So how do you build an action scene? There are a lot of things to consider. Some of them will be dictated by decisions the writer has made earlier in the story, and the first and most important of these is viewpoint, which frequently implies level.
Action can be “seen” by the reader from lots of different levels. A bird’s eye view is a Big Picture description that is most often employed when describing a full-scale battle (but it can work quite well for smaller fights); a general’s view is closer in, but still fairly Big Picture, and allows for more surprises because the general can’t see everything the way a bird could. A participant’s view is restricted to his/her own experiences, but it can make the action feel more personal and involving. If the writer is telling a story in omniscient viewpoint, as a memoir written long after the fact, or in multiple tight-third, she can think about which of these levels to employ and when, and how to mix them to get the best effect.
(Georgette Heyer’s description of the Battle of Waterloo in her novel An Infamous Armyis primarily an omniscient Big Picture description of the action, but she occasionally drops into a closer, more personal view of characters we’ve heard of or met earlier in the novel. The result is a masterpiece, which was actually used at Sandhurst Military Academy in England to teach the Battle of Waterloo. It is also an excellent example for writers to study.)
Except for omniscient, memoir, or multiple-tight-third-person, the viewpoint the writer is using for the story pretty much determines the level from which the action is going to be described. A first person narrator who is telling the story as it happens is not likely to know anything that is happening on the other side of a battle unless he’s an observer with binoculars rather than a participant; the same goes for a single tight-third-person viewpoint. The writer, however, quite often needs to know the whole Big Picture, whether we’re talking about a full-scale battle, a smallish bandit attack, or a one-on-one duel.
Which brings us to my next point, planning. The larger the scale of the action, the more planning is a good idea for most writers. (Note that “most”; this is yet another area where personal process trumps how-to-write advice. Some people just can’t plan ahead, because it wrecks their ability to continue on. These folks have to “plan” in retrospect, working out how the close-up scenes they’ve written can be retro-fitted into a Big Picture that makes sense.)
Anyway, for the rest of us: Even if your hero or heroine is only going to see one small part of a battle, it’s usually a good idea to have some idea of the overall strategy for each side, and how their specific plans do or don’t work out in practice. The flanking move by the enemy cavalry on the other side of the hill may make things suddenly more intense around your heroine, even if she doesn’t know why. The return of the foraging party may be enough to route the bandits, though your hero doesn’t immediately know why they’ve started running. And I have personally found it exceedingly helpful to go through parts of a fight in slow motion with a colleague who knows something about martial arts, so that I can find out in advance whether particular moves I have in mind will work as I envision them (and so I can get ideas for even better things to happen).
Plans should be flexible. (“The writer should always reserve the right to have a better idea.” – Lois McMaster Bujold) Action scenes are often most effective when the things that happen are as unexpected as they would be in a real battle or fight or chase, and a writer who has managed to surprise herself has a greater chance of surprising the reader than she otherwise would. I’m not talking about big surprises here, though that can happen; I’m talking about little things that may or may not change the outcome of the action: the horse that throws a shoe, the gun that jams, the opponent who drops his knife and bites…the things that come up without warning during the process of putting words down on the page. (If that’s not how it works for you, don’t worry about it. It’s not something you can train or force; it’s just how some – some, not all – writers’ heads work.)
At this point, it’s time to really start talking about nuts and bolts…and I’m out of space for today. Looks like this will be a three-parter, at least.