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Action Scene Breakdown – Building up your reader’s adrenaline really quickly

Today we’re going to go over how to open up an absolutely kick ass action sequence by looking at a paragraph of Sara_holmes’ fanfiction I’ll Keep You Safe Here With Me.

Opening a new scene – whether at the beginning of a fanfiction or halfway through a 300,000 word epic series – straight into an action scene is a tough challenge.

You have to build up your reader’s adrenaline really quickly, immerse your reader in the emotion (aka tone) of the moment, and help them relate to your character’s experience.

And the toughest part?

You’ve only got a few opening sentences to do it in if you want your action scene to start with a bang.

There are a few writing techniques you can use to avoid that affect and make sure you have a whopping good start to your high-octane moment.

Let’s add in another challenge, just for fun:

This is the first paragraph of Sara_holmes’ fanfiction. We don’t know whose head we’re in or what’s going on – but as you’ll see, she uses that disorientation to her advantage.

Let’s dive in:

“The lights are blinding. He can barely see a thing through the glare that has lit them up, open and exposed. The white circle pins them in place, the thudding of the helicopter above their heads reverberating through his chest. People are bellowing at them, telling him to get down, to lower his weapon. Sirens are wailing. The rain continues to fall, a mist visible in the bright lights that are pointing mercilessly at them.”

Let’s start by looking at the adjectives used in this paragraph to build an action scene.

Adjective choice can establish a tone, build a reader’s impression of a situation, or reveal a character’s mindset. Sara_holmes deftly wields her adjectives here to do all three of those things: establish drama, build an impression of overwhelm, and reveal her characters’ desperation.

Let’s list these adjectives:

Open. Exposed. Bright. Mercilessly.

You almost don’t need any verbs in this paragraph, the adjectives will get you there. Especially the adjective exposed. That’s the primary emotion and experience here, and it’s given to you right away – and at the end of the sentence, where it hits with the strongest impact. Exposed and open wouldn’t have the same powerful landing.

“The lights are blinding. He can barely see a thing through the glare that has lit them up, open and exposed. The white circle pins them in place, the thudding of the helicopter above their heads reverberating through his chest. People are bellowing at them, telling him to get down, to lower his weapon. Sirens are wailing. The rain continues to fall, a mist visible in the bright lights that are pointing mercilessly at them.”

Now look at the verb choice. There’s a bunch here that are giving us the character’s experience of this paragraph.

Blinding. Pins. Reverberating. Bellowing. Wailing.

Those are all powerful verbs, they’re almost all on the extreme end of their meaning. Not bright – blinding. Not spotted by the white light, pinned. Not shouting, bellowing. As loud as you can get.

That adds to the drama of this moment.

Now check out the verb tense going on here: People are bellowing – not “people bellow”. Sirens are wailing, not siren’s wail.

Why?

Well, let’s look at this paragraph in the present simple.

“People bellow at them, tell him to get down, to lower his weapon. Sirens wail. The rain continues to fall, a mist visible in the bright lights that point mercilessly at them.”

These things appear to happen one at a time. We can digest one at a time and they don’t stack the same way because we’re not told they’re all happening continuously and simultaneously.

This paragraph manages to build an impression of an overwhelming situation by keeping its verbs in the present continuous. One thing is happening, at the same time as another, and another, and another, and they feel constant, like there’s no way to make them stop.

That’s something present continuous can do for you too.

There’s two more really interesting thing about this opening scene:

The first looks at this line:

“People are bellowing at them, telling him to get down, to lower his weapon.”

Now this line tell us a couple of things. He’s armed and he’s doomed.

But how do we know he’s absolutely outnumbered?

In this case, Sara_holmes had a distinct challenge – her main character is Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, aka the man who never misses. If you’re not familiar with the Avengers, just keep in mind that the protagonist here is a super hero.

It’s tough to make a scene where he’ll definitely lose. And harder to design one where we don’t even doubt his desperation, so the narration doesn’t have to get bogged down trying to prove it to us by listing massive numbers of advantages to the opponent.

Here’s what she does:

We’re not given the number of people aiming at him.

This is a common trick – if you want to tell your reader that your protagonist can’t win in a fight despite her guile or military training or super-powers, try this technique – never fully establish the strength of the opponent. What would happen if this were “fourteen” people.

Let’s look at it:

“Fourteen people are bellowing at them, telling him to get down, to lower his weapon.”

Part of your brain expects him to blow them all away, huh? Like we’re about to be in a fight scene that counts them down.

And that interrupts the feeling of total overwhelm that Sara_Holmes is trying to build here. So keep that in mind as a trick if you’re ever dealing with the uber-powerful. It remains true with even the moderately competent. With helpless characters, you can just be trapped against one dude with a gun and that can be quite overwhelming enough. But once you start dealing with people who could conceivably take on fourteen armed people, you’re better off leaving it up to our imaginations.

Now we promised you a second interesting thing – and it’s our favorite so we left it til last.

Here it is:

This is a paragraph designed to be dramatic. It’s not trying to be subtle, and yet there’s very little classical exposition here.

We’re not told that there is a helicopter light pinning them down while soldiers shout at them. We’re not told about the helicopter at all, except in how its thudding reverberates through his chest – it’s up to us to imagine how close it must be.

So we get a barrage of extreme sensory experiences and just enough information to build a picture of what’s going on and the impression she’s trying to build: how overwhelming this moment is.

That lack of information forces your reader to stop and imagine, which means they get to experience this moment for themselves.

That’s beautifully done action narration.

Here’s how to make it work for you:

  • * Pick dramatic adjectives that fit the tone you’re looking for
  • * Pick strong verbs that indicate force, speed, and intensity.
  • * Use a continuous verb tense if you want to build a simultaneous “stack” of actions or feelings – to build an impression of brain overload and overwhelm for example.
  • * Give a few brush strokes of what’s happening, based in a character’s experience of it rather than the full truth of what’s going on, to force the reader to imagine the scene and experience it for themselves
  • * Don’t name the number of opponents if you don’t want to give your superhero the chance to succeed.

Happy Writing!

Gwen

P.S – Have you seen any amazing fanfiction action scenes that use these techniques as well? Let us know! We’re trying to make a database of different writing techniques and examples, to help new writers develop new skills!

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Chief Editor: Gwendolynn Thomas is a professionally published author who got her start in Harry Potter, Sherlock, and Marvel fanfiction and could never stop coming back.Marketing Direction: Ronnie Deaver is an experience marketing professional with a love of fanfiction, community, and startups.

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