Last summer, a police car speeding along the A road outside our house clipped the kerb, careered into a spin, took out the side of a bus stop, and was stopped, after twenty metres, by the steel railings of a pedestrian crossing. Astonishingly, no-one was seriously hurt. I can still remember the sound it made as it braked, or tried to brake: a long, ear-filling, groaning roar like a jet engine in reverse, the kind of noise you imagine a meteor making as it Dopplers through the atmosphere, seconds before hitting Earth. The final, crunching umph of impact, and the second that followed after; the tiny shock-rift between experience and the arrival of horrified comprehension.
That combination of detail and detachment, the elongation of time, the late arrival of feeling, is typical of almost all moments that shock us into full alertness. It could be as minor as a bird bursting out of a bush as you walk past, or as major as a physical fight. It doesn’t just happen with bodily shock, but emotional too: who hasn’t been left, after a life-changing conversation, with a strangely precise memory of the way the light caught the other person’s hair, or the song that the radio was playing?
It’s this personal immediacy, rather the bells and whistles of your set-up, which will engage your readers when you write action. Epic description has its place, but a blow-by-blow explosion or car chase or battle scene won’t impress by and of itself, unlike on a cinema screen. The most engaging action writing is rooted in the character’s experience, in their thoughts, emotions, sensations and reactions, in that odd combination of detail, slow motion and detachment.
Let’s take a look at some examples. Here’s Neil Gaiman, in Anansi Boys.
Rosie wanted to call for help, but instead found she was screaming, loudly and insistently. Rosie, when confronted with an unexpected spider in the bathtub, was capable of screaming like a B-movie actress on her first encounter with a man in a rubber suit. Now she was in a dark house containing a shadowy tiger and a potential serial killer, and one, perhaps both, of these entities, had just attacked her mother. Her head thought of a couple of courses of action (the gun: the gun was down in the cellar. She ought to go down and get the gun. Or the door – she could try and get past her mother and the shadow and unlock the front door) but her lungs and mouth would only scream.
Or here’s China Mieville in The City and The City:
From his pocket he took his own small pistol and raised it and pointed it at me. I said, ‘Oh,’ or something as I stumbled back. I heard a shot but it did not sound as I expected. Not explosive; it was a hard-breathed gust of wind, a rush. I remember thinking that and being surprised that I would notice such a thing as I died.
And lastly, here’s the largely-forgotten but excellent Golden Age crime writer Ngaio Marsh, whose Detective-Inspector Alleyn has just been hit by a vase thrown at him in the dark:
A totally unexpected blow can bring about a momentary dislocation of time. Alleyn for a split second, was a boy of sixteen, hit on the right upper arm by the edge of a cricket bat. His brother George, having lost his temper, had taken a swipe at him. The blunted thump was as familiar as it was shocking. With his right hand clapped to his arm, he looked down and saw at his feet shards of pale green porcelain gaily patterned.
Much advice to writers on writing action will tell you to keep sentences short and cut out extraneous detail, and this is, broadly, good advice. This is not the time to enter into a history of the car you heroine’s just about to jump into, or catalogue all of the bystanders at your street brawl. On the other end of the spectrum, try also to avoid the very broad, bland or passive: ‘she attacked them’, ‘it was chaos’, ‘they were horrified’. Most importantly, remember to pass everything through the filter of your character’s experience. Consider not only what they’re thinking, but what they’re smelling, touching and hearing; what bodily sensations they’re undergoing. This works even if your character isn’t particularly shocked – maybe they’re a cool, calm hitwoman, a seasoned warrior or a starship captain, but they will still, in situations of intense action, enter a state of immediacy, heightened awareness and ‘momentary dislocation of time’.
For my money, the art of really good action is in this dislocation, in the splitting of experience into thought and reaction. Rosie’s mind is thinking about the gun and the door; it’s her lungs screaming. Here, there is room for the right kind of dissociated detail, mirroring this experience. The details of the sound of the bullet, or the detective’s memory of cricket with his brother, are what pull the reader inside these action scenes. They contain the odd, lurching sense of time unmoored that accompanies shock, in which we spring backwards into slo-mo detachment, odd memories, a shocked hyper-focus, before being yanked unceremoniously back into the stream of experience.
If you’re after still more inspiration on how to nail that action scene, some perennially reliable advice is: read what you want to write. Find an author who’s doing what you want to do, and check out how they write action. A thriller novel about a heist will treat action differently than a literary novel with a sports scene, or a romantic comedy with a slapstick fight, or a fantasy novel with a magic battle. The essentials, though, remain the same. Keep it immediate. Keep it specific. See it through your character’s eyes. Mix up engagement and detachment. Get weird with time. And – action.