Putting together a good action scene in a novel is hard. Some authors can do it exceptionally well: Willi Heinrich, Eric Nylund, James Webb, Väinö Linna, Joe Haldeman, Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden. Others turn it into the literary equivalent of a machine gun mowing down wave after wave of faceless grunts. When my beta readers tore into By the Feet of Men so long ago, the main complaint they had was that the action scenes were difficult to follow. It wasn’t possible to tell who was doing what to whom, and any individual croutons of bravery, sacrifice or evil were muted by the homogeneous hack-and-slash soup in which they floated. It was kind of a bummer, but not unexpected – I’d taken a workmanlike approach to them from the start. For me, the action was there purely to service the plot, not to serve as a kick-ass set piece in its own right; there was no love involved. Maybe I was even slightly embarrassed at what I was writing, which is why I held back.
So I did what any writer does after receiving feedback from their beta readers: I drank some alcohol and told myself I was a hack over and over again. And after I’d done that I rewrote the scenes. And rewrote them again. And rewrote them three times more for good measure. By the end I had learned to appreciate the action scenes for what they were - a chance to let off steam, to develop the characters, to shake things up, and to enjoy myself with the text. And along the way I learned a few tricks about how to write an action scene in a novel.
1. Make each combatant distinctive
Halfway up the hill, Brandt stood over a spider-like body crumpled on the ground, his pistol gripped in two hands as he pointed it at three strangers. They looked like what they were: ravenous animals hunting their prey, with faces hollow and bodies brittle from a lack of food. One, a tall, grey-haired man with a distended stomach, hefted a rusty pipe between thick hands. Another, a woman, wielded a pickaxe and hissed. The third, evidently the leader, was a younger man whose head was a mess of scars. A machete in his hand dripped with fresh blood.
Above is an excerpt from By the Feet of Men. I’ve tried to make sure that it contains no spoilers (other than the fact that now you know there’s a character called Brandt and at some point he has a bit of a fracas with some desperate dudes). This is the scene as it appears in the final novel. Reading it now, it might seem like a standard description, but it took me 6 drafts to get there. Here’s how it looked in the first draft (bearing in mind a first draft is simply there to get the story down, not to be a joyful reading experience):
Up the hill, a tree trunk’s length away, Brandt stood, pistol in hand, over a long-limbed body crumpled on the ground. Three strangers circled him. They were dressed in rags, bits of which sloughed off them like skin. Two were large men, though their faces were jagged with a lack of food and sleep. One threw a pickaxe from one hand to the other while the other carried a metal bat of some kind. The third, head a mess of tattoos and scars, wielded a machete with arms that showed signs of severe malnutrition. Ghazi could see they were desperate men. They had the eyes of a ravenous animal cornering its prey.
In a showdown, you want to be able to tell exactly who is locking horns with whom. It makes it much simpler for the reader to follow the action. In the first draft version, I didn’t give myself enough distinguishing features to work with. I painted myself into a corner by lumping two of the antagonists together as ‘two large men’, and put too much effort into describing the third character. The only way to tell between them would be to describe the weapons they are carrying. Notice, too, that the antagonists are all male, which makes it more difficult to describe them when you don’t know their names. It quickly becomes dull to keep reading ‘the man with the machete’ / ‘the man with the pickaxe’ and so on. That’s why in the final version, I have three distinct opponents: a tall, grey-haired man, a woman with a pickaxe and scarface. This gave me much more scope when referring to them, enabling me to describe them based on their relative age, their gender, their facial features or their weapons.
2. Keep the action simple.
A few lines from Fields of Fire by James Webb:
Hodges peered into the village again. Two hootches burned. Figures scampered near the flames. Two more LAAWs boomed in the cemetery. His machine gun poured tracers into the village in a low, steadily sweeping line. Be cool, he told himself.
Each sentence in this passage is crisp and concise while setting the scene. The short sentences lend the scene a sense of immediacy, energy, mortal danger. We can see the village burning. We can hear the report of the machine gun and the explosions of the rocket launchers. We can smell the cordite and the smoke. At no point does Webb overwhelm the reader with long, purplish descriptions of the battle or throw in so many angles that it becomes impossible to tell where the action is unfolding. It’s tight, centred on what Hodges, the protagonist, can see from his vantage point. We don’t get any lengthy inner monologues about his perception of the battle, either. ‘Be cool’ tells us all we need to know – he’s scared but he’s still in control. It’s kind of Hemingwayesque, and it works perfectly.
3. Respect violence; don’t fetishise it
This is a passage from Halo: The Flood by William C. Dietz.
The rocket was a hair high, hit Hurru in the head, and blew it off. Orange blood fountained straight up, splashed the alien metal around the Hunter and splattered his body as it collapsed. The Spartan paused, switched to his assault weapon, and waited for the feeling of satisfaction.
My housemate at university had a few Halo novels and I read them when I should have been studying German linguistics. I still remember Dietz’s book because of how poorly written it was. The novel is filled with passages like this, which seem to revel in how badass it is to mow down hordes of oncoming enemies and then watch them die in a way that makes the protagonist look as cool as Mickey Rourke in Rumble Fish. The problem is that this reads as though it was written by a 15-year-old boy trying his hand at fan fiction (for the record, the Halo novels written by Eric Nylund are excellent).
Contrast the description above with this one by Joe Haldeman in The Forever War:
It was slaughter, even though our flank was outnumbered five to one. They kept coming without faltering, even when they had to climb over the drift of bodies and parts of bodies that piled up high, parallel to our flank. The ground between us was slick red with Tauron blood – all God’s children got hemoglobin – and like the teddy bears, their guts looked pretty much like guts to my untrained eye.
Unlike Dietz, Haldeman doesn’t treat violence as something to be celebrated. He doesn’t linger on images of heads popping off necks or blood gushing as a geyser; the situation is sickening, unwelcome, without merit. The protagonist is not celebrated for his ability to kill. He observes his actions for what they are (“it was slaughter”) and even manages to ruminate on what it means to end the life of a sentient being (the bleak “all God’s children got hemoglobin”). There is nothing here to suggest to the reader that the protagonist or Haldeman are getting a kick out of the action. Rather, it is a grim business, a necessary scene to facilitate the development of the characters taking part, to bind the reader to them through the horror of it all. And it’s one of the reasons why The Forever War is considered a masterwork of the sci-fi genre.
4. Be sporadic, not wall to wall
By my count, By the Feet of Men has four proper action scenes (not counting the chapters where the Runners are battling nature). That’s not many for a novel which is 344 pages long and has been categorised under ‘Action and adventure’. What it means, though, is that each time hell does break loose, it is significant. The action has a weight to it that would be lacking were the characters found engaging in hand-to-hand combat and firing off ammunition from one page to the next. It’s the reason why the one-long-action-scene movie Free Fire doesn’t really work; duels and showdowns and all-out war have to be interspersed with quieter periods, opportunities to build up the tension and develop the characters. The aim is to craft a symphony, not to churn out a three-hour crescendo. All the latter does is desensitise your audience. Then, when an action scene rolls around that does come with high stakes attached, they’ll be too jaded to care or even notice. That’s why it is essential to give the action room to breathe, for the build-up to be long and filled with tension, and for the after-effects to be savoured well after the scene has concluded.
Finally, for the perfect action scene, take a look at how Hemingway describes El Sordo’s doomed attack on a hilltop in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The chapter could be lifted out of the novel wholesale and stand on its own as a short story. Hemingway manages to make the reader care about a group of fringe characters in a fight to the death that is never pretty or celebrated, but always moving.