On Writing, Plot & Structure

Novelists: Create ‘Action Scenes’ that Work – Here’s How

May 31, 2012

Here’s the Checklist for an 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.

Now let’s look at how one bestselling author meets the above requirements for creating an Action Scene that works. We’ll explore the opening Scene in Kate DiCamillo’s children’s book, Because of Winn-Dixie.

In Chapter One, the heroine, Opal, is shopping at her local Winn-Dixie supermarket when she notices a stray dog who is in sad shape running through the store, knocking things over (including the manager), and having a great ol’ time. Opal immediately falls in love with the dog.

Heroine’s goal? To get the dog and take him home.

The antagonistic force? the store manager, who has been literally knocked off his feet by the dog, is set on calling the pound.

Heroine’s resourceful response? Opal claims the dog belongs to her.

Antagonistic force’s response? The manager says, if the dog belongs to you, you know it’s name.

Heroine’s resourceful response? Opal makes up a name for the dog on the spot, and calls him by it. The name is the first thing that comes to her head, Winn-Dixie (the name of the supermarket).

Outcome? The dog bounds over to Opal and the manager reluctantly accepts that Opal owns the dog.

Residual suspense? Opal has saved Winn-Dixie from the pound – but will her father let her keep the dog?

Does the opening (Action) Scene of Because of Winn-Dixie fulfill the requirements noted above? Yes, it does. Had Kate DiCamillo chosen to write this Scene as an Event, she would have described Opal encountering the dog in the store and deciding to take it home. Opal would have met her goal without any opposition. The store manager would not have been set on calling the pound. The heroine would not have needed to think quickly to come up with a solution to the “antagonistic force” (the manager’s decision).

And the opening chapter would have been a bit of a snoozer, and the book would not have gone on to win a Newbery Award for excellence.

Pull a novel that has kept you glued to the pages from your shelves. Read a chapter or two with analytical eye, keeping the above guidelines for Action Scene structure in mind. Novelists who aspire to create pageturners absolutely need to master the art of structuring an Action Scene. Mastery of Action Scene structure enables a novelist to build a hypnotic rhythm into a work that compels a reader to keep turning pages.

Note: If you get a chance, read or re-read Because of Winn-Dixie and you also will appreciate and enjoy the additional “value add” (humor) that imbues this novel.

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