How I Approach Complex Action Scenes

In a recent edition of Writers Supporting Writers (, we were discussing a process proposed by a script writer. Overall, our group doesn’t believe in any flat formulae for writing, but there were some merits in the proposal that I could relate to in my own (non-script) writing experience. Specifically, I have a process I will resort to when confronted with a complex action scene, or any scene where I feel a passage isn’t capturing the physical flow of the characters.

Often, when I reach a point where I have multiple characters interacting and moving through a specific location, I will just plow through. However, there are times where I will either be very disappointed with the final product, or I will reach an impasse as I become mired in complexity. When I reach such moments, the first thing I will do is step back and shift into a more visual approach.

Set Your Stage

Step one is to set the stage. I picture the basic elements of the location as best I can in my mind. If I had the ability to draw or rapidly prototype a layout on a PC, I would. The key, at this initial point, is to get a feel for the full space along with the placement of major objects within it. I don’t know. Is this a mental diorama? Whatever, it’s my theater stage. Next step is to place the characters at their starting points. I should point out that this is a broad stroke step. Could there be other characters and/or objects than the primary ones. Sure, but let’s leave them for the retakes and on-the-spot refinements.

Create Your Basic Scenes Based on Points of View

Okay, so our stage is set. Next, we need to create the action scene which will take us from the initial state to the end-goal state – say for example, only two characters who are tied to a post are left with the Ark of the Covenant once again closed. For this task, I’m fortunate to be a very visual thinker. I can play parts of the scene in my mind as if I’m watching a movie; but I’m still going to need to knit those scenes together. So I will focus on the actions from one character’s point of view, then another, and another and so on. I do this until I reach the end state and I know where all of the major players (who have not melted) are, jotting notes and making scribbles along the way so I don’t forget what I envisioned for each.

Now comes the tough part. How do I take these separate threads of sequences and weave them into a single narrative? I struggled with this early on in my writing. Sometimes I’d stumble on a reasonable outcome. However, while the final product may have been better than an earlier draft, it was still clumsy, often unnecessarily descriptive and wordy. What to do? I have an unknown friend to thank, because ages ago someone made a suggestion to me while we were discussing a completely separate topic. It had to ruminate for a while and then resurface long after the suggester had vanished from memory (sorry, unknown person!). The discussion had focused on the difficulty artists encounter in crafting comic books.

Get Out of the Box

Now for those of you who have them, I ask you to temporarily (preferably permanently) place aside your biases regarding comic books. Remember at the heart of it, you have two (at minimum) creatives – a writer and an artist – attempting to tell a visual story within the confines of a physically limited, dialogue-based, episodic format that needs to appeal to the widest range of ages possible. It’s a feat, that when pulled off properly, I am in awe of. Imagine for a moment you are the artist. The writer tells you the scene: Hero A and Hero B are fighting nine thugs in an alley. The writer generally describes the scene and informs you to leverage as many of the physical elements with parkour-based movements. The writer will also provides you with the dialogue as it currently stands. Your job is to translate this information into a set of individual panels which will need to elicit a sense of movement and pacing while fluidly switching focus between Hero A and B as their dialog shifts – preferably all within one page. All of this and you haven’t even factored in your own artistic style and perspectives yet. But this is what they do.

So off I went and purchased a few comic books that had the same characters I enjoyed as a child, but now viewing them from a creative perspective. I didn’t care about the plot. I focused on the scenes involving complex interactions. Sure, there are a number of visual tricks one can employ with panels, but as I stepped back, I could envision how they approached the problem at hand. I’m certain this is how a director’s mind works at the most basic level, but it was quite a useful learning experience for me as a writer of short-stories and novels. I could see how the key points of action were front and center in each panel and how the dialog provided a mechanism, when needed, to move perspective.

Connect the Dots into