April 11 – 17: “How do you create fresh and unique action scenes?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Creating fresh and unique action scenes comes with the territory of writing thrillers. This week we ask the question on everyone’s mind: How do you do it? Join ITW Members Allison Brennan, Lisa Preston, Joe Hart, E. M. Powell, Thomas Kirkwood, Connie Archer, Reece Hirsch, Bobby Nash, Adrian Magson, Jeffery Hess, Ryan Quinn and Dustin Dodd for this can’t miss discussion.



poisonousAllison Brennan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 27 thrillers and numerous short stories. She currently writes two series, the Maxine Revere cold case mysteries and the Lucy Kincaid/Sean Rogan romantic thrillers. Allison lives in Northern California with her husband, five kids, and assorted pets.




The Good Traitor coverRyan Quinn is the best-selling author of The Good Traitor, End of Secrets, and The Fall. A native of Alaska, Quinn was an NCAA DI Champion while on the University of Utah Ski team. He worked in book publishing for five years in New York City and now lives in Los Angeles where he writes and trains for marathons.




requiemThomas Kirkwood is an international author best known for his Cold War thrillers. His novels have been published by Macmillan, Collier Macmillan (Europe), Penguin (Donald I. Fine), Signet, Amazon, Brilliance (audio), ACX (audio) and Stjerne-Spenning (Europe). After years in the EU, he now makes his home in Salida, Colorado. His new release, THE THIRTEENTH DISCIPLE: A REQUIEM FOR AMERICA, describes how the world’s oldest democracy set itself up to become the world’s newest dictatorship.



Evil Ways HC Front FINAL 12-6-15Bobby Nash is an award-winning author. He writes novels, comic books, short stories, novellas, graphic novels, and the occasional screenplay for a variety of publishers and production companies. He is a member of the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers and International Thriller Writers. For more information on Bobby Nash and his work, please visit him at www.bobbynash.com and across social media and say hi.



lord of irelandE.M. Powell’s medieval thriller Fifth Knight series have been #1 Amazon and Bild bestsellers. Book #3, THE LORD OF IRELAND, is out April 2016. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. As well as contributing to The Big Thrill, she blogs for English Historical Fiction Authors and reviews for the Historical Novel Society.



OrchidsLisa Preston turned to writing after careers as a fire department paramedic and a city police officer. Experience in her earlier professions enhance the medical and legal passages of her fiction and non-fiction. Her debut novel, Orchids and Stone, was released by Thomas & Mercer in April 2016, and has been described both as a thriller and as domestic noir. Her published work includes non-fiction books and articles on animals, particularly the care and training of dogs and horses. Away from her desk, she spends hours on backcountry trails as a runner and rider, sometimes combining her two outdoor pursuits via the obscure sport of Ride and Tie.


Clue In The Stew_coverConnie di Marco, writing as Connie Archer, is the national bestselling author of the Soup Lover’s Mystery series from Berkley Prime Crime. The fifth in the series, A Clue in the Stew, will be released April 5, 2016. Some of her favorite recipes can also be found in The Cozy Cookbook and The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook.




surveillanceReece Hirsch is the author of four thrillers that draw upon his background as a privacy attorney. His first book, The Insider, was a finalist for the 2011 International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel. His next three books, The Adversary, Intrusion, and Surveillance, all feature former Department of Justice cybercrimes prosecutor Chris Bruen. Hirsch is a partner in the San Francisco office of an international law firm and co-chair of its privacy and cybersecurity practice. He is also a member of the board of directors of The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. He lives in the Bay Area with his wife and a small, unruly dog.



beachheadBorn in New York and raised on Florida’s Gulf coast, Jeffery Hess served six years aboard the Navy’s oldest and newest ships and has held writing positions at a daily newspaper, a Fortune 500 company, and a university-based research center. He is the editor of the award-winning anthologies Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform and Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand (Press 53). He holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte and his writing has appeared widely in print and online. He lives in Florida, where he leads the DD-214 Writers’ Workshop for military veterans.


hard coverAdrian Magson is the author of 20 crime and spy thrillers, a YA ghost novel and ‘WRITE ON!’ – a writers’ help book. His latest books are ‘THE LOCKER’ (Midnight Ink), the first in a new thriller series featuring private security investigators Ruth Gonzales and Andy Vaslik, and ‘HARD COVER’, the third in the Marc ‘Watchman’ Portman series of spy thrillers.



savageDustin Dodd was born and raised in the heart of the Central Valley of California in Clovis. He graduated in four years from California State University, Fresno, with a Bachelor of Science in Criminology with an emphasis in Law Enforcement and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. He also attended California State University, Long Beach, where he graduated with a Master’s in Public Administration. Dustin served on the street with his K9 partner Kota for over four years. It was from his exploits as a K9 handler, Bomb Squad technician, SWAT breacher, and detective that he crafted Savage Justice, his first novel with several more on the way.



