How to write Action Scenes & Violence

action scene

Growing up in our cosy modern day lives in snug cities or picturesque villages, it’s easy to forget how natural and common violence truly is. People use violence, simply because it works. The action scene is unavoidably unnecessary.

The mechanics of an action scene

Sentence Length

Simple sentences are most effective for describing action. Run on sentences have a breathless quality to them that is effective when appropriate, but generally stick to medium length sentences. No words with more than three syllables. No sentences with more than 20 words.

Word choice

Avoid adverbs and adjectives. Stick to power words and nouns.

What to show and what not to show

Show what is relevant to the POV character, whatever is closest to her or relevant to her plan. Describe what she interacts with as she moves through the situation. Which objects are touched? Held? Thrown? Combine the elements with sounds, this helps maintain the pace.

The actions

Before it starts

Deterring the fight: Your best odds of (intact) survival is usually to discourage conflict from escalating into violence. Your natural instinct is to avoid fights. The more professional the fighter, the more aware he is that it is a waste of time energy and health to get into an unnecessary fight. Internal limitations can stop someone from starting a fight. For example, one doesn’t have the stomach for blood, or one External forces such as prison time can also discourage violence.

The start

The ambush: the swat team comes in with flash-bangs, shouting and constant movement. This flurry of information is done on purpose, it is designed to make the opponent freeze and gives the swat team the advantage.

First you Freeze: First you freeze, no matter who you are or how many fights you’ve been in. You freeze, if only for a fraction of a second. It takes remarkable act of will to break out of it. There are three types of freezing.

  1. Switch-freeze: here your mindset makes the switch from being relaxed to on-guard, to action mode.
  2. Think-freeze: processing the event takes time. The longer you spend thinking, the more damage you take and less able you will be to execute any plan when you finally come up with one.
  3. Sensory-freeze: extremely pleasant when mauled by a bear and don’t want to feel it. The body goes limp, which often deters the enemy from continuing the attack unless motivated by a desire to kill. If the attack doesn’t stop, every second that goes by equals four more punches taken in damage.

Preferably, the fighter only stays still when he needs to take aim.

The consequences

A fight scene does not happen in a vacuum. There are factors leading up to it, influencing it while it happens and aftermath to deal with. There are legal and ethical issues to deal with, after all, violence tends to be against the law. Even if you do it in self-defense, there is no guarantee the judge and jury will believe you or agree that the amount of violence used in self-defense was necessary. Beyond practical consequences, there are also internal consequences. You might not be able to live with what you’ve done. When someone is exposed to violence for the first time, it changes how they see themselves.

The chase

When looking for an escape, the character scans his environment. Then he starts running/driving away/whatever. The following elements should all be part of the chase.

  • Ground effects progress of chase, whether the POV character notices it or not.
  • Obstacles: jump, duck, dodge, cling to something.
  • Sounds: breaking, footsteps and so on.
  • Skip colours and light effects.

The fight

The actions of a fight

Scanning: When looking for a weapon, the character scans his environment. Environment affects the way one can fight: there are no swords in the broom closet and an uneven terrain offers the one standing higher an advantage.
Grabbing: at some point¬† one character grabs hold of another. One grabs hold of the other to hold him down or to misdirect him, for example yanking him off balance or throwing the other guy off himself. Side-note: it’s much harder to plant an accurate strong hit when both parties are moving.

The emotions and senses during a fight

Motivations for violence:

  • Survival cause of need: a need for air, food, drink, drugs
  • Survival through opposition: fight your attacker to the death
  • External/social reward: money, status, power
  • Internal reward: Pleasure, some people simply enjoy hurting other people

Hormones are raging, especially adrenaline. This helps the fighter to ignore pain signals but goes at the cost of fine motor skills. He might also experience tunnel vision and hearing to the extend of not hearing gun shots. Things may feel unreal and one might feel as if everything moves in slow motion. Indicators of adrenaline when a conflict escalates to violence:

  • flushing or pallor: a change in colouration
  • rapid and shallow breathing
  • thirst -> licking the lips
  • gross motor activity -> pacing, flexing
  • loss of fine motor activity -> shaking, dropping objects
  • unfocused gaze
  • repetitive / rhythmic behaviour -> tapping, humming

The sweet zone: At optimal level, things appear to happen in slow motion because processing is faster than it normally would be, which gives you time to think and analyse the situation without losing time. You might feel a high, all other worries are expelled from your mind. You know you can be killed but you also feel like you can’t be stopped. This feeling is often accompanied by a grin. It takes experience in fights in order to achieve this sweet zone and be able to stay in it and use it to your advantage. Your opponent, all other things considered equal, will not be able to match your strength unless he is in the sweet zone too. Therefore, opponents often flee.

Internal limitations: most people are incapable of brutal violence without internal limitations holding them back, for example, throwing up after having to stab someone.
External limitations: the prospect of jail time can stop someone from killing another person.

Common action scenes settings: violent situations

Young men seeking dominance

It starts with a hard stare, then the verbal provocations start, threats that are followed up by an approach. During the approach, the guy will try to appear harder and tougher than he truly is (bragging, boasting, minor intimidation behaviour). This game is often designed to be safe. There are countless ways to deter the fight: apologise, walk away, look away, friends step in. People seldom get hurt in this game, even if punches are thrown. Why? The hand receives more damage from the blow than the head. The head is more likely to receive damage from the impact when it hits the wall/ground than the fist.

A group vs one outsider

Often, accidentally or on purpose, the outsider has interfered with the situation dominated by the group. The group will join forces against the outsider. The lone cop often faces this situation when breaking up a fight.

Another option is the group’s decision to punish one person for a perceived betrayal or crime. Committing violence together makes a strong bond within the group.

Someone being punished

Someone feels someone else should learn a lesson, a reminder to watch your behaviour or follow the leader. The aim of violence is not murder, unless the lesson is for the victim’s loved ones.

Status seeking

This is commonly seen when someone is desperate to make a name for himself. They need or want a rep for being tough, rough, hard, crazy or any mixture of scary attributes. Public violence is necessary to achieve this goal.

Tips and Tricks

Make the fight more memorable by having it occur in an unlikely place.

Hall, R. (2014) Writing Vivid Settings.
Haven (1999) Wright Right; Creative Writing Using Storytelling Techniques
Miller, R. (2010) Violence: a writer’s guide