A Duel of Words: Action and Dialogue Part 2

Good action, like good dialogue, moves. It’s not easy to write, in part because the writer is dealing with time—specifically, the time it takes for the reader to read the words, make sense of them, and visualize what they’re saying. Given that action prose has to go through these stages, the writer needs to move the action along as quickly and concisely as possible.

Probably the most common problem I see in the action scenes of new writers is that the prose is muddy, viscous and slooooow. This makes it hard to visualize and less than exciting.

Here’s an example—a scene that is supposed to depict a tense standoff between two men:

The blade pressed deep against the skin of Laurence, and no one in the chamber moved. The Frenchman and the Austrian stood in fear of the happening as Laurence and Mark pushed into one another with a bold stance that neither was willing to abandon. And as the ever deepening knife was pressed into the neck of Laurence, Mark caused pain without blinking and Laurence withstood it much the same—until a lone droplet of blood was drawn from the flesh wound, which spilled over onto the ground barely leaving a trace.

There’s a lot wrong with that paragraph, but I want to focus on the action. When it comes to action, impact is in the speed with which the reader gets from the subject (noun) to the action (verb). Any additional information can happen after the reader is told who is doing something and what they are doing.

In other words, cut to the verb.

In the sample, the object-action order is repeatedly flipped and the use of simple possessives (Laurence’s) are scrapped in favor of the “blank of blank” construct. There are also a lot of extra words that slow the sentences down and steal clarity (“pushed into one another”, “was drawn from”, “over onto the ground”). The writer has also used some unusual phrasing (“the ever deepening knife” and “in fear of the happening”) that causes the reader to have to ponder meaning. In an action scene, you really don’t want pondering. You want heart pounding.

DonQuijoteDeLaMancha-767176Old masters like Cervantes understood this. While Don Quixote is written in a high chivalric style with lots of poetic and flowery language, Cervantes still crafts action that cuts to the verb.

And so saying, he charged with leveled lance against the one who had spoken, with such fury and fierceness that, if luck had not contrived that Rocinante should stumble midway and come down, it would have gone hard with the rash trader. Down went Rocinante, and over went his master, rolling along the ground for some distance…”

Though Cervantes takes the time to tell us about the fury and fierceness of his hero’s attack, and the misfortune of Rocinante, he does it after he’s given us a clear picture of who’s acting and what they’re doing. In the student example, we have “the blade pressed”, but the blade is not the actor. Mark is the actor. In Cervantes’ text we get “he charged”, “down went Rocinante”, “down went her master”.

In the student example, it’s hard to picture what’s actually happening. When I first came across this passage, I had to read it several times to complete the picture.

Here’s the cut to the verb version of the same passage (notice how much shorter it is):

Mark pressed the blade against Laurence’s neck, drawing a single drop of blood that fell silently to the floor. Ignoring their uneasy audience, the men stood eye to eye—neither willing to back down.

dw_weeping_angel_cut_out_300Another way to give your action sequences impact is to make sure you’ve set the scene properly before the characters have to interact with and within it. Writers sometimes forget what objects or people they need on stage until they start writing the scene. “Oh yeah,” they think, “there’s a statue there” and they stop to describe it during the epic sword duel. That will most certainly cause the actors in the reader’s head to freeze in mid-stroke while she tries to assimilate the new information and “poof” the statue into existence. The result of this can be that the reader never gets a clear picture of the action or that she replays the scene until she thinks she understands what happened—but any excitement is lost in the replay.

The bottom line is: keep action sequences trim. Short, concise sentences with close subject-verb pairings get the picture to the reader most efficiently.  Avoid long, rambling sentences with a lot of connective words like “as”, “while”, “and”, “then”, etc. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, using “as” does not translate into simultaneous action in the mind of a reader.

Can you see the difference in the following renditions of the same action sequence?

As Dirk leapt from the top of the staircase, he brought his right leg around in a swift arc and connected with the werewolf’s head while he pulled the stake out of his coat pocket in preparation for taking on the vampire which was trying to escape through the basement window.