  1. I’m delighted to be able to join in with a discussion, and look forward to reading how my fellow authors deal with the question of action scenes.
    I begin with the premise that an action scene has to move the story along. Having one just for the heck of it doesn’t mean a lot. But I also like to use the action to add layers to the characters involved in the story. This can help demonstrate a range of elements such as courage, cruelty, stamina, skill, cowardice, desperation… whatever I feel is needed to make them more than cardboard cut-out figures, good or bad.
    I also try to make the build-up as important as the action, and keep the action scenes themselves fairly short and intense, aiming each time not so much for body-count, but demonstrating how close the main characters are to coming unstuck. They get hurt, they get shot at, threatened, abused and generally put under pressure, but more than anything, they face the possibility of defeat. They also have to rely on pick-up weapons rather than carrying a ready-made selection of high-tech locked-and-loaded killing machines at their disposal.
    In ‘HARD COVER’, (Severn House) the 3rd Marc Portman spy thriller, Portman is operating deep inside Russia, with limited resources at his disposal, and has to rely on whatever he can get hold of. So each of the action scenes means he has to conserve what he has and rely on speed and skill in field-craft to stay ahead of the opposition and not simply spray the scenery with a lot of firepower.
    In writing these scenes, I always look ahead to what he will do afterwards, where it will lead and how it interacts with the next part of the story. In effect, that pulls me along and makes me think about future chapters.
    And for me, that makes the writing a lot more fun.

  2. What thrills me about a good thriller is not a long car chase, or a big shootout, or detailed descriptions of hand-to-hand combat. What creates real tension and suspense has much more to do with the characters and their fundamental motivations.

    Let’s face it, we’ve all read action sequences that take up pages and pages and could tell the whole time that the good guy was going to come out the other side of it all okay. In those situations, it doesn’t matter how descriptive, technical, or weird the action is; it’s not going to be very thrilling.

    So, my strategy, when conceptualizing and writing action scenes, is to tie as much of the physical action as possible back to the characters’ motivations. It’s crucial the reader understand and care about the characters’ motivations, so I try to make sure that every scene, including the action scenes, tells the reader something valuable about what the stakes are for my characters.

    1. Here, here to your thoughts on tying action to character motivation, essentially revealing or displaying character through action. Yet, in there are stories where we know the outcome (think Apollo 13) but we can be transfixed by the action.

      1. That’s true! Good point. Though part of that fantastic tension is still rooted in character development, from the introduction of those historical characters as people we feel like we come to know. We learn a lot about them based on how they react to the action. Plus, there’s always an added dynamic with major historical events that can’t be recreated in a thriller novel that’s not based on any actual event.

        This could lead to a whole new topic: Compare and contrast the action in Apollo 13 versus The Martian.

  3. My medieval thriller Fifth Knight series is set in the twelfth century. Writing action scenes set 850 years ago can be limiting in some ways (no guns, no car chases!) but the inspiration I can draw from that period in history more than makes up for it.

    Take the first book in the series, The Fifth Knight. I based that book on the infamous murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Forget any of the ‘forsooth’ and ‘fair damsel’ stuff you might have seen in historical movies. The historical records tell us that four knights broke into the cathedral at dusk on the evening of a freezing cold December 29. I threw a fictional fifth knight, Sir Benedict Palmer, into the mix. Surrounding Becket on the altar,the first strike from one of the knights took off the top of Becket’s skull, followed by a second even as he remained standing. The third thrust a sword through Becket’s head with such force that the sword shattered on the altar stone and the dead Archbishop’s scattered brains were ground into the floor.

    Writing that action scene was difficult on an emotional level as Becket was a real person and utterly defenceless against such a savage fatal attack. But I think that’s what makes action scenes really fly: if you don’t engage a reader’s emotions, then all the crash-bang-wallop in the world won’t grab them. Even if it does involve a leopard attack. And yes, I really did find one of those in 12th century England. History is the gift that keeps on giving.

    1. I think you’ve nailed it, E, with the comment that the reader’s emotions must be engaged. If we’re invested with a fresh and unique character, we’re all in.

  4. Action scenes can be difficult to write because they are visual and fast-paced. That’s why in movies, an intense action scene often has little or no dialogue – the director is showing what’s happening and that gives a visceral (physical) response to the viewer. In writing, we have to convey that same visceral response by helping the reader create the images in her head. BUT, we can’t use many descriptive paragraphs to do it because too much description slows the pace.

