This particular problem likely exists among males more than females, but I won’t generalize any further. I’m sure there are females out there just as guilty as us guys. What am I talking about? Action scenes. New writers abuse and misuse action scenes more than any other type of scene. I’ll explain how you can identify this in your own writing, convince you that it really is a problem if you are skeptical, and show you how to go about fixing it and keeping the problem from cropping up in the future.
Too Much Action
Probably the biggest error with action is including too much of it. There’s a really simple explanation for why new writers do this. When you read skilled writers, they are often adept at making the reader feel as though there’s always about to be action. You may also feel like there’s always the threat of action. To use a well known example, Game of Thrones certainly has its moments of action. However, they are few and far enough between that much more of your time as a reader is spent anticipating action or being caught off guard by it. Think of a horror movie for another example. The best part of the movie and the scariest part is often before you ever see the monster. Once you’ve seen the monster, anticipation, fear, and interest tend to wane. Action isn’t much different, but there’s an exception.
Using Action Correctly
One of the reasons I say new writers use action too much is that they are not using it correctly. Skilled authors fall into this at times as well, but more often than not, if you are reading a published author and an action scene is taking place, something more is happening. Look deeper and you’ll realize that in addition to action, there is a character changing or growing. Let me give two abbreviated descriptions of action scenes to show meaningless and meaningful action more clearly:
The lead-up to both scenes is that a man who has been learning a forbidden form of magic is confronted by two thieves in a back alley.
Meaningless action: The man fights the thieves and all sorts of descriptions are given to how the fight takes place – he dodges left and throws a bolt of energy that does something gruesome, etc. In the end, he emerges victorious and goes back home, having demonstrated how strong he is.
Meaningful action: The man fights the thieves, realizing that he’s going to die if he doesn’t use the forbidden magic against them, which may have farther reaching consequences like alerting authorities or starting him down a dark path. He grapples with the decision during the struggle, eventually making a decision to one side or another.
The difference is very clear. In one example, the author saw an opportunity to make a “cool” fight scene and had fun describing some gory details and exciting magic. In the other, the author used action as a catalyst for character change and growth. Many times, a character will be teetering on the edge of a decision, and one of the best ways to shock them into picking a side is some form of action. When action develops character, it is satisfying and meaningful.
Identifying Meaningless Action
Test your own writing. Go back through on your next round of edits and find all your action scenes. Test them. Does the scene serve any purpose other than to show action? Be careful when you answer this as well. You may say, “Yes, because it’s a castle siege, which is a really important part of the plot.” I would counter by asking if there are really no characters in that entire castle who are facing some sort of moral dilemma. I guarantee there has never been a battle in the history of humanity where lives were the only things at risk. Get inside your characters heads and find ways to make them grow and change from action. Remind yourself that in the real world, actual violence is exceedingly rare and leaves an intense mark on people. If you really have your character kill dozens of people in a year or two, imagine how much that would actually disturb and numb him.
There is a place for action. It adds tension, suspense, and allows for some reader satisfaction. However, think back on some of the most memorable action scenes you’ve ever read. I bet most of them were somehow critical to a character and his or her development. In other words, something far greater than lives was at stake, and every character involved likely walked away changed in some small way. That being said, using too much action is like putting too much salt on French Fries. Used sparingly, it can enhance the fries. Used excessively, it drowns them in its own flavor and the eater (or reader) has no chance of identifying or enjoying the flavor beneath.
So the next time you are planning out a scene or just feeling your way through one, think twice when action pops into your head. I would challenge you to even re-evaluate your story’s climax. Is it an action scene? Does it need to be? Is it facilitating a major change in your character?
These are questions worth asking yourself!