On Writing, Plot & Structure

Novelists: Step 5 – Bulletproof Your Action Scenes

May 29, 2012

In an earlier post, “Construct Compelling Scenes,” we looked at how to structure an Action Scene, the key building block of your novel’s story.

It is important to always keep in mind that an Action Scene is an Action Scene only when it embodies conflict – i.e., an Action Scene should show the hero struggle against an antagonistic force.

For example: If your hero needs a job, and you show him applying for one and getting one, that’s an “Event” – not an Action Scene. If your teen heroine wants to take flying lessons, asks her parents for permission, and she receives it, that also is an Event, not an Action Scene.

Events may be mildly interesting, but they are fairly tepid in their ability to compel a reader to turn pages. Properly constructed Scenes comprise the engine that powers a pageturner – and you need to build your Action Scenes properly.

Checklist for a Action Scene that Works:

– Hero’s goal is clear

– Hero meets and resourcefully tries to overcome the antagonistic force (whatever it is that blocks him from his goal).

– Antagonistic force prevents hero from achieving his goal.

– or,

– Hero achieves goal, but immediately faces another complication.

– The action of the Scene takes place in one single flow of time.


How long should a Scene be?

A novel of average length – 75,000 words – is built with 60 Action and Reaction Scenes. (See the “Construct Compelling Scenes” post for more on Sequels.)

That means the average Scene is about 1,250 words long, or five typewritten pages. But this is just a guideline. Reaction Scenes should be shorter than Action Scenes, because Scenes that describe thought and reflection versus action are less compelling. In addition, the trend today is toward shorter and shorter Scenes. And it’s always a good idea to vary the length of Scenes now and again. Why? Because variation adds texture and interest to the structure of your novel.


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