    For me, the best way to write action and keep the pace moving is two-fold: First, set-up. Action without context is confusing and boring. But if you can create the tension and show the possible threat, you’re already putting the reader on notice that something big is going to happen. Do to that, the reader needs to already be invested in one of more of the characters and so grounded in the story that transition from (for example) an investigation scene to high action is organic for both the story and the character. That’s why in movies, for example, an action scene involving characters we care about (i.e. James Bond) have more meaning than action scenes involving characters we don’t know yet.

    Secondly, how we write the scene is important. Action scenes can be done well in two ways: either in omniscent POV (where the reader knows everything like God) or deep third POV. I, personally, think omniscent POV is very hard to do well in a thriller, and often creates a distance between the readers and the characters, but when done right it can be very effective. My personal favorite, and what I use most, is deep third POV. I take one of my main characters (protagonist or antagonist) and write the action scene solely from their point-of-view. What they see, feel, hear, think is what the reader sees, feels, hears, thinks. This gives the reader the immediacy and sense of urgency that provides the visceral reaction they need to make a thriller a thriller.

    Finally, on the technical “how-to” end, I often watch (and re-watch) television action scenes to get my choreography right. ARROW, for example, has some of the best choreography on television today and has helped me picture, then write, action. I will also role play to make sure something will work, such as if my character can realistically grab a gun and not get killed (we use water pistols at home!) or I’ll ask my limber daughter if she can get out of a certain kind of restraint.

    1. Love the water pistol role play, Allison! Great points about ways of getting the “how-to” right. I find visuals enormously helpful, too. I watch so many videos on You Tube of medieval re-enactors using weapons and fortunately for me, many of them post hugely enthusiastic tutorials as well.

      Your POV remarks are also well made. I was reviewing another thriller recently and wondered why the big action scenes, like a fire and a fight in a theatre, just weren’t grabbing me. When I looked at that scene again, the author had done amazing descriptions etc. But the hero had been left for three pages while everything that was happening was being described. The hero came across as an observer only and so that author lost me. Great writing in many ways, but I ended up not really caring.

      1. For you, because of historical issue, it’s probably doubly hard because you don’t have all the tools that modern day thrillers have, but you probably have more fun stuff to work with! Love the idea of YouTube. I watched YouTube videos to figure out how my character can get out of zip-tie restraints 🙂

        1. Definitely a lot of fun! And I once spent an entire day watching videos of people furiously debating whether a spear would be more effective used overhand or underhand. 🙂

    2. Over dinner at LCC, you talked about one of your series characters, Lucy, going from wanting to be an agent, to in the academy, to being an FBI agent. I think the character development contributes to the fresh and unique action. Readers become seriously engaged with the protagonist.

      1. In a series especially it’s important to show the character growth … but have it organic to the continuing story so readers can pick up the series whenever, or if they skip a couple of books, the character growth still feels right. Character makes action — because you have to care about the character.

  5. Action can take many forms. I’m not one to get hung up on categories, I just love a great story. For me, most of them include action scenes.

    If I look at the most successful action scenes I’ve read, odds are they all have interesting physicality. The protagonist is rushing to beat a ticking clock of some kind. Odds are these scenes include sensory details as the protagonist experiences them. The really good scenes also show a series of obstacles that escalate along with the stakes. But the best of those likely also reveal an intellectual process taking place in the protagonist’s head. These scenes also blend the intellectual with the emotional side, not necessarily a big touchy-feely kind of way, but maybe with a sense of loss or redemption, for two contrasting examples. Something like that goes a long way to drawing me in as a reader and evoking my empathy. With that in mind, I made Allen Kinsey, the antagonist in my novel, BEACHHEAD, think and feel things as he manipulated and hurt people. And with Scotland Ross, the protagonist, I particularly tried to inhabit his point of view as he faces the dilemma of going into the belly of Kinsey’s beast to save not only himself, but his sister, too. One way in which I like to do this is by catching him off guard, unprepared, where he must react and improvise. That made it more compelling to write, and hopefully to read.

    And action always works best for me when the stakes are not only high, but deep. I often rely on the antagonist as a source of this depth. For instance, Kinsey is a drug dealing real estate swindler, who wants to be Florida’s next governor. So that paints him as a manipulative and likely delusional criminal. As he acts out, those motivations become understandable, as he’s also the same guy who watches football with his son and ultimately just wants that boy to have every possibility in the world open to him. As paradoxically narcissistic and altruistic as that may be, everything he does is rooted in that, which makes every action scene he’s in more interesting, at least to me, because it’s not just for his own financial or ego-driven gratification, but more because he’s doing what he thinks he has to do to make his son’s life perfect. Bad deeds for a noble, though misguided, cause.

