On Writing Action


I love action. I love watching it on TV or on the big screen, and I love reading it. Give me a heart-thumping chase scene over an introspective walk in the woods any day. Too much exposition in a novel, too much description, too many paragraphs and pages going on and on about chaos theory, and I start flipping pages. (Sorry, Michael. Much as I loved Jurassic Park, I’m pretty sure I actually read only three fourths of the book.)

I also love writing action. As a thriller writer, I get to blow things up. Burn things down. Maim, terrorize, and destroy. Get all the meanness out of my system and onto the page.

Action scenes are fun to write. There’s no lengthy introspection, no character development, no scene-setting or descriptions — just short, declarative sentences that propel the reader through the scene:

Her foot caught. She pulled. Pulled again. Looked up. Phillipe and Ross were still at the edge of the waterfall, still hanging on. She pulled again, reached beneath the water with one hand and jerked at the boot lace. The knot held, the lace wet and swollen. She pulled again, ripped at the knot. Tore her fingernails. Didn’t care.

Action verbs are exciting all on their own. Nobody runs — they dash, sprint, dart, spurt, race and tear through the scenes.

Action scenes are also the only time an author can indulge in what would normally be an appalling overuse of em-dashes and exclamation points:

Phillipe — Ross — struggling in the water — the hot, hot water — boiling up her ankles, her legs, her thighs — the helicopter ladder dangling the rescue sling — but Ross — Phillipe — they were in trouble — they needed her — ‘Go!’ Ross screamed as he struggled to hold on to her stepfather. ‘Grab the cable! We’re right behind you! Go — go — go!!’ ‘Sheila!’ Rebecca screamed. ‘Hurry!’

But action is so much more than superficial wham-bam. If that’s all there was to it, then watching the roadrunner chase the coyote off a cliff would be as gripping as watching Inception or James Bond.

The reason action scenes get the heart thumping is not because they’re exciting. It’s because the reader cares about the characters.

Back when I was working on my first novel, that understanding hadn’t yet become clear. Three-quarters of the way through the book, I got stuck on a scene where my characters were drifting in a small, engineless boat toward a huge waterfall (no, not the same waterfall in the excerpts above — apparently, those Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life” stories about people going over Niagara Falls in a barrel made a deep impression on me when I was a child). No matter how I tried writing the scene, it felt artificial and cheesy. I knew the characters weren’t going to die, and since this scene took place three-quarters of the way through the book and these were the principal characters, I knew the reader would know the characters weren’t going to die, either. It all felt contrived and silly.

The one day, I suddenly realized that the characters didn’t know they weren’t going to die. It seems obvious now, but at the time, it was a revelation. I put myself in the characters’ heads, imagined the events as they were experiencing and feeling them, and the scene practically popped of the page.

Inadvertently, I’d discovered the key to writing a compelling action sequence. It’s not the short sentences or the strong action verbs or the exclamation points that carry the scene. It’s the emotion. Fear. Anxiety. Terror. Apprehension. Desperation. It’s us sitting in our comfortable armchairs feeling what the characters feel as they drift inexorably toward that waterfall that raises our adrenalin level. We’re not reading. We’re sitting beside them in the boat.

And that’s why I love action.