April 11th, 2016

Believe It Or Not: How Not To Write Action

Tiffany Lawson Inman

A lengthy list of components must come together to create well-written action and fighting in fiction. One of the most important components is believability.

Believability in writing action and fighting is something that trips-up many authors and editors. I am including editors because I have read too many published books with out-of-place action words and phrases and sometimes entire action or fight sequences. So it would seem that the editors as well as the authors either don’t recognize the issue or don’t know how to fix it and it is then a rough spot for your readers.

Always be asking yourself if your characters are using the right actions.

Are the actions you have written for them even in the same skill set as that character?

Are they fighting a fight in your novel or have they transformed into one of the knife-wielding thugs from one of Harlan Coben’s latest novels?

You do not want your character to go from little Ashley, the ninety-nine pound Physiology major at CU Boulder, to Bruce Banner’s Hulk in a blink of a word or phrase. Unless this is a paranormal and she has super powers, of course. A beefed-up and out-of-place word or phrase will pop off the page and wedge itself between your reader and your story.

This is not a good thing.

Examples of out-of-place action words and phrases for the character’s skillset and theme of the book they were written for:Your Character

  • She launched herself out of the car window.
  • He targeted the man’s jawline and threw a fast jab that connected with a crack. He knew he had just broken someone’s jaw.
  • She turned back towards her attacker with a quick spin and side-kicked. The kick landed against his neck and she quickly readjusted her stance to get in few more kicks.
  • She saw the punch coming and leaned back to avoid Jarred’s giant fist. Heather grabbed her book laden backpack and decided to fight back. She heaved her pack into the side of his head and from the sound of it she could probably say goodbye to her snack-bag of Cheetos. Jarred whimpered and fell back against the lockers.
  • I dive sideways through the doorway, hit the ground in a roll and keep running away from them.

 The above examples don’t seem like they would do any harm in a book, do they? They seem like straightforward actions and fight actions. But how about if I were to tell you that all of these were taken from Romance, YA, NA, and Women’s Fiction? And that the characters performing the above actions were not trained in Mixed Martial Arts or the art of escape, and none of them had superpowers.   Yes, some of them were being threatened and were either fighting for something or against someone. But that does not mean between the first line of the book and this scene that a mystery man came in and uploaded fancy skills into their character brains. These were just regular characters.

If you want your readers to connect to the believability of your story, they must also connect to the believability of your character’s actions.

Let us look a little closer at those examples.

  • She launched herself out of the car window.

According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, LAUNCH is to send or shoot (something, such as a rocket) into the air or water or into outer space, or to throw (something) forward in a forceful way. As it is written in the book, it would seem that a girl or woman is launching herself out of a car window. She actually launches herself out of the car window from the passenger seat of a compact car. Hmmmm… .

I see the word LAUNCH being used in many stories and there are only a few when that word made sense. It takes power to launch something into the air. It takes muscle and concentration and drive and flexibility and confidence to launch yourself out of a window. Not to mention, a few more actions involved in the extraction of your body from the car’s seat to aim out the window and getting your feet into a position to manipulate the action. Unless there was an escape hatch or the like…and there was not. So here I am, a reader, thinking the POV character is a regular woman with regular human capabilities and suddenly she is frightened by a situation and launches herself out of the car window. Pretty darn unbelievable.

  • He targeted the man’s jawline and threw a fast jab that connected with a crack. He knew he had just broken someone’s jaw.

For a non-boxer and non-brawler and not regularly violent man to be able to target a jawline in the middle of a fight and “throw a fast jab” that actually connects and connects hard enough to break a jaw…well it is pretty darn unbelievable.

Considering the fact that this untrained and ungloved character was able to break a jaw with one fast jab, and walked away without any broken bones in his own hand…pretty darn unbelievable.

And also considering that it takes a professional boxer or MMA fighter a much heftier punch than a simple fast jab to break a jaw…yup, pretty darn unbelievable.

Did you know that during a 10-12 round boxing match there are approximately 600 punches thrown by one competitor and only around 30-50 percent of those punches actually connect to the opponent in the ring? So although I know it isn’t very exciting (at first) to write a fight where there are punches and kicks that don’t connect, it would be more realistic. And if you were to take your reader’s deeper into a more realistic reality for your character, I am willing to bet your scene will take on a whole different feel and it will find a deeper connection with your reader.