    The trick to keeping action scenes fresh, to my mind, also includes scenarios I haven’t read elsewhere before.

    A chase, for instance, can take place with cars, on foot, skis, horseback, motorcycles, trains, planes, roller skates, whatever. A car chase in an urban and/or suburban area has been written before, and a lot. But, put a snowmobile chase in a darkening forest, and you’ve got something that hasn’t been written about nearly as often. This is at least one step closer to unique and fresh.

    And while empathy never seems stale when I read it, I try to incorporate that same thing in my action scenes, whether characters are kidnapped, tossed out of a helicopter, stranded at sea, forced to overdose, get shot, hide being high on cocaine from their parole officer, or flee to the other side of the state, I always try to catch the protagonist off guard and interject elements that may be considered unusual or at least specific to the characters and their situations/surroundings.

    1. Some sensory detail and rooting the motivation in what is unique about your character’s personality are great ways to keep the action fresh. I also like your thoughts on catching your character off guard.

      1. Absolutely! And I noticed your writing has a noir quality to it, which is something I’m infinitely drawn to. Writing noir characters means never being at a loss of poor decisions to fuel action.

          1. Love it! That would be great. It’s true enough for a bumper sticker, just not catchy enough. But I talked about that way of looking at it a couple weeks ago over at Do Some Damage:

            “To me, Noir fiction is about people faced with situations they know they should get away from, but for some reason they are powerless to resist—they willingly go into the dangerous situation every time. They volunteer for their own doom through choice, coercion, or compulsion, but whichever it is for each particular character, he or she goes headlong into it and I just follow them.”

            I’m also working on a paper on the topic.

  6. Last week we asked participants whether they needed music or silence when writing. We learned a lot about our colleagues’ preferences for ambient noise, but ended with a conclusion that was predictable: each writer chooses what works best for her. This week’s Round Table will also provide insight into how our colleagues write, but without a known answer to the larger question. I have no idea what the discussion will yield, but it promises to be intriguing.

    One thing is certain: the scenes we place in the “action” category are themselves vastly different from one another. If we attempt to define them too narrowly, we exclude types of action that are integral components of a thriller. For example, is static reflection or internal dialogue “action” if it involves planning a bold and dangerous venture? What I’m trying to say is that “action scenes” defy rigid classification. With this in mind, I want to make several posts over the course of the week. Each, I hope, will deal in a “fresh and unique” way with action scenes that are themselves of a fundamentally different type. All examples will come from one of my novels, THE QUIET ASSASSIN (Penguin-DIF; NAL-Signet; Brilliance).

    Tonight I begin with a scene late in the book that must have a successful outcome if the protagonists are going to pull off the plot which has been the focal point of the entire story. We’re back in the days of East Germany and the Wall. The assassination of Generaloberst Heinrich Bülow, head the People’s Police, has been predicted in tens of thousands of leaflets. (Anyone remember Sophie Scholl from the Hitler years?) The venue of the assassination is also predicted: it will happen before several thousand workers and party faithful in the great hall of one of the country’s largest enterprises. If the assassination succeeds, resistance to the police state will become contagious; if it fails, the people will continue to submit. The moment approaches; the nation holds its breath.

    Then something goes wrong. The wily head of the national police discovers at the last moment the ingenious way in which one of his bodyguards plans to kill him. To mock the resistance, the Generaloberst has his would-be assassin stand next to him on the stage.

    The auditorium has been booby-trapped so that the lights in the vast windowless hall go out midway through the Generaloberst’s speech – this much of the plan is still in place. But the Generaloberst is armed; the man meant to kill him is not. How do I pull off the predicted assassination of the police chief in a “fresh and unique fashion” once the hall is plunged into total darkness?

    In scenes such as this, high-intensity scenes on which the outcome of an entire book depends, I use a specific technique. I write myself into a corner from which I see no possible escape. If I, the writer, can’t think of a way to save my characters, it is unlikely that the reader can.

    At this point I stop writing and start fantasizing. Sometimes it takes a day to find a solution; sometimes a week. I may have to stage situations with friends to determine what type of action could pass a “reality check.” In this particular scene, I ended up having to put a bull of a man in a (safe) noose made of an outdoor extension cord. I armed him with a squirt pistol and half blinded both of us with bright lights. Then we hurried into a dark room. Could I strangle him without getting shot? How would I do it? What moves were most likely to succeed?

