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There are many sources that will give you technical
tips on how to write action scenes. This isn't
 one of them. This page is about how and why
conflict happens. Believable action is more
than sentence structure. It's also far
more difficult to write convincingly about it
if you don't know the information on this page.

Writing Better Action Scenes

On this page:
Conflict and Violence -- Like Love -- Is Human | Social Primate Behavior and Writing a Really Evil Bad Guy | Mistakes Authors Make: Antagonist | Mistakes Authors Make: Protagonist

Among my other bad habits, I give lectures on writing better and more believable action scenes at writer's conventions and for groups.

One of the things I tell authors during these talks is: If they're looking at the wallpaper, something is wrong with the movie.

That's a story from my days in the movie industry. It occurred when the set dressers pasted the wallpaper for the scene upside down. The comment about 'something's wrong with the movie' was the director's response when he was told of the problem.

I use that quote because it's a good rule of thumb for your action scenes. If viewers or readers 'notice the wallpaper,' there's something wrong with your scene.

In fact, the author needs to think his or her action scenes resemble the CIA. An old grumble common to the CIA goes: All you ever hear about is our mistakes, you never hear when we did it right.

When you write a good action scene (or the build up to one) nobody is going to notice. But you can bet the reader will notice when you write a bad one.

Take comfort, a good scene means they not only won't notice the wallpaper, but they won't notice anything else at all. That's because readers will be so caught up in the action, they'll be too busy to do anything except turn the page.

Part of my lecture concerns what happens during a violent situation. But a far more complex subject is the build up to that action. And yet, it's the build up -- the anticipation -- of the action that hooks readers. It's also a part writers often race over in order to get to the action. But without this build up, the scene is going to fall flat. So let's talk about that.

Conflict and Violence -- Like Love -- Is Human
For more than 20 years, I have been writing about crime, violence and how to stay alive in dangerous situations. In light of this, I was stunned to discover how many romance writers use my information as a resource. Real life murder, mayhem, destruction and despair just isn't romantic.

Worse yet, the writers were interested in observing me and how I behaved. It's not just my works, they wanted to use me for character development. When I had a chance to ask a romance writer 'why,' she replied: You've lived the life of our characters.

Errrrrr ... that's not how I would put it. While I admit I ripped a few bodices in my younger days, realistically there's not a lot romantic about the gritty and dangerous world I lived in for so long. While I was down there, however, I had the opportunity to see human aggression and conflict behavior at its most naked and raw. While I can truthfully say it's not pretty, I can guarantee you it is exciting.

And by that I mean exciting on a primate and biological level.

If you haven't realized it, the reason you are sitting here today is because, for millions of years, your ancestors managed to get up the tree before the leopard got them. Or they managed to bug out before the Huns showed up. Or maybe they were the ones who head-butted the Viking raiders back into sea. In short, they did something to stay alive long enough to breed.

So humanity has a long history of handling 'outside' threats. More importantly, we have an equally long history of social violence, internal conflict and establishing social hierarchy. And that is what your reader will unconsciously recognize and react to in your writing.

An interesting thing about social violence is it isn't designed to injure. It's used to establish or maintain the social environment. Specific behaviors are programmed into us. That's right, just like love, in conflict, we have set patterns we follow. More importantly, our bodies follow those blueprints, and we're dragged along. Those chemical, social primate and emotional behavioral schematics that have a proven track record (como se dice 'ancestors?') of ensuring our survival.

We unconsciously know and recognize these patterns. Well, sort of ... it would be more accurate to say when we see them, we emotionally and viscerally react to them. Even if we don't consciously know what we are reacting to or why.

When readers get sucked into this pattern, they will be so caught up in the action they won't notice anything else. Conversely, when your action scenes fail to follow these frameworks of human behavior, your reader will 'notice the wallpaper.'

Now here's the kicker ... while this behavior is most obvious and extreme in physical violence, these same patterns also apply in other types of conflicts and aggression. I've seen this kind of behavior in gorilla pits in the zoo, biker bars and board rooms. Just because it's not physical doesn't mean:
  a) it isn't violent
  b) it isn't following the same patterns

Social Primate Behavior and Writing a Really Evil Bad Guy
Want to show your bad guy as a true villain? Have him kill one of his followers. If you want to make him really evil have him personally torture, before killing, someone within his own 'tribe' who has angered him. This shows he cannot be trusted to keep the 'social contract' that bonds group members. And being trusted by others is a big element of an alpha personality.

So let's look into tribal behavior.