  • She turned back towards her attacker with a quick spin and side-kicked. The kick landed against his neck and she quickly readjusted her stance to get in few more kicks.

Again this is not a kickboxing champion here and she doesn’t have any superpowers just a regular chick surprised in an alley by a big bad dude. So why is she without fear or stumbling and able to quick spin side-kick a man in the neck. Did I mention he was described as being over a foot taller than her? And then she is gutsy enough to (and has the skillset to) readjust her stance for more action. What do you think? Do I believe it? Nope.

  • She saw the punch coming and leaned back to avoid Jarred’s giant fist. Heather grabbed her book laden backpack and decided to fight back. She heaved her pack into the side of his head and from the sound of it she could probably say goodbye to her snack-bag of Cheetos. Jarred whimpered and fell back against the lockers like a ragdoll wearing a football jersey.

Cute, but still very very unbelievable. Seeing the punch coming and the ability to move fast enough is always a little suspect. But then to be able to bend down, grab a heavy backpack and heft it with such force and accuracy to not only connect with the side of his head but also make Jarred the-football-player-with-giant-fists whimper and seemingly be knocked-out from this backpack blow? I am not convinced. Action fail.

  • I dive sideways through the doorway, hit the ground in a roll and keep running away from them.

If you are a gymnast, ninja, or stunt person this sideways controlled dive n’ roll n’ run would be totally doable. But for this character, a young, semi-klutzy and self-proclaimed chubby woman? No. I don’t think so. I don’t even think I have to go into any more detail to convince you that this is also pretty darn unbelievable.

What have you learned from these examples? Before writing your action and fights, think about your character’s skillset. Think about your genre. Make sure you are not pulling action from the big-multi-purpose-grab-bag of action because you are too intimidated or hurried to write a good scene. There isn’t a multi-purpose-grab bag of actions because no other writer is writing your story with your characters their skillets.

If you have doubts about the action or fights that you are writing, stop. Remember that this is only one component of writing action and fights. Do your research, take classes, or use an editor that knows action and fighting. Don’t let your action or fight scene intimidate you into writing poorly.

As you are writing and before sending off to the editor or publisher, look at the action written, get out of your writing nook and physically work through the action. Slowly. Keep asking yourself if your characters would be able to do the action. Remind yourself that not all of your characters are Superman or Catwoman. **Within reason of course, I know some of you are writing characters falling off mountains, or narrowly missing trains, or getting punched repeatedly etc. So be smart about it. **

Chances are, if you hand off your scene to someone with your character’s skill set and they fail to act it out because it is too complicated or not complicated enough, or if they look at you like you are insane and deny your request to act it out, then the action you have written is also a fail. Time to rethink, rewrite, and then re-act.

Go forth and write believable action!

Thank you so much for reading today. Do you have a line or two of action getting your brain in a twist? I can help!

Toss your one or two lines down into the comments and I will see what I can do for you. Remember to tell me about your genre, characters, and your goal outcome of the action or fight scene. Depending on what I see, I might ask you a few more questions. I’m a hands-on teacher and editor and I don’t like my blogs to stop here, so come on down to the comments section and play!  

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About Tiffany

TiffanyLawsonInmanBioPicTiffany Lawson Inman claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. There, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development. Tiffany’s background in theatre provides her with a unique approach to the craft of writing, and her clients and students greatly benefit. As a freelance editor, she provides deep story critique, content editing, and line editing.

Stay tuned to Twitter @NakedEditor for Tiffany’s upcoming guest blogs, classes, contests, and lecture packets.She teaches Action and Fighting, Madness to Method: high intensity emotion, Triple Threat Scene Writing, Writing Humor For Every Genre, and More to Memoirs than memories, and Short Story Workshops for Lawson Writer’s Academy online. She is working on hands-on-action workshops, and will be offering webinars this year.

39 responses to “Believe It Or Not: How Not To Write Action”

  1. Laura Drake says:

    Excellent post, Tiffany! I hate this when I run across it in published books - to me, it's lazy writing. But it's such a delicate balance - to be real without slowing the action with intricate details.

    Oh, and you have to be sure to get the character's emotion in, at the same time! It's an art you have to work hard at!

    Thanks for blogging with us today!

  2. Fae Rowen says:

    Great examples, Tiffany. Sometimes when I'm reading, I gloss over action that doesn't quite work, but when it's glaring--that's a deal breaker. Showing us how our writing can "go bad" is so helpful. Thanks!

