Writing Compelling Action

A few weeks ago, I ran through Daredevil on Netflix in a couple of days, captivated by a dozen elements in the fantastic season–a dozen elements I could use as the basis of posts such as this one. But one thing in particular has fascinated me on future watches: The compelling, well choreographed, well-shot, well-acted action.

I’ve long been a fan of martial arts movies. Anything Bruce Lee is in, the classic Jackie Chan movies (Legend of the Drunken Master being my favorite). Watching most typical Hollywood action scenes just can’t stand up to watching a fight scene in one of these films. I’ve always had my theories why, and often ranted at the screen when an action scene failed to capture the grace of its potential. But it wasn’t until I watched the hallway scene in episode two of Daredevil that I knew exactly what Hollywood was doing wrong, and more importantly, how we can apply this to writing action scenes in fiction.

I intend to go into detail on the hallway scene in Daredevil, so I figure I should post a link here:

There are 7 things we can learn from this fight scene.

1) We know why the fight is happening. This scene has context, has meaning. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, and it doesn’t feel like it was put in to meet a fight quota. This isn’t to say that you can’t have an ambush or assassination attempt to surprise the reader; merely that you do so with purpose, and make the action that we know is coming feel important.

2) We know the stakes. We know what happens if Daredevil fails (beyond being beaten and likely killed). We know what this means to the main character, why the character can’t back down from this fight, and why he must win.

3) The fight is properly blocked out. We are shown the area he’ll be fighting in before the fight takes place, and we get a rough idea of how many people he’ll be fighting. We aren’t surprised by any weapons (improvised or not), because we see they’re available from the beginning.

4) The fight is well-choreographed, well-shot, well-edited. I’m not saying that as writers we should write every punch thrown. What I am saying is that, like Daredevil, like classic martial arts films, and unlike most modern Hollywood action scenes, we need to think about what the audience needs to see, and put the focus there for long enough for the audience to understand what is happening.

5) We’ve been made to believe that Daredevil could lose. Earlier in the episode, he reveals that he’d been tricked into an ambush in which he’d received his many wounds, and had barely made it out alive. There should always be doubt, in an action scene, whether the main character will win. The other choice is to set up alternative fail conditions or secondary conflicts that evolve within the action sequence. Either way, the action should always contain some tension.

6) The hero does not come out unscathed. This contributes to the previous point. If we see the character bleed, we feel that they can fail. It helps for other reasons: Seeing them react to pain can reveal more about the character, and seeing them make mistakes and/or be overwhelmed temporarily makes the character seem human, easier to sympathize with. In the original Die Hard, my favorite scene is after he’s driven to flee over broken glass by the villains, McClane pulls shards of glass from his bare feet and makes the cop on the other end of the radio promise to give a message to his wife if he dies. John McClane is often hurt, scared, or overwhelmed (an element that the last two Die Hard films have forgotten, and suffered for). It’s seeing him struggle through these adversities that makes us cheer.

7) The fight fits the pacing and the tone of the scenes around it, and helps to develop the character as a whole. Try to fit the emotion of the scenes leading up to the action into the action itself. Try to feel the emotion of the scenes before. The action should be a crescendo of elements already in play, and your character brings into the fight emotions and thoughts he had in the moments leading up to them. Make the action custom-fit to this moment.

If we can manage to do all of these things, we can write compelling, impactful action scenes.

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