    A week after I stopped writing, I had a solution. But that solution depended on my own initial cluelessness. By contriving nothing in advance, I ended up with the type of unpredictable action I had hoped for.

    1. I don’t plot either! 🙂 I love when I write my characters into a seemingly impossible situation. I just revised a story where I didn’t know how my protagonist was going to find a missing woman. They’d solved the crime, found everyone involved, but the bad guys had hidden this woman because she was the one who brought law enforcement down on them and they wanted to kill her. I re-read the first 400 pages of a 450 page book and found one clue buried that led my good guys to her location. Not knowing what they would find — and the race to save her before she died — provided the tension and suspense even though there was no “high action” in the scene.

  7. I have personally been involved in numerous critical incidents in my career over the years. The situations are rapidly evolving which result in sensory overload. The influx of raw information swamps the individual and, without training or experience, can result in panic and vapor lock. Think “deer in the headlights”. When I write these scenes, I frequently write from one of my past experiences which were burned into my skull with extreme detail.

    Writing an action scene is literally writing organized chaos. It is a balancing act. While it is fun to blow stuff up, ratcheting up the speed of the event and letting slip the dogs of war isn’t enough. Yes it is important to show the reader the action of the event, but it is critical to give the reader a glimpse into how the characters feel while the world is burning to the ground around them. The goal is to allow the reader to feel the fear, pressure, intensity, and anger frequently flooding these situations. This will give your scenes more depth and gravity. It will also make the scenes multifaceted and much more realistic.

    When writing one of the scenes, don’t break up the flow of the action itself with dialogue. Even in a police pursuit of a car, when the car crashes into a pole, the officer isn’t speaking while the car is in the act of crashing. Dialogue will kill your scene and pull the reader right out of the action.

    At the apex of your action, it is okay to slow things down. I personally love “slow-mo”. It somehow brings the reader more intimately into the action. The “slow motion” one experiences when in a critical incident is very real. There is no better way to put it. Your brain starts processing the flood of information at an insane rate and it actually feels like time crawls to a stop. This is an easy way to get more mileage out of your action and give your reader more detail.

    Unless your work involves the supernatural, do your research and make sure your action is consistent with the laws of the natural world. Keeping things consistent with the sciences like physics, chemistry, and physiology will also add to the depth and realism of your action.

  8. I think Thomas raises an interesting point — that action scenes defy rigid classification. An action scene need not be a car chase or a gun battle, but must be a scene in which potential death is likely. Or certainly the threat of death for a protagonist with whom the reader has very much identified. And the ticking clock is always a factor. The scene(s) should coalesce organically from the plot or situation. It must be set up properly and cannot come out of nowhere.

    It’s really fun to bring a reader to the point where he or she expects a resolution to the dilemma but then turn the screw once more and up the stakes. For example, in one of my books, a young girl has been abducted and held captive. The people searching for her finally locate where she has been held, only to find she has managed to escape, has been drugged and is lying somewhere in a field directly in the path of a corn thresher. The longer a writer can drag that sort of tension out, delaying resolution, the stronger the scene.

    And just as important, I think, is to give the reader a break, a breather. There can be any number of nail-biting scenes in a book, but a reader needs a chance to sink back into the story and relax a bit before the next threat arises. Giving readers relief from that sort of intense action or threat does a lot to enhance the next twist that leads to an edge of the seat moment.

  9. Action scenes are some of my favorite to write both because they can be some of the most exciting points in the story and also because they reveal a lot about the characters involved.

    As far as structure goes I like to keep the visualization of what the scene would look like looping in my mind as I write. To me the more cinematic the action is the better it’s going to be absorbed by the reader. I also like to keep sentences short and choppy in these scenes as it adds more of a punch and visceral feeling when the pace is kept up.

    Action can reveal anything you want about your characters. Does the antagonist have a soft side for the person they’re fighting? A line he or she isn’t willing to cross when inflicting violence? Does the main character have a weakness that limits their abilities? Maybe they find themselves reveling in their own brutality and have to deal with this fact in the aftermath. If your characters are put in harm’s way it will reveal a lot about them and not only their fighting prowess.

  10. Action scenes have to carry a lot of freight in a thriller. They have to advance the plot — in my thrillers much of the story is driven by action. They have to reveal character — nothing reveals character like placing your protagonist (or villain) in an extreme situation. And they have to be interesting — thriller readers have read (and seen) so many action sequences that it helps if you can bring something fresh to the table.

    Because I write cyber thrillers featuring a former Department of Justice cybercrimes prosecutor, I try to dream up action sequences that illuminate that world. My most recent book “Surveillance” features an action scene that involves “swatting,” the hacker prank of calling down a SWAT team on an unsuspecting person by filing a false report of a hostage situation or bomb threat.