Humans are social apes. We need each other to survive and thrive(1). And that is why we have preprogrammed patterns of behavior. While our specific culture might give us details on how to handle these basic patterns -- like sex, marriage, tribal economy, etc. -- the starting point is our primate wiring. And that wiring means we feel impelled to come together in groups in order to survive. And with people living together, there are bound to be conflicts. So our neurological wiring has patterns, responses and, most of all, resolutions ingrained to handle those issues.

Evolutionary psychologists say we are designed to function best in groups of about 150. These members are our 'tribe.'

And the rules on how you treat your tribal members are different from those applying to someone outside that group ... including the fact it's OK to kill and rob 'outsiders.' If humanistic attitudes interfere with your grasp of this concept, let me put it simply: The mindset is the only people who are 'human' are those in your tribe. You wouldn't be killing a human. You'd be killing a (fill in the blank). And that is usually synonymous with enemy.

The short version of inner-tribal dynamics is: "Bang, bang, kiss, kiss."

The long version is: build up, appropriate level of conflict behavior, resolution,  make up. This is what you need for normal, functional and, most of all, long-term group dynamics. These patterns allow for conflicts, resolution and -- again important -- the continuation of the group and its members. Finding resolution and making up is an important part of keeping out tribe strong. If we weaken the tribe by killing or banishing too many members, we die.

A big element of what makes a 'bad guy' is he breaks these fundamental patterns. For example, social violence is used to establish or maintain social order. A part of that is behavioral correcting violence. This occurs when someone is doing something that another group member finds objectionable.

The normal pattern of such a situation would be:
 Communication ("Stop that.")
 A threat display ("Stop doing that or there will be physical repercussions.")
 Social violence (step up, hit once and step back - low level use of force)
 Repeat communication (repeat order to stop)
  *Here is where the situation comes to a crossroads. The individual can
  either insist on continuing with the objectionable behavior, counter attack
  or submit. For the sake of this example, we'll follow the submit option.*
 Individual submits (ceases unacceptable behavior)
 Physical conflict or aggression ends
 Given time, submissive person makes peace gesture (beginning of kiss kiss)
 Dominant individual accepts apology and sets terms
 Dominant indicates continued acceptance of other
(end of kiss kiss)
 Things return to normal

What I just wrote defines the normal conflict cycle. This pattern is pretty basic. In fact, before politically correct thinking banished it, most people would easily recognize it as actions taken to discipline a misbehaving child. The point is, even without the physical part, you should be able to recognize the basic pattern even in ... say ... a conflict at work.

And you must write your story in these recognizable ways. Ways that work with how we -- as humans -- behave.

Three things are important for writers. The first point is that this pattern is used for those within your tribe. That's why there is so much communication (even if it is screaming and threat displays). It is emotionally intense, but most of the violence is verbal. The physical violence is low level and more about maintaining social protocols than it is either harming the other person or establishing social dominance for its own sake.

Second is that the dynamics change if the individual, who is being told his or her behavior is 'unacceptable,' has a different agenda. This can and often will escalate into a 'fight.' But that, too, will follow 'monkey dance' patterns.

Third is that 'bad guys' don't follow this script. They cross lines, overreact, refuse to compromise and refuse to accept an apology (instead, they accept groveling) and, even then, they might decide to 'punish' to the extreme.

Your 'good guy' is someone who follows these societal rules. Your bad guy doesn't follow them. In fact, he is more concerned about himself than getting along with others. And this includes treating everyone as 'outside his tribe.'

Another way of describing this is mental and emotional 'parts' of the personality. Your bad guy is missing parts. Parts that other people have. Parts that keep normal people from crossing the line and doing what he does. For example, instead of a single strike to restore social order, a bad guy will continue to mercilessly beat someone -- even when that person is trying to submit. The mental part that tells a normal person it's time to stop is missing.

You can work with this concept in many ways to make a more believable antagonist. In fact, that brings us to the first segment of my lecture to authors, the mistakes. Particularly mistakes about their bad guys.

Mistakes Authors Make: Antagonist
Robert Heinlein once wrote, "Your enemy is never a villain in his own eyes(2)." That's an important concept to remember when it comes to writing believable antagonists.

During an interview, actor Al Pacino made a similar observation that ran along the lines of "your antagonist must somehow believe what he is doing is justified. If you don't put that in, all you have is a mustache-twiddler."

The bottom line is -- even if his rationalization for doing it is as screwed up as a soup sandwich -- somehow, some way your antagonist must be giving himself permission to act. In fact, some of the worst deeds in history have been committed by villains who believed themselves to be the aggrieved parties.

With this in mind, here is a list of errors many authors make when creating an antagonist -- especially a villain who is willing to use violence to achieve his goals. For the record, you don't have to explain these reasons to your readers, but, if you want to have a believable bad guy, you need to have answered these questions in your own head.

