Better Ways to Describe Action in Writing

Active Verbs Are Your Best Friend

Action scenes are not just for espionage or fantasy novels. Almost every story will have some sequences in which the characters are doing things. How do you get the action right? What makes the action seem believable, interesting, and, in the case of fast action, gets the blood pumping? These tips can help you portray the action scenes effectively and with style.

Perform the Action

firefighter saving boy in burning building
Colin Anderson Productions Pty Ltd / Getty Images

If possible, before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, get up and act out the scenes. Sometimes your memory can be deceiving. If you are not exactly nailing the sequence right, it could be that you are not describing what a human body actually does in a given situation.

For example, if you are describing someone climbing a ladder, then find a ladder. What do you do first? Foot first or hand? If it is a fight scene, throw a few punches and try out a few kicks.

For even greater depth, observe or take a martial arts class. How do people tend to fall—on their sides or on their hands? What sorts of exclamations do they make? Do they wipe sweat away, or do they ignore it? How does a body respond when a hand or foot makes contact?

Pick Up the Pace

In writing action scenes, the pace must speed up, to match that of the scene. In order to do this, keep descriptions of anything besides the action to a minimum. For instance, this is not the place for long descriptions of a setting or a character. Some writers use shorter, choppier sentences, or even incomplete sentences. And describe more than just what your protagonist sees. 

Keep Dialogue Short

As with all of your fiction, including dialogue is helpful for breaking up action scenes. However, when adrenaline is flowing, people do not engage in lengthy discussions. To be realistic, keep dialogue short and snappy when writing action scenes. 

Make Full Use of Verbs

In your first draft, do not worry about verbs. Make sure to accurately get the action down. Then, in your revision, drag out the thesaurus. This is action, after all, the verbs are the most important words. They give your scene momentum.

Take, for instance, this line from Tana French's novel 'In the Woods': "Footsteps thumped behind me and Sweeney streaked past, running like a rugby player and already pulling out his handcuffs. He grabbed Rosalind by the shoulder, spun her around and slammed her against the wall."

The words, "thumped," "streaked," "spun," and "slammed," are specific actions and they are active verbs, full of energy and focus. Scenes like this are not the norm in life, so the verbs will not be everyday words, nor should they call attention to themselves.

Learn from Other Writers

As with all aspects of writing, you can learn a lot by studying the work of writers you admire. How do your favorite authors play out an action scene? Look at their verbs and their descriptions. What gives these scenes a feeling of momentum? Look at the kinds of sentences they use in the faster scenes. Do they use more modifiers or fewer?

Note what phrases they use in describing certain kinds of action. Do not plagiarize, but use your favorite authors as inspiration as you write or revise your action sequences.