    When I was writing “Intrusion,” I read a small newspaper item about an enormous riot inside one of the stadium-sized factories in Shenzhen, China where many of our smartphones are manufactured. The riot was suppressed by thousands of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army. I tried to imagine what such a gigantic melee might look like — and then I wrote an action scene set in the middle of it. In “The Adversary,” I set a chase scene at DefCon, the real conference where white-hat and black-hat hackers gather to share information.

    When writing action sequences, it can be hard not be fall back on mimicking scenes that we’ve all seen and read in the past. I try to keep my action sequences interesting by (1) drawing inspiration from unique, real-life settings and (2) trying to make each character’s reaction to the action true to their personality and skill set. Maybe it’s because I tend to write stories about lawyers, hackers and other non-action-hero types, but I love writing a fight scene in which neither of the combatants knows how to fight.

      1. Lisa — I’m definitely fascinated by those characters who have all of the martial arts and weapons skills, but I tend to write books about fairly ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. I think the way that a “civilian” approaches a life and death encounter can be really revealing of their character and resourcefulness.

  11. I love a good action scene. In addition to thrillers, I also write stories that are clearly pulpy in nature. Those stories are usually action-packed and filled with foot chases, hand-to-hand combat, gun fights, car chases, sword fights, and explosions. Those are all tropes of that type of story. The trick is learning how to write them in a way that is not the same way over and over again.

    As with everything else, it all starts with character. Not every character will handle the same situation in the same way. If you were to put, for example, Captain America, MacGyver, and Magnum p.i. in the same basic situation, each of them would have a way out of it unique to their character. That basic thought process applies to all action scenes. How would my character(s) handle things is how I approach it.

    I also try not to be repetitive in how I describe things. It is easy to find descriptors that you like and keep repeating them, but you don’t want to do that too often or else your reader will feel they have read this part before. One descriptor I find myself using the most often is in hand-to-hand combat when one character tackles the other to the ground as they brawl, I will write “and they hit the ground in a tangle of arms and legs” or something to that effect. The “tangle of arms and legs” part I catch myself using a lot so I have now become aware of it and change it from time to time.

    I also like my action scenes to move fast so I write those scenes using smaller sentences, eschewing from lengthy paragraphs in favor of short descriptors to rival the shorter lines of dialogue. This makes it move faster for the reader because he or she is moving through that passage faster than the one before and/or after the action, where I slow the pace back down and allow the reader, and the characters, to catch their breath.


      1. I do that too, E.M. I think it makes for a faster reading experience and gets the reader moving faster to as the action increases.

  12. I’ve just read over everyone’s posts here again, and they’re all so informative and fascinating. One thing I think we all agree upon is the need to limit if not eliminate spoken dialogue, although I agree that the internal monologue can be used effectively to amp up tension.
    And several people have touched upon the visual aspects of writing action scenes. Allison used the phrase “visual and fast-paced,” Joe called it “cinematic,” and that’s true. We’re working with words trying to create moving pictures, without the benefit of the musical cues we might hear during a film or TV episode. As writers, we don’t have the option of pulling that from our bag of tricks.
    You know, the moment the hero/protagonist takes an action, opens a door, does anything, blissfully unaware that danger lurks around the next corner, yet as viewers WE know because the music has changed and tells us something really bad is coming in the next second or two. We only have words to create that same feeling.
    Using a shocker or cliffhanger at the end of a chapter, the kind of thing you hope will make the reader gasp and keep turning pages, is perhaps a writer’s “musical cue” that will accomplish the same thing and lead into a strong action scene.
    An unremarkable passage and then, “That’s when I heard the explosion.” What? Explosion? What’s just happened? What’s gonna happen?

    1. That’s very true about the music/soundtrack build up, Connie. It is tricky with dialogue, though, isn’t it? Because while people may not speak coherently during an action scene, they may well vocalise. A lot. If you have someone yelling “Aaaaarghhhh!” in a movie as they charge an enemy, that may well work. But on the written page, it takes it straight into farce!

  13. This is all good stuff on action scenes. To drill down on fresh and unique, it’s worth considering what’s fresh and unique about the character, motivation, setting, etc. If acar chase or physical confrontation could be swapped for one in another novel, then we’ve missed the mark on fresh and unique. Bad guy with a gun coming after an unarmed woman… suppose she’s physically very fit. Maybe she’s…a roofer. Then if she’s decisive in the fight she might beat him.

