Great action scenes can add a lot to your story, but they can sink it fast if you don’t exactly know what you’re doing. I’ve learned that it takes a slightly different writing style to create an effective action scene, and there are some important things to keep in mind while you’re doing it.
Remember that your scene should be a little like a roller coaster ride. It starts out slowly, then builds and builds until the pace becomes breathless and rapid and then slows back down again. There should always be some urgency for the hero: a bomb is about to go off, or the girl is about to be killed , or a child is drowning. This sense of urgency is what compels the scene and gives it momentum.
As you begin to write the scene, plan carefully—remember there should be an action and then a reaction. “He slapped her so hard she staggered back into the door.” Each action/reaction should have its own paragraph, if possible, unless the sentences are way too short. It’s up to you, the writer, to monitor sentence length. At least some of your sentences should be short, because they make the scene flow faster. Remember, reading flow can also become bogged down, though, if there are too many sentences of the same length one after the other: “He punched. She kicked. He fell.” Not a good flow.
This is also not the time to break away and describe a character. “He slapped her so hard she staggered back into the door. He was a large, florid man with a big bushy mustache, and he towered over her.” Obviously this last sentence doesn’t belong in this paragraph. It breaks the rapid pace and distracts the reader. Describe your character somewhere else.
Ernest Hemingway was a master of the short, high impact sentence, and he used this technique to keep a breathless pace. Long, highly descriptive sentences slow the pace. Another action technique to create a breathless pace is something called polysyndeton. This stylistic technique is used to achieve a variety of effects: it can increase the rhythm of prose, speed its pace, or create strong emotion. It should be used very sparingly, but can be really effective for creating a breathless pace. “I said, 'Who killed him?' and he said 'I don't know who killed him, but he's dead all right,' and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights or windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown down.” Hemingway, After the Storm.
Remember to keep it credible. Don’t have your hero jump off a cliff and manage to land safely because he happened to grab a bunch of balloons that were coincidentally floating by. Really? And don’t make it so fast paced that the reader can’t keep up with it. Once you’ve lost her, you may never get her back.
Action scenes can be a lot of fun and they definitely add a lot to your story. Just remember to plan carefully, keep it simple, plot an action, then a reaction, and use a couple of simple techniques to keep it fast paced. Have fun, and your reader will too!