Dirk leapt from the top of the staircase and took out the werewolf with a kick to its shaggy head. He had the stake out of his coat pocket before he hit the floor. The vamp was next.

A guideline I try to follow is to allow no more than two actions  per sentence. The benefit of keeping sentences trim is that the reader doesn’t have to reread them to get a sense of the flow of action.

Can you violate that guideline? Sure. Just think of it as training wheels on your literary bicycle. It’s okay to have your character fight, plan ahead, and chew gum at the same time, but only if he can actually DO those things without leaving the reader behind.

When I find myself trying to reword a single sentence so all of the character’s actions are covered, I almost always opt to cut the sentence up, just as I did the description of Dirk’s daring exploits. The original sequence was one unwieldy (and weak) sentence, that didn’t work. It made three much stronger sentences that do.

So, to sum up: When writing action, I advise brevity and efficiency as an over-arching theme. In practice, this translates to cut to the verb.

Whatever you do with your action or dialogue, please, I beg of you, edit your work. Carefully. Read it out loud. If you’re gasping by the time you get to the end of a line of dialogue or an action sequence, chances are your reader will be too.


Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff is the co-author of the New York Times bestselling STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (with Michael Reaves), and a founding member of Book View Cafe.



A Duel of Words: Action and Dialogue Part 2 — 7 Comments

  1. My favorite example of poorly-placed action-scene detail comes from a student ms. In which the hero was battling giant tyrannosaurs. Teeth flashing, the hungry reptiles charge, glaring with their red eyes from a height of 14 ft 5 inches! Immediately the image flashes into your mind’s eye, Indiana Jones holding the steel measuring tape up to the dinosaur as the film pauses and he jots down the exact inches in his field notebook. Noooo…

  2. Nice set of training wheels, thank you.

    I’d also like to point out that the rewrites are not just shorter and snappier, but also more immediate, in particularly Dirk’s actions: the first sentence describes from a distance and needs a third party observer: _Nobody_ says about themselves ‘I bring my right leg around in a swift arc’, it’s ‘I kick’.

    Also, the first sentence describes a single moment – character swings leg and takes stake out of pocket. The second version has the leaping-and-connecting with werewolf, the taking-stake-out and hitting the floor, and anticipation of the next battle – so you could say that more is happening, and it definitely carries the reader along better.

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  4. Green Knight, I like the way you phrased that: carrying the reader along. That’s exactly what we want to do, whether we’re writing action, dialogue or narrative.

    Something I didn’t mention is the words one chooses for an action sequence. I find that writing neos often use long, erudite sounding words (found in their handy Thesaurus) in action sequences. For example, they’d say Dirk “had extracted the stake from his pocket” instead of “had the stake out of his pocket.” Longer, less familiar words take longer to process. A one syllable word will carry the reader along much faster than its three syllable equivalent.

    Don’t get me wrong—I love multi-syllabic words, but I think there’s a time and a place for them and it’s not where Dirk is trying to stake a vamp.

  5. The mental model I’m currently using is that writing is like connect-the-dots: there need to be dots for the reader to see the picture, and you want them to be the right amount and in the right places for the audience. If you draw all the lines for them, it’s no fun at all.
    Having lots of dots that don’t belong to the image (however much you might love them) frustrates the reader … and last but not least you need to be able to trust the reader *to* connect the dots.

    How to do it well is, of course, another question…

    Regarding length, I think there’s very much a feel of ‘getting down to the basics’ and having a tight focus – when you’re trying to survive, you tend to lose your eloquence. At least I do.

  6. My favorite sorts of action scenes that are packed with stuff that don’t belong there — are implausibly there — are the ones in which a huge battle is going on, with everyone firing on everyone and death and maiming are going all around one, as people crawl and dash from cover to cover — and Our Male Protagonist is woefully and mournfully recounting his broken marriage and his wife who so unfairly left him, and not even necessarily for another lover, but because she unfairly couldn’t stand to be around him for one more second . . . .