    1. Totally agree. The character is everything. The more specifically the character is portrayed (presuming the character is fresh and unique) the more fresh and unique his or her action will be.

  14. I certainly agree with Connie that the posts have all been informative and fascinating. Perhaps we should thank Mr. Bográn for providing a topic that elicits so many insights into the methods we writers use to create our action scenes.

    As I pointed out in an earlier post, and as a couple of you have said as well, it’s not easy to define just what “action” is. More productive, it seems to me, is to describe just how we go about creating scenes that are fresh and original. As thriller writers, we’re not going to come up short on action.

    My first technique, described yesterday, is to lead my character or characters into a situation I don’t think they can escape. With nothing contrived in advance, the ultimate solution I stumble onto is more likely than not to be fresh and unique.

    Another technique, which I used extensively in THE QUIET ASSASSIN and Dustin seems to like, is to mine your personal experience for something packed with an emotion you need for a scene in your book. I had plenty of these in East Germany before I ever considered writing a novel. One such emotion was fear.

    When I first moved to Berlin, it was still a divided city. Americans could cross into the East; Germans could not. Since the Wall cut through many families and friendships, it was not surprising that I would be asked to cross over and deliver harmless personal greetings. My problems didn’t start until I became romantically involved with one of the girls on my “must-see” list.

    Even Americans had to be out of the Soviet Zone by midnight; not making the deadline had consequences worse than those suffered by Cinderella. Bottom line, as my relationship became more serious, I found myself having to make more and more border crossings.

    Each time you crossed, you had to exchange five substantial West German marks for five feather-light East German marks. On random days you also had to give an accounting to the Pfennig of what you had done with your money, both Eastern and Western, while in the Zone.

    There were shops around the main square of East Berlin (The Alex) set up by the state as a means of attracting Western money. Only Western goods were sold in these “Intershops,” and they could only be purchased with Western currency. The exchange of West German marks for East Marks you were obliged to make at the border was based on the “official” exchange rate of 1:1; the real or black market exchange rate was around 14:1. This made illegal transfers hugely lucrative, and the Intershops provided the means for carrying them out. You would meet a smuggler somewhere near an Intershop, hope he wasn’t Stasi (Secret Police), and take his order for shirts, Cognac, jewelry, whatever. After using your Western money to buy what the smuggler wanted, you would sell it to him at the unofficial exchange rate. Talk about a way to get rich fast . . . if you only spent your money in the East and kept a strict accounting of every transaction you made. I became stupidly rich one day, bought everyone I knew – and many I didn’t – the most lavish gifts and fanciest meals to be had in the DDR.

    And then it happened. As I prepared to cross into the West that evening, I was subjected to a random accounting. You can imagine the rest. All the stuff you see in movies from the era: interrogation under blinding lights, physical abuse I won’t describe, the very real prospect that I might lose not only my girlfriend but my freedom. Those were the most intense and terrifying hours of my life. I had to make sense of figures that didn’t add up, lie in a foreign language while I was shaking like a leaf, keep my story straight as interrogators changed from low-level guards to Stasi officers thinking they might have cracked an important case.

    THE QUIET ASSASSIN has a lot of border-crossing scenes. I planned nothing, paid attention to nothing in terms of sentence length, character development and the like, when I wrote them. I didn’t have to. The scenes wrote themselves as the terror of that horrible evening spilled out onto the keyboard.

    1. How fascinating, Thomas! And how horrifying. I’m certainly glad you’re here to talk about it. Your experiences have definitely given you a wealth of knowledge to draw upon! The Cold War years in that part of the world were such a dark and terrifying time.

  15. This panel has been very insightful and enjoyable to read. One aspect I want to add is the ‘less is more’ method, which I learned a long time ago.
    In a former life I was a tae kwon-do instructor, and it was suggested that I should be able to use my knowledge in fight scenes, to add authenticity.
    The idea seemed logical, but as I’d already discovered as a reader, fight scenes can be boring to read if they go on too long. A bit like the punch-fests you see on film, where nobody gets knocked down for long and there’s no lasting damage (and in the worst cases, no mussed hair!). OK, it’s asking us to suspend disbelief, which we all do as writers. However, the reality is, punches can be deadly, real (street) fights rarely last longer than a couple of minutes and the combatants use few if any of the proper martial arts techniques before tripping over their feet while trying to perform an elaborate round-house kick – usually while off their heads on drink.
    I decided to keep such scenes short, sharp and effective, which is both realistic and yet goes some way to showing the main character’s skill while not making him/her (I’m an equal-opportunity butt kicker) out to be totally invincible. (Remember the scene in ‘Indian Jones’ where he shoots the man with the scimitar? That, to my mind, was far more likely under the circumstances while – OK, I admit – being funny and a release in the tension).