  • Why is he doing this?
    What is his internal motivation? Wounded pride? Anger? Self-righteousness? Perceived wrong? An overinflated sense of self-importance? (Or to quote Firefly, "That man thinks he's right with God.") Insecurity? Greed? Fear? *Hint, most bad guys down deep are control freaks -- as such they often act out of fear of losing control.* Low self-esteem? Trying to build it up? An assumption of power?

    Earlier I mentioned the idea of mental or emotional parts missing in your antagonist. Since nature abhors a vacuum, you might want to think of these motivations filling in those empty spots of mercy, compassion, empathy and knowing when to stop. For example, the combination of overinflated self-worth, rage at being humiliated and lack of impulse control can result in an antagonist not only killing, but torturing, someone for a perceived insult. Although the infraction was minor, to villian, the *cough cough* grievousness of the incident meant the person had to die.
  • What does he hope to accomplish?
    When I teach police, I ask the following question: Why do people become violent?

    I often get a long laundry list of different reasons -- anger, fear, humiliation, revenge, criminal gain, etc., etc. And while the components all are true and are reasons why someone can become violent, they don't answer the question 'why.' The short answer: They want something.

    This is why you must ask yourself: What does your antagonist hope to accomplish through violence? Whether it is an external goal (e.g., driving someone from an area, controlling a resource or criminal gain) or an internal one (e.g., revenge over a perceived wrong, building his self-esteem, anger, etc.) that's up to you. While these motivations can change in the middle of a situation the actions resulting from those changes will remain consistent with the new goals(3).
  • Why does he choose physical violence?
    Why doesn't he negotiate? Why doesn't he try to buy someone off? Why doesn't he ask for an apology? In short, what is it about the antagonist, the situation or the dynamics of the environment that determine that physical violence is the best answer?

    This is important because, while the threat of violence is common, actual violence is rare. Most bullies rely on the fears threats and intimidation engender rather than resorting to violent conflict. And this is because, no matter how competent a person is at violence, there exists a serious risk of death or crippling injury when engaging in hostility. So before your bad guy goes head-to-head with your protagonist, he's going to try other strategies
  • What triggered him?
    The easiest way to explain this is through thriller movie plots. Someone moves into a house and is stalked by a psychotic neighbor. What happened that caused the antagonist to give himself permission to stalk this particular neighbor? What was his trigger?  Something inside the psycho neighbor's head went "click... act out on this one."

    Again, you don't have to tell the reader the reasons (and with thrillers it's better if you don't), but something caused the person to choose the protagonist as a target. These motivations usually are a combination of inner motivations and external circumstances. With nutcases it can be as small as a comment or a look.

    It also can be that the 'big dog of the area' senses something in your protagonist he feels is a danger to his control of a situation. Or maybe your protagonist is doing something that threatens the antagonist's position, power or money source (e.g. uncovering dirty dealings).
  • What is keeping him in check?
    Remember when I said the gritty dangerous realities of violence among nasty people isn't romantic or fun? Realistically: Why doesn't the antagonist just walk up and shoot your protagonist in the back of the head?

    Because that's how things often are settled by serious bad guys.

    While it's easy to put limitations on your 'hero' (because you have to keep the protagonist within the limits of what the reader will accept), you also have to do that with your antagonist. These checks can be external (e.g., killing a cop is bad, the protagonist will shoot back, an outright war is bad for business, etc.). Power exists within limitations. It only goes so far before it runs into another power.

    But just as often, the checks will be internal (e.g., the antagonist wants to play cat and mouse, induce fear within the victim or impress others). *OK so it might seem that impressing others is external. In fact, it's both ... but it's mostly a dysfunctional person telling himself others will be impressed if he engages in certain behaviors.* These are in fact, usually stronger influences on an antagonist's motives than external ones ... especially if the antagonist has gone off the deep end.

    The combination of internal and external checks will strongly influence your antagonist's decision-making process and his choice of tactics. As he is foiled at each stage, he will escalate to the next level.

Mistakes Authors Make: Protagonists
This list is mixed. Some are questions that an author needs to answer before writing about conflict and action. Others are concepts you need to think about before setting your character on a course of action.

  • What is your protagonist's 'Monkey Trap?'
    Do you know how to trap a monkey? Take a jar and place a piece of fruit in it that barely passes through the mouth. Tie the jar to a stake. The monkey can reach into the jar and grab the fruit. The combination of the size of the fruit and the monkey's hand makes it impossible for the monkey to withdraw its paw while holding the treat. As long as the monkey hangs onto to the fruit, it is trapped. In the Orient the monkey trap idea is used to show the danger of 'greed,' because in refusing to release the fruit, the hunter can approach and kill the monkey.

