I will thank the Lord with all my heart as I meet with his godly people. How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! All who delight in him should ponder them. Psalm 111:1-2 NLT

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Writing Epic Action Scenes

As a writer of primarily women’s fiction, I’ve not had the need for very many high action scenes, but recently, I found myself sitting at my computer trying to figure out how to free my main character from the chair she was tied to, while simultaneously defeating the three men who held her at gunpoint.

Not a typical scene for women’s fiction, but I am working toward my BA in English, and all the classes require me to work with a Learning Team of three or four other people. The assignment in my Creative Writing class consisted of taking a bank robbery, burglary, or other sensational situation and writing both a fictional and nonfictional account of the details. My learning team split the final project in such a way that one member came up with the details of a home invasion, another wrote the non fiction account, and I was tasked to write the fictional portion.

And this is how I ended up sitting at my desk trying to figure out how to write my main character from captive to victor, having never written the kind of action required for such a sensational action scene. I really didn’t have any idea where to even begin! After several unsuccessful attempts, I turned to my “How to Write” bookcase for help. I saw my Storycrafter’s workbook and recalled that in her teaching, Susan May Warren uses a lot of movies to help her illustrate examples. She encouraged us to watch movies and take notes to get a feel for plot points, pacing, and character development.

It occurred to me that I could use the same tactic to teach myself to write action. So I got out a few of my favorite action films, found a few memorable action scenes, and started taking notes. The first round of notes consisted of flat descriptions of basic movement, and then I went back and added more detail. Finally, I took my notes and rewrote them in fiction form, adding in the setting and dialogue needed to tell the story.

After I did that a few times, I went to an action scene specific to what I needed: the scene from the beginning of The Avengers in which Scarlett Johanson’s character is tied to a chair, guarded by two titanic thugs with guns, and being questioned by some tough mob guy. In a matter of minutes, she has broken free of the chair and defeated all three men; it’s a pretty spectacular scene. I watched it closely, stopping every few seconds to note the movement and position of each character as well as their use of the setting (chairs, guns, chains, etc.) to make each exchange. I probably watched the scene 20 times, but it allowed me to include almost every detail of the altercation.

Armed with my notes, I returned to my computer to write my scene. Instead of a warehouse, my scene took place in the woman’s living room, so I used things like the couch and a lamp to not only help her escape, but to describe the setting as well. I was amazed at how easy it was for me to write a believable scene, especially once it turned out my main character was a highly trained secret agent with specialized skills! Once I finished it, I read it to my teenage sons. At the end, they just sat there staring at me. Finally my youngest son said, “That was awesome!! How did you do that?!”

I posted it to the rest of the assignment and we turned it in. We got an A, and the instructor commented that the action scene was one of the best he’d read.  Needless to say, I was thrilled by the grade and feedback, but I’m even more thrilled that the assignment forced me out of my comfort zone so I could learn something new.

If you find yourself faced with a scene you aren’t sure how to write, or you are struggling with a certain type of scene, I encourage you to go to the movies! Find a similar scene in a movie, take extensive notes, and then write the scene as though it was part of a novel. It’s fantastic practice and a good way to exercise that particular writing muscle.

To be clear, I’m not advocating stealing a scene from a movie for your book! I’m simply suggesting the use of novelizing screenplay scenes as the groundwork for writing your own scenes. Taking a moving picture and converting it to words is fantastic practice for capturing all the depth and details needed to grab the reader’s imagination and keep them riveted to your book.


  1. Brilliant, Heidi. I'm so glad you lived, worked, shared that & got the positive feedback. From now on you'll always manage that w/ victorious high panache. Thanks, congrats, & many blessings to you & yours!

    1. Thank you, Dee. The whole class was a blessing, and the feedback from the instructor regarding my individual assignments really encouraged me...especially since it was the negative comments from the professor of another college Creative Writing class (in 1988!) that made me give up writing for 20 years! Thanks to all my MBT coaching, my Ponderers, my continuing education, and the voice of my Savior, I think I have finally conquered the voice of that mean old guy who called me a "talentless hack."

  2. Heidi! This is an awesome post. Thank you for great advice...I will use it for some of my scenes. Going to tweet this now.

    1. Thank you so much, Pat. I can't believe what a difference it made in my writing! It was amazing to just record what I saw happening on the television screen, and then write fiction off of the notes. It is a trick I will definitely use again!! I hope it works as well for you.

  3. Heidi,

    The Avengers is among my husband and my favorite movies (alongside The Incredibles, Captain America, and the Thin Man movies).

    I've wanted to write epic fiction for some time and have repeated motivated by such movies as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, John Carter, and even a lot of action movies. I've watched for motivation and inspiration...but never for instruction.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Heidi, way to go on that A!! I love how you used The Avengers scene to SHOW your scene instead of telling it. When I'm struggling to write body language, I'll turn to a favorite scene in a TV show or a movie and mute the video. Then I focus on the characters' actions and use those to help pull my own characters out of their own spotlights.

  5. Great tips, Heidi! Somehow writers never even watch movies the same as other folks!

  6. Great idea, and congratulations on your A!

  7. Heidi, I'm not sure how I missed your post last Thursday, but I love it! :) I also didn't know you write women's fiction. That's good to know. :) Thanks for sharing how you stepped out of your comfort zone to figure out that scene. I am sure I'll be using your technique. :)

    Congrats on the A!!!