed him at Nicolò.
“And what do I do with this?” the larger vamp demanded.
“Take him to my house! I’ll meet you there.”
The curly head shook again. “I told you, we’ll never make it—”
“I’ll provide a distraction!”
“Better be a hell of a distraction,” Nicolò muttered, and grabbed a barrel off a passing cart. He cracked it open like an egg, drenching both himself and Jerome in the process, and covering the scent of blood with the acrid tang of cheap wine. “Now we smell like everyone else,” Nicolò yelled.
And abruptly jerked his head around.
Mircea followed his gaze, to see Jerome’s pursuers running full tilt down the alley. But not because the crowd had suddenly thinned, but because they had gotten on top of the problem—literally. They were sprinting above the multitude, on shoulders, backs and even heads, using the densely packed revelers like rocks in a stream, and as a shortcut to the square.
“Whatever you’re going to do, now would be good,” Nicolò said—from behind him. Because Mircea had already taken off, ripping the blood-soaked shirt from his back and flying it above his head. And then above the crowd, as he took a page from the vamps’ book, and vaulted on top of the throng.
These people didn’t seem as drunk and oblivious as those in the alley, but Mircea didn’t give them time to complain. He leapt from strong back to strong back, and then from horseback to horseback, skipping down a processional line and narrowly avoiding a knight’s mailed fist. He jumped to a palanquin bearing the effigy of some saint, crossed himself for the sacrilege before laughing at how stupid that was, and then laughed some more as the crowd opened up a bit and he hit solid ground again.
He sounded frankly demented, but he didn’t care.
Because he could finally move, unfettered and unburdened, and it felt wonderful.
At least, it did until he reached the towering shadow of the campanile, the huge bell tower overlooking the square, with an army of shadows converging on him. Mircea hadn’t been moving slowly before, but the wind of his passing now fluttered hair and widened eyes, causing heads to turn to try and see what was no longer there. Like that of the guard at the tower door, who blinked and missed the blur that ran past him and up the stairs.
The roar of the crowd was suddenly muffled, cut off by the heavy brick walls. Enough that Mircea could hear the almost silent footfalls behind him, could feel the subtle vibrations of their tread on the steps below. He ignored them, knowing that if he paused, even for a moment, he was lost. So he tore up the narrow, winding staircase, running full-out, while his pursuers pounded at his heels, while they grabbed at his clothes, while he slammed a foot into someone’s face and heard him curse—
And then he was out the top, tearing across the checkered floor of the highest story. And to the columned opening overlooking the crowd. And the one chance he’d seen below: the thin rope used by Turkish acrobats who delighted carnival goers every year by walking up, up, up to the top of the bell tower, balance pole in hand, from a platform far out in the bay.
Mircea didn’t have a pole, but he did have a blood-slick shirt. He twisted it into a chord and flung it over the heavily slanted rope, as half a dozen vampires piled up on each other at the narrow opening of the stairs. Dizzyingly far below, the crowd looked up, their attention drawn by the bell hit by one of those strange energy bolts that had been thrown at Mircea’s head. It was the Malificio, the one usually rung when an execution was about to take place.
How fitting, he thought, as the snarl of vamps released, sending them stumbling onto the tiles behind him.
“A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale*,” he told them.
*”At Carnival, anything goes.”
In addition to having what I hope is a fun time, readers learn some important things from this chapter.
First, there’s characterization. The reader learns a lot about Mircea in this scene, whose character is continuously built over the whole of the action sequence. He’s shown as intelligent, resourceful, determined, loyal, and maybe a little crazy. But then, that last one helps when you’re a young, largely powerless vampire living among creatures far more formidable than you. Characterization can be done anywhere, and action scenes allow you to show rather than tell aspects of your protagonist’s personality.
Secondly, there’s plot. You don’t know everything yet, because wouldn’t that be boring? But you do get important clues about what’s to come: a group of vampires with unusual skills are after Mircea and Jerome. There’s a lot of them, and they are very determined. Why are they trying to kill Jerome? Who are they working for? And, most surprisingly of all, how are they throwing magic around like mages when no vampire is supposed to be able to do that?
