From swashbuckling sword-and-sorcery to motorcycle chases through cyberpunk neon streets, well-written action scenes are an integral part of many sci-fi and fantasy stories. Good combat sequences and action scenes happen fluidly and are part of the story’s flow. Satisfying action scenes are simple to read but not so easy to write. In this series, I’m investigating what goes into a successful action sequence.
Techniques from Screenwriting
In an earlier blog, I discussed how it can be difficult for writers to orient the reader in action scenes. We see it all clearly playing out in our heads, but it can end up muddled for readers. Often, characters move through too many places, or their appearance in a new site isn’t explained. Writers can use some tricks from screenwriting to help navigate their readers through swift scenes.
Whenever a screenwriter describes a new scene, she uses descriptive action to establish the location. This one to four-sentence description gives the director and cast a quick overview of the physical area the characters are about to interact in.
Read this location description from the screenplay Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:
“It’s gray. The platform is packed with business commuters: suits, overcoats. There is such a lack of color it almost seems as if it’s a black and white shot, except one commuter holds a bright red heart-shaped box of candy under his arm. The platform across the tracks is empty. As an almost empty train pulls up to that platform, one of the suited men breaks out of the crowd, lurches up the stairs two at a time, hurries across the overpass and down the stairs to the other side, just at the empty train stops. The doors open, and the man gets on that train. As the empty train pulls from the station, the man watches the crowd of commuters through the train’s dirty window.”
Now, the main character just goes on with his life after this scene. There’s no action. But, if there was, say, a brawl on the platform that stumbled into the train as it arrived, an author could describe the action blow by blow while keeping the reader oriented.
For action-heavy scenes, screenwriters often use a technique called storyboarding. A storyboard is a collection of rough sketches of the character’s actions and movements arranged chronologically.
Each drawing might have the characters involved and arrows showing how the characters move in that scene. You can place sketches in a series of squares, like a comic book or 3x5 notecards.
I’m not great at drawing, so I usually just make stick figures when I use this technique. You can even just write a sentence or two of the action in the square or on the card, but physically seeing the action, even if it’s just stick figures, helps create realistic action.
Setting physical rules and boundaries and sticking to them is vital for orienting action, whether magical, martial, or in between.
Other Blogs in this Series