  3. colleen says:

    Nice tips. Love the examples! Thank you!

  4. Great information and I think the examples were spot on. There is nothing that pulls me from the story more than unbelievable actions. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

  5. Terry Odell says:

    Action scenes also need to be written in 'action' structure. Fast. Short sentences. No time for characters to muse about their boxing instructor. And if they drag on for more than a few paragraphs, I turn into a skimmer. I figure the good guy's going to come out on top. When I need a fight scene for my covert ops/ex military/police characters, I ask my ju-jitsu black belt daughter to choreograph it, then I 'write it'.

    • Terry, have you read any Jack Reacher novels? LOL! That character is the king of ruminating over fight technique during the fights. It's funny but painful because the timing is way off. Yup, believable action for your character's skill set is just one component, so so so so many more!

  6. Robert Doucette says:

    And then after being hit by a crowbar and being shot, the hero jumps out of a third story window and runs off. "It's only a flesh wound," he said.

  7. Darynda says:

    Great article!!!

    • Darynda thanks for stopping by! I will have to write something in the future about humor in fights, a style you "might" be familiar with...HA! Yes, I will knock on your email door when I do. Because you have all of the examples for that blog!

  8. Sarah Hamer says:

    You always give me great things to think about!

  9. Smart blog!

    When I read an action scene that couldn't happen the way it's described, or there's no way that character would know how to do what they supposedly did, I want to dive into those pages and fix them.

    Sometimes an action scene is so unrealistic, it's memorable. But not in an I'll-read-more-books-by-this author way.

  10. Hi Tiffany,
    Your examples gave me a giggle - mostly because if I wrote fight scenes, I'm sure I would be guilty of doing the same thing with my characters. Luckily, I've now read this, and will try to recall what not to do when I do write a fight scene.

    • Lisa
      I would love to look at some of your fight scenes! I bet they are super fun in wacky locations and have a bit of humor in them, yes? But yeah, even the fun fights you have to watch to not go totally over the top with superhero moves. 🙂

  11. Helloooooooo, Tiffany! I love this, and it's so true. Reading this kind of action in the wrong genre pulls the reader out of the scene. Thanks for the smart post! xo

  12. bonniegill says:

    Great advice. I love how you break it down. This is a great reminder.

    • Bonnie, Thanks for reading and I am glad this helps. I have been meaning to email you - can you send me a copy of that one particular bathroom grapple scene? I would love to use it in a class example, or heck, if you let me, in a super amazing blog example 😀 😀 😀

  13. SO...once again...beneficial information from the Lawson Camp. At least I don't recognize any of those scenes as my own. Whew. But I will keep this in mind when I do try to write out a fight scene.

    • Christine Jackson are you suggesting that we create a Writer's that Camp event?!? Because if you are, I am IN. I will put the word out to my mom and see what she thinks. Okay, I know that isn't what you meant, but it would be fun. Glad this was a helpful blog for you! See you next time 🙂

  14. littlemissw says:

    I tend to skim over fight scenes that get too complicated and wordy. I know in reality that lots of things happen in a fight but I don't believe that the characters would notice them all equally so why include them - a guy might notice the sting from the hand that just slapped him but I doubt he'd notice that the nails on that hand were recently manicured, he'd probably he hard pressed to notice that even on a good day.

    I know this is a bit pushy but remember the scenes you were going to edit a few posts ago? Do you think you might find time to do those? I'm not trying to be difficult but I would really really appreciate it. 🙂

  15. Do you have an upcoming class on this?

  16. Thanks for this, Tiffany!

  17. spurvis500 says:

    Love this post! Make my characters believable--my mantra. No superheros or ninjas in my middle grade contemporaries. 🙂 Thanks for the reminder, Tiffany.

  18. Calisa Rhose says:

    I've read books that scenes like these left me scratching my head or physically trying what was written. Thankfully, I didn't pull a muscle in my body or my head trying to figure them out. lol I've come across scenes that involved characters who did have the training or supernatural abilities to do the things you posted, but they didn't use those moves (sorry, drawing a blank just now for examples), only to include moves that even a superhero or supernatural couldn't possibly pull off believably for their skill set.

    Great article. FB and Tweeted.

  19. Wonderful advice...I'm including a link to this in my next post. Thank you for the tips. I think writing believable and non-cliche action scenes is as hard as writing good sex scenes. 🙂

  20. […] Believe It Or Not: How Not To Write Action […]


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