A lot of my friends have trouble writing action scenes. Not on the sentence-by-sentence level – they know all the tricks and tips – but on a more general level. They know that their first-person viewpoint character is only going to have a close-up, confused picture of the battle, and they don’t know how to get the bigger picture across, or they have a bunch of mini-scenes in mind that would have to come from all sorts of viewpoints that haven’t ever been part of the story. They know exactly what happens to their viewpoint character, but they have such a tight focus on him/her that they’ve never bothered to work out what everyone else is doing, how other people get into position to do what the POV sees them doing, or how the battle gets won or lost in the end.
Over the years, I have noticed that most of these folks have one thing in common: they’re starting with the small picture, with what their viewpoint character sees and experiences. This is not necessarily a bad thing (for a character-centered writer, it is the obvious, logical, most comfortable way to do it), but the folks who have the most difficulty seem to me to be the ones who really don’t want to consider the larger picture at all. They’re so focused on what happens to Jane or John and how it affects them physically and emotionally that they don’t want to think about practical aspects like the choreography of a fight scene or the strategy and tactics of a battle.
And choreography is exactly what it is. Action scenes in a story are among the least random scenes one can write. They have to be, precisely because they often involve a larger-than-usual cast of characters, a bigger-than-normal amount of space, and a lot of confusion and many possible outcomes.
When you have six characters sitting around a table in a bar and talking, the rest of the bar and the patrons and bartender are background – they’re present, but they’re a sort of shadowy backdrop to what’s important in the scene. The minute one of those six characters throws a punch and knocks one of the other characters over the next table, all the rest of the space in the bar and the other people in it become important, because their actions and reactions are going to have as much impact on the way the rest of the scene develops as the actions of the six characters you started with. You can’t have a character jump off a balcony if you don’t know the balcony is there to begin with.
There are a lot of things one needs to know in order to choreograph an action scene, some of which won’t actually get into the story at all. The first thing that comes to mind is where the scene takes place, and under what conditions. If your main character is on a broad plain on a clear day, the action will play out very differently that it would if she’s in the dank network of caves under the city, whether the action is a chase, a fight, a battle, or an attempt to sneak past a sentry.
The writer also probably needs to have some idea what the action scene is about, how many other people are involved, and how many of the people involved are actually going to interact with the main character. If Janet is running through a string of deserted back alleys, being chased by two city guards, what the action is and how it’s presented will be very different from a scene where George is one of two thousand archers defending the city walls against the invaders’ army.
This is one of the spots where people go wrong. They think that they don’t need to know any more about what’s going on than their viewpoint character does. The trouble is that if the author wants the dragon to come swooping unexpectedly out of the mist in front of the viewpoint character, he/she has to have some idea how that dragon found and followed that character in all that fog, and whether it’s plausible that a large, reasonably intelligent flying creature would go swooping around in a forest or city when it can’t see where obstacles or the ground is. (If the dragon has the kind of sonar bats do, fine…but if the author doesn’t think about it, there are likely to be inconsistencies over the course of the story that undermine the author’s credibility with the reader.)
Planning and choreographing an action scene doesn’t have to be done in a lot of detail, except for the bits that directly affect the viewpoint character. You want more than “The invaders attack and are beaten back,” but you don’t necessarily need every detail of the fire-fight that takes place around the main city gates if George is stationed on the opposite side of the city.
It’s especially important for writers who are deeply character-centered and seriously focused on their characters’ interior experiences to figure out what the exterior, physical environment is like and what the actual physical moves are that the character makes, and then make sure that enough of that gets into the scene. It is far too easy to write something like “George looked on in anguish as the king died” without bothering to mention that the king has just had his head cut off by the ogre that George’s arrow missed a few seconds earlier (hence George’s extra anguish and guilt about it).
Once you have a good idea how things go and what’s happening overall, you have the problem of presenting it to the reader. For big, sweeping, complicated things like battles, one common method is for the author to drop into an omniscient narrative summary, especially if the viewpoint character is an officer or commander who’d presumably have to be aware of the overall sweep of events. The obvious alternative is to stick to the confusing man-in-the-front-lines viewpoint for the main fight, and fill in the Big Picture stuff after everything is over, as the viewpoint character finds out from other people that the reason the reinforcements were late was because of the explosion that took out a section of the eastern wall. In a novel, especially if there are multiple viewpoints, authors often cut back and forth between various viewpoint character moments and an omniscient overview of the way the whole battle is going.
The fewer characters who are involved in an action scene and the smaller the space in which it takes place, the less useful the omniscient narrative summary technique becomes, because the fewer the characters and the smaller the space, the easier it is for the viewpoint character (and the reader) to comprehend all of the action at once. A scene in which two sailors struggle to keep a small boat from capsizing in a violent storm can be as gripping an action scene as a major battle, but the boat scene is more likely to be clear and comprehensible to the reader without the writer having to back off and explain the Big Picture.