We've all been there. You sit down and write a pivotal scene for your book, only to go back to read it and find....blathering characters. Flat scenes. Descriptions that are like a shopping list. Sex scenes that read like an IKEA instruction manual.
The good news is that this is a fixable problem!
See, the thing a lot of authors forget when they write their first draft is that action scenes require ACTION. Not only that, but even scenes we don't necessarily consider "fight scenes" need action as well. Otherwise, things fall flat.
Your book isn't a manual. You're not telling how something is done, you're supposed to be entertaining people.
"Martha licked the spoon. Then she gave it to Dave. Dave looked at her and put it in the dishwasher."
I've read lab reports that were more interesting. Action is more than just describing movement. You have to make the reader experience the action, the story, through your characters' experiences. In this way, even the most mundane situation can sweep your readers away. Take the previous "loading the dishwasher" scenario.
"Martha ran her tongue down the length of the spoon, scooping every last bit of the decadent cake batter onto her tongue. When she handed it back to Dave, she delighted in the way he eyed her. She knew he hungered for more than cake. When he bent over and dropped the spoon into the dishwasher, she admired his fine, tight derriere. If only he could do the dishes every night."
Depending on what this scene is supposed to accomplish, this might be over the top, or it could go even further. But which would you rather read, if you picked up a book to escape for an evening?
When you write a scene, convey as much as you can through action. Focus on action in details to make things come alive, no matter what kind of scene you are writing. Think about how action can help you show your setting or your characters better. Instead of "the food was hot," try, "Tendrils of steam rose into the air..." This is also part of the adage, "show don't tell." Showing very often--if not always--requires some sort of action.
Great action is not just about using verbs (action words) in your scenes. It's about using the RIGHT verbs. SMASH instead of hit. CARESS instead of touch. SCREAMED instead of spoke, COLLAPSED instead of fell down. THRUST instead of...well, you get the idea. Make your verbs do the heavy lifting. Save yourself some adverbs and adjectives by using powerful verbs. This will tighten your manuscript because you can say more with fewer words. And it will make your story more visual, so your readers can escape into it more easily.
Another way to get action across to readers is to consider the pacing of your sentences. Short punchy sentences convey a different feeling than long flowery prose. Mixing sentences up in a certain way can make a scene either heart-pounding or emotionally moving. Short sentences move quickly, and give the reader an adrenaline rush. Longer sentence move more slowly, and force the reader to pay closer attention to details. Combining different types of sentences accomplish different effects. Play around and see for yourself.
An important thing to remember about action is that it often engages all five senses. So often, beginning writers focus on the sense of sight. But showing the reader sound and scent can put them more fully into the scene and hook them. Medieval battles, for example, are noisy, chaotic. They SMELL. There is so much going on that soldiers become overwhelmed. Metal clanging on metal. The sounds of swords hitting flesh. Moaning and screaming. Horses shrieking. The smell of blood and human and horse waste fills the air. All of these details can be conveyed not just with description, but with strong verbs to convey action. Sounds cut. Smells permeate. Tastes nauseate or comfort. And remember--every one of your characters will react to these things differently, and that is a way you can show character through action.
Action can convey character in many ways. Think of how your character moves in relation to others. Does he limp? Swagger? Stumble? Skip? Any of these can convey a lot about your character. Does he have a tic? How does he perceive the actions of other characters? All of these things can strengthen the point of view of your character, and keep the people in your story unique.
How does action convey the setting of your story? Think about how you would move in a crowded room versus in a wide open gymnasium. In a bar fight, there is a lot of stuff to consider. The characters can't just do whatever they want. There are parameters. Furniture, other people, glass. When a person has to duck to enter a room, that tells us something about the doorway, and saves us from spending words describing it in a boring way. If your character slips on the floor, if they crash into tables no matter how careful they are, it shows the events in the story, versus the author just telling the reader things.
A word of warning, however: Like with anything, you can overdo action. Too much can numb your reader and lose effect. No one wants that. What's the best way to learn how to use action effectively? Read! A lot of writers will say that you can't be a writer unless you are first a reader, and it is true. By reading your favorite books, you can see why they are your favorite. Dissect an action scene you thought was really awesome, and discover what tools the author used to accomplish this.
So what are some of your favorite action scenes in fiction? What authors do you think do a really good job? Comment below!
Melanie R. Meadors is an author of fantasy where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She has edited two upcoming genre anthologies, MECH: Age of Steel and HATH NO FURY, and is the science and pop culture blogger at The Once and Future Podcast. You can find her at her website, melaniermeadors.com, on Facebook, and Twitter, @melaniermeadors.