What do you like in an action scene?

Both as a writer and a reader, this is a big question for me. I love adventure stories but get bored with straight action. Even watching a movie, if the action is not done right, my eyes tend to glaze over. Some years ago, I read a particular fantasy novel at the suggestion of my fiance. Granted, it was the author’s first book, but I found the action, quite simply, boring, and I found myself skipping most of it. My fiance exclaimed, “But those are the best parts!” I confess I was a bit stunned, thinking, How can anyone enjoy page after page of such heavily detailed action? I realized, though, that my fiance and I simply wanted different things out of our actions scenes. Where he loves reading about every movement in a fight, I need something more to keep me interested in who swung his (or her) fist at whom.

So what is it I’m looking for? I think I’m looking for action that keeps other elements of the story moving forward. I need the details of the action to really tell (or rather, show) me something about the characters, other than that they are good or bad fighters. I also enjoy action that deepens the conflicts in the story. By that I mean that I need to see the stakes/tension rising for the characters on a personal level. I can just hear my fiance protesting, “But action always does that! They’re in danger, aren’t they?” I suppose I would answer that it’s a matter of both degree and focus. When I skipped the action scenes in his recommended book, I was able to pick up with the story after those scenes and not feel confused. Clearly, nothing happened in those action scenes that I could not have guessed and nothing was learned about the characters that I did not already know. By contrast, in the action scenes in Sarah J. Maas’s Heir of Fire (Book 3 of Throne of Glass), every action scene (whether a training scene or a genuine fight) reveals more about Celaena or else deepens the mysteries surrounding her. (I don’t want to be more specific for fear of spoilers!) Had I skipped any of the action scenes, I would have missed crucial bits of story. Maybe that’s it: the action must still be telling the story.

So what about you? What keeps you interested in an action scene? What would make you skim one? Feel free to use examples of books!

Thanks for reading!

Comments

  1. Yeah, there’s definitely such a thing as too much action. I love the Dresden Files, but in the later books it seemed to just follow the same pattern of getting beaten up, battling something, ect and it got boring. There doesn’t always need to be story in the action, but the action has to serve a point for the story, not just to have another action scene. I understand how hard it is balancing the showing of what’s happening without just giving a blow by blow description, but it’s so important to get right. I also like it when there are personal stakes for the character, then I fly through the scenes and eat them up. (Especially when magic’s involved.)

    • Katherine :

      I like what you say about the action “serv[ing] a point for the story,” even if the action is not necessarily telling the story. And yes, personal stakes are what keep me most invested too. That’s when I feel like I have to know what happens here!

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