The good fight

Writing action scenes is difficult. They ought to be the most exciting part of a novel, with pulse-pounding danger and high stakes, but it's easy for them to become repetitive, dry descriptions of who's where and how many times they've been punched in the gut. 

The scrimmage – a fight between over twenty voyant combatants, including Paige, with an excited audience watching and reacting – was one the toughest scenes to write in The Mime Order. I agonised over every sentence. I knew the scene would go on for quite a while, as would the ensuing one-on-one fight between Paige and another character, and that they would both have serious emotional and physical repercussions. It was important not only for the reader to remain interested and want to read on, but for them to be on the edge of their seat, too.  

So, from experience, here are some things to bear in mind when you write an action scene, particularly physical fights:

[1] The personal pronoun. “I kicked, I punched, I screamed in pain” – all of these are perfectly good phrases, but when they’re clustered together, one after the other, it makes for a clunky, plodding experience for the reader. Try to think of different ways to describe what’s happening. “I screamed” could be replaced with “a scream escaped me”, for example. Also applies to “he”, “she” or “you” if you’re writing in third or second-person.

[2] Injuries. Unless your character is superhuman, you’re going to need to keep track of the injuries they sustain, consider the long and short-term effects those injuries will have on their health, and find out how long they’ll need to heal. This is harder than it sounds when you’re trying to get on with the plot, only to remember that your character is badly hurt and may not be as energetic as usual. A fractured leg might seem a small thing to toss into an action scene, but your character is going to be recuperating for at least six weeks, if not more. Deep bruises will ache. Cuts will sting. Open wounds will need to be stitched and disinfected. 

[3] Scars. Not all wounds heal perfectly. If your character regularly gets into dangerous situations, they’re likely to have a few scars – and they might be somewhere visible, like the face. (Yes, the face.) We tend to shy away from obvious scars in fiction, especially on female characters, who are expected to be beautiful. Try to shake that mindset. If you have a male character who’s battle-scarred, but still desirable, ask yourself why a woman can’t also carry signs of her past fights. Characters are also very unlikely to walk away from an action scene looking like they've just stepped out of the hair salon: they'll be dirty, tired, and possibly bloody.

[4] Movement. In a combat situation, your character is going to be focused on their body, and on their opponent’s. A single misstep could result in a grave injury; exhaustion could be fatal. Consider the placement of their feet, the way their limbs are moving, their sweat, their body temperature, their heartbeat, their aching muscles, the throbbing of fresh injuries. 

[5] Imagery. Action is often brutal and bleak, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a fight aesthetically pleasing. Many forms of combat are quite beautiful to watch, especially when the combatants are very skilled. A dry description of who’s punching who isn’t going to hold your readers’ attention for long. Paint a vivid picture of the scene. Think of it as a theatre production: colours, lights, the stage, the props. Describe the sounds, the sights, the smells and tastes of the scene. You don’t have to go overboard – just help the reader picture it. 

[6] Dialogue. If your characters are hammering each other, chances are that emotions are running high, and that words will be exchanged. Reading dense paragraphs of action might be fine for some readers, but it might be an idea to break it up a little with some dialogue, both for a change of pace and to give insight into what the characters are thinking, and how they feel about each other.


  1. This is great advise. I will keep this in mind as I'm writing fighting scenes.

  2. Great tips.

    I particularly love the reminder on injuries, (and afflicting our female characters with facial scars too) because as crazy as it seems, when writing, it's so easy to have a character fall from a great height, break their leg, only to have them, a mere half a chapter later, running for their life a great speeds with not so much as a twinge.


    1. I've had to keep it in mind myself many times – my characters tend to attract quite a few injuries...

  3. Its soo sweet oft you, that you share your Tips and Tricks with us...Thank you, its realy great. I love it to read your bloggs and alsow your books.

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    1. That's so good :) I figured out the protagonist could move things with her mind when I read it. But I had to read it twice to figure out the beginning. I'd love to read some more of this story.. where can i find it?

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  5. Ms. Shannon,
    I recently finished your first book, "The Bone Season", and as a means of coping with my book withdrawal have been reading through this blog.You have created such an incredible world that I have yet to depart from. I just wanted to say thank you for being such an innovative writer and thank you for being such an inspirational person. I am incredibly excited to see your world come to life in film, and am counting the seconds until I receive "The Mime Order" in the mail!

    An Inspiring Oxford Student

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