These questions are important to the story, but just talking about them wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as letting the audience ask them of themselves. They see the events unfold, wonder what the hell is going on right along with Mircea and Jerome, experience the danger. And they are still primed and interested in the story even when the action ends, because of the questions it has raised in their minds.
So, in one fun scene, you’ve introduced the setting, fleshed out the protagonist, dropped clues to the plot, even provided some important secondary characters. And you’ve done it all with action. Yet people wonder why I love it so much! I hate slow moving books, and once you learn what action scenes have to offer, I think you will, too.
I’ll stop it there, for brevity’s sake, but if you’re interested in reading more about Mircea, Jerome, or a huge cast of other characters, you can get the whole story for free on Amazon, Smashwords, or my website. It was a recent gift to fans of the Dorina Basarab series, a group of books in which Mircea features prominently. And if you’re a fan of my other series or just a serious action lover, then check out RIDE THE STORM, the latest Cassie Palmer novel, out August 1.
Have fun, and remember: keep up the action!
About the Book
Title: Ride the Storm
Series: Cassandra Palmer #8
Author: Karen Chance
Date of Publication: August 1, 2017
Number of pages: 606
Amazon | B&N | iBooks | Kobo | Chapters Indigo | Book Depository | Google Play | BAM | IndieBound | GoodReads
Cassie Palmer can see the future, talk to ghosts, and travel through time—but nothing’s prepared her for this.
Ever since being stuck with the job of pythia, the chief seer of the supernatural world, Cassie Palmer has been playing catch up. Catch up to the lifetime’s worth of training she missed being raised by a psychotic vampire instead of at the fabled pythian court. Catch up to the powerful, and sometimes seductive, forces trying to mold her to their will. It’s been a trial by fire that has left her more than a little burned.
But now she realizes that all that was the just the warm up for the real race. Ancient forces that once terrorized the world are trying to return, and Cassie is the only one who can stop them…
* All entries in this giveaway will also count towards the Grand Prize Draw for a $48 Amazon-com GC *
The actions scenes in your books are some of the best bits! I always read them over and over and find something new each time.
That’s a hard question! I just finished Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs, so they are at the top of my mind. I always enjoy finding out how Mercy is going to get herself out of trouble.
Ilona Andrews’ books always have very memorable action scenes.
Action scenes in books are tricky, sure they are cool, but they do not last in my memory like movies
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Love the action scenes in ms chances books. They are usually full of them. Need to catch up on this series
Great post you have here and I completely agree!! I think its important that the action scenes are written well or the reader loses interest. And boy when it comes to UF and PNR….action is a must. And actually in any genre, its a great aspect to have.
Love all Karen Chance’s books, I am currently reading Ride the Storm and I am in love <3
Wonderful article <3
Deborah Wilde’s Nava Katz series. The first action is to kill a demon with a handjob! So memorable.
The most memorable action scene for me comes fro J.C Daniels Kit Colbana Series in Night Blade- I don’t want to give away any of the plot, but Jude has all but broken Kit and she tries to commit suicide but is stopped just barely in time….
Cassie Palmer is what got me into Urban Fantasy. Touch The Dark is the very first UF book I ever read. Sure, I’ve read lots of SF, lots of fantasy, and lots of Noir, but to mix it all up and then add non-stop kick-ass action and white hot romance…who doesn’t like that?
can’t think of any
I can’t think of any specific ones. Dianne Duvall and Paige Tyler both have great action scenes.
Karen Chance’s Death’s Mistress is one that jumps right to my mind, actually the whole series has great action scenes.
In Magic strikes by Ilona Andrews there are some cage fight scenes. I read it over six years ago but still remember it vividly.
Supernatural sections of action scenes always stick out the most for me. Kicking, punching, flipping, etc seem too common place. I will enjoy and better remember when the character uses/does something unique (time traveling, spells, ingenuity, magic and the like).
I would go with my first encounters with Dory in Midnight’s Daughter or Patricia Briggs’ Mooncalled or even Ilona Andrews first Kate Daniels.
Sophia Rose recently posted…Review: Her Dark Half by Paige Tyler
And, I loved getting the inside details on writing an action scene. Those are all great things to make it that much better. Thanks, Karen!
Sophia Rose recently posted…Review: Her Dark Half by Paige Tyler