  16. As we wind down this week’s Round Table (which has been packed with intelligent and useful material) I want to make one final post illustrating how your own emotions from a previous experience can be used to provide the foundation for a fresh action post. On Monday, I wrote about fear. Today, still drawing from THE QUIET ASSASSIN, I want to discuss revenge. The typical “revenge” scene involves the protagonist and ends with a successful resolution. But many real acts of revenge, though boldly executed, are free of any objective assessment of risk. They end poorly rather than heroically. If you go back and look at your work, I think you’ll find many more such scenes than you realized you had written, perhaps because we unconsciously try to forget failure.

    In East Berlin when the Wall still divided the city, I became romantically involved with a girl who lived in the Soviet Zone (as I’ve described in an earlier post). We’ll call the girl Käte, as I did in the novel. Käte worked for the state travel agency and contrived to get me a visa to visit Dresden and, while there, to meet her best friend, Astrid. There was a lot to communicate that couldn’t be safely communicated by mail.

    When the train pulled into the station, still darkened by the scars of war, I was met on the platform by two Stasi officials in plain clothes. “Come with us, Herr Kirkwood. We ‘ll drive you to your hotel.” I thanked them for the offer (which wasn’t an offer) and told them I could find my own hotel. That didn’t go over well, so I got an uncomfortable physical escort to the waiting car. They took me the city’s only “Interhotel,” a place for Westerners which accepted only Western currency. The hotel was the police state’s idea of what constituted luxury beyond the Wall . . . in other words, it was tasteless. The prices, however, would have gotten you a suite at the Four Seasons. I was to stay 10 days in Dresden, then leave East Germany on a specific train, no choice.

    Having been mildly roughed up and pitched into a place whose prices would bankrupt me, I began immediately to plan . . . something. The first couple of mornings I left on the streetcar to meet Astrid at the university. Since it had been arranged that I would eat supper with her family every evening I was there, I took my travel bag with me. Then, suddenly, I saw what seemed an opening. If I left each morning with my luggage and came home each night around eleven, I could take my bag and leave the hotel on day nine (as always) but go to the train station instead of the university. The bill, truly exorbitant, was to be paid in full on the morning of day 10 . . . but I would be in West Germany on day nine before anyone noticed my absence.

    As the train began to roll, I felt incredible elation: I had bested the bastards. Bottle that emotion, the euphoria that accompanies the belief you have pulled off something incredible. Then the train stopped in an old industrial town where it wasn’t supposed to stop. Outside on the platform were dozens of police, some with dogs on leashes. A few of these guys climbed down to track level and began searching for something underneath the train. The others boarded, some still with dogs, and started down the aisle, examining each passenger and their papers for what seemed an extraordinarily long time.

    I knew it. I felt it. They had found me out. I was going to end up in a dungeon; my friends were going to lose jobs and coveted spots in the university. I had the experience of faking tranquility by now from a hundred or more border crossings in Berlin . . . but this was different. I couldn’t conceal my fear.

    When the police finally got to my compartment, they glanced at my passport and ticket, made a few derogatory remarks about the West and laughed! I had gotten lucky and knew it, so I went straight back to East Berlin (crossing from the West) and told Käte what I had done. I paid a huge amount of money after making up a somewhat credible excuse, Käte’s boss called the hotel in Dresden to report “the mistake,” and all was well. Yet the emotions lived on – the excitement of plotting against a dangerous enemy, the joy of pulling off the impossible . . . and then the realization of having played not with fire but with my own freedom and “the lives of others” (excellent film, by the way). I can’t tell you what a treasure chest of emotions this ordeal gifted me; what I can tell you is that those emotions served me well in creating action scenes – scenes I don’t think I could have created without them. Bottom line: you can’t go around putting yourself in danger to gather material writing but if you’ve already been there, build you action scenes on a foundation of real feeling rather than contriving them in a silent or music-filled room!

  17. Whew! What an amazing story, Thomas — except, it’s not just a story. Your straight ahead account gave me chills. I can’t even imagine the oppression of such a system and wonder how your old friends fared once the wall was down.
    But your experiences bring up an important factor. There are so many thrillers with unique and clever action scenes, but the heart-pounding effect happens when a reader can really connect emotionally with a protagonist.
    There’s a big difference between a character who you know in your heart will always come out on top — a la James Bond (not that James doesn’t face some tough challenges, but we know he will never ultimately fail), and an everyman type of character who will more than likely fail at the task. It’s that added dimension of real uncertainty that grabs a reader by the throat.

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