    I use the concept of a monkey trap to get writers to consider a very simple question. A question that the reader is going to ask. And that is: Why didn't the protagonist just leave?

    You can find examples of this concept in a variety of genres. In reality a lone drifter passing through a Western town is going to look around, read the signs that the evil cattle baron is pushing around the locals ... and ride on. What is it that causes him to stop and say "NO, that's unacceptable!" Because it is that decision that is going to lead to him being in conflict with the antagonist.

    The monkey trap can be internal or external. For example in a horror or thriller, a common monkey trap is a new home. It is the financial investment that leads to them to first denying and then staying in a demonically possessed home or being stalked by inbreed lunatics.

  • What in your hero is different?
    Most people really try to get along. And in the presence of a bully this can be the case, even at expense to themselves. Most people -- as long as they can get along -- won't buck a bully. They'll leave an area rather than risk violence. Except withdrawing from conflict doesn't make for a good story.

    To explain the difference, I'm going to have to get personal. Upon meeting me for the first time people are often amazed. I am constantly asked: How did you get involved in so much violence? You're friendly, happy, easy going, intelligent and polite. How come you have such a violent past?

    The answer is simple. I don't push well.

    When bullies, aggressive people and trouble makers came into an area and started pushing people around, it is in my nature to say "I don't think so." And when the individual insisted on his right to misbehave, I was happy to demonstrate that his right to swing his arm, didn't end where my nose began. It ended when it entered my airspace. I then proceeded to explain the legend of Beowulf  -- in graphic detail.

    I simply don't tolerate bullies and troublemakers 'taking it out' on people. That trait was within me and it meant that when everyone else was backing away from trouble, I was standing up saying "Hi Grendel."

    Similar traits must be pre-established within your character or develop as the antagonist's aggression becomes overbearing. Otherwise there will be no conflict to base your story on.

  • Before/during/after
    Now we shift from questions the author must ask about character motivation and move onto things the author must know to write convincingly about action. We've already discussed issues like primate conflict behavior, changes in your brain and motivations that can lead to conflict and violence. The more you tailor your story to follow these patterns the more likely the reader is to get sucked into the action.

    But what about what's happening during violence? The short answer is there is no short answer. Your mind goes wonky, adrenal stress kicks in, perceptions shift, distortions of sight, sound and distance all can occur. Wild thoughts rocket through your mind and only grim determination keeps you from panicking.

    But here is something to think about. In movies, the actor supplies the visual cues about what is happening internally. While you as the writer may be envisioning your character engaging in a wild emotional rollercoaster, if you do not tell your readers about it, all you are going to be writing about is the physical action. The exact details of what goes on during a violent encounter are beyond the scope of this page. (Besides, if I gave it all away there's no need for me to come and speak at your writer's group or convention now is there?)

    And then there is the aftermath of action. No matter how experienced your characters are there will be both immediate after-effects and short term after-effects. Like during violence itself, the effects will be a buffet of choices. Which ones you pick are less import than that you put them in.
  • Brain death as plot development
    Have you ever seen the "If I Ever Become An Evil Overlord" list? One of the points is: One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.

    Although that's my favorite, there are many examples of 'brain death as a plot development' in the Overlord list. If they've become cliché enough to make the list, it means enough writers have made these mistakes.

    Simply stated professionals make mistakes. However, there are certain kinds of mistakes that a professional DOESN'T make. If your character is competent in a field, there are certain things that he will not overlook, much less fall for.

    For example, I recently helped a writer with a sword fight scene. Both duelists had lost their swords (as occasionally happens), resorting to daggers, the 'evil overlord' had also gained control of both daggers. The protagonist kneels, pretending to be a sacrificial lamb, as the antagonist approaches him, the hero snatches one of the dropped swords and dispatches the evil half-brother.


    That's NOT the kind of mistake a trained fighter would make. You know where the fallen weapons are in the dueling pit. And you do everything in your power to keep your opponent from reaching one. That's because if he gains control of the superior weapon, you die. The fight continues with what you have at hand because, you can't turn your back on him to pick one up.

    Someone with as much experience as the bad guy was supposed to have making such a fundamental mistake as allowing his opponent to kneel by a dropped sword, blew the credibility of the scene. BUT, the author wanted to make the death blow by a sword. I suggested she change the scene to the protagonist kneels and pulls his eating knife from where he keeps it on the back of his belt(4). Unexpectedly striking as the antagonist approaches gives the hero time to scramble over and grab a sword.

    Forgetting someone has a tool on them that you can't see is a believable mistake. Failing to prevent your opponent reaching the sword because you have a knife sticking in you is also believable. Going totally brain dead and allowing your opponent to creep over to a fallen weapon isn't.

  • The "He's sooooo studly" fight.
    As there are gratuitous boob and butt shots in movies, there are gratuitous action scenes. Simply stated violence happens for a reason. Reasons that are clearly identifiable and understandable. While an assault may occur with little or no reasonable provocation, your characters need a much better reason to fight. Why? Because fighting is dangerous.

    As such before an individual chooses to engage in a conflict with someone (where the risk of physical injury is high), he's going to have to have a pretty good reason -- especially if your 'hero' is a competent opponent. Odds are the other person is going to choose a different strategy rather than risk a brawl with your protagonist.

    Unfortunately, many writers try to establish how 'studly' the character is by putting him (or her) into a gratuitous fight early on. Then they reinforce it by putting him in another one. And another one. And another..

     For example a common ploy in action movies, the hero walks into a tough bar seeking information. Encountering resistance a brawl erupts and after defeating several opponents he basically beats the information out of someone.

    This is wrong for many different reasons. First off, thugs know when someone comes in looking for someone or information, odds are it's a cop. Punching cops is bad. Second, it's a lot easier to simply lie than it is to be thrown head first into the wall. "I dunno" is something that is difficult to disprove. Third, anyone who's tough enough to mop up a bar gives of certain non-verbal cues that will warn thugs that plausible deniability is a better, safer, route. Fourth, unless your character makes a mistake or intentionally insults the thugs --thereby making it personal -- it's easier just to let him go. Fifth, if someone doesn't like your hero making enquires, the local bar talent won't move on him. Usually a discrete phone call is made and heavy hitters will make a run at your protagonist both later and at a different location. And when these guys show up it will be serious.

    If your publisher or agent thinks that you must spice things up with a little action that's fine, but find a good reason for the action to happen. Unfortunately all too often authors make fights happen for insufficient reasons to satisfy the demands for action.

    Since I don't believe in giving people a problem without giving them a solution, I'd like to turn your direction to the How To Get Attacked page. If you absolutely have to get your character into violence that doesn't advance the plot -- but keeps the reader interested -- then have him violate some of these rules. OR have someone in the group (like a woman) question the size of the thugs' penises for not assaulting your hero. These are things that will humiliate the thugs and drive them into attacking your hero.

These are just a few of the things that I talk about in my lectures to writers. I also have a lecture about how to write more believable alpha male characters. This lecture includes how to write a convincing lone wolf character and what motivates such a person.

I also offer a proof reading service where I will read your manuscript and go over problems with your action scenes and character's behavior in dangerous situations. In short, I'll help you present a product that not only will have a better chance of selling, but your readers won't be looking at the wallpaper.

Return to top

1) Take a badger and drop it into the middle of the forest. Take a human and drop him naked in the same forest without any tools. A very short time later you have a thriving badger and a dead human. The badger has instincts, fur and claws. We NEED other people for our survival. Not only to manufacture our equipment, to cloth us, to feed us but, most importantly, for information. Even if the person was able to survive in the forest, the knowledge to do so would have come from other people. Someone can be a hermit or curmudgeon but ONLY because of the support and services of other people. Return to Text

2) The full quote is: Your enemy is never a villain in his own eyes. Keep this in mind, it may offer a way to make him your friend. If not, you can kill him without hate--and quickly. Return to Text

3) I recently worked with an author who has a scene where a robbery attempt failed, but the protagonist hasn't escaped yet. One of the muggers was knocked down. The protagonist realizes that the mugger now intends to kill him. The writer had sensed that the dynamics of the situation had changed, but couldn't articulate why it had changed. As such, the rest of the action scene wandered.
Rory Miller (Meditations on Violence) accurately observed 'Criminals cannot be shamed, but they can be humiliated." By being knocked over, the criminal was humiliated. That turned his motivation from robbery into murder and revenge. From that point on, that would be his goal. That new goal would dictate his further behavior. Once the new motivation was established, it was much easier for the writer to regain control over the action scene. Return to Text

4) A knife is a tool, a dagger is a weapon. There are design modifications made to a blade to turn it into a weapon. These changes render a knife useless as a tool (e.g. the double edge removes your ability to put a finger or thumb on the back of the blade for extra leverage). In times when people openly carried weapons, there was tendency to also carry a knife as a tool. Not only because of functionality, but would you like to cut your meals with the same weapon you killed someone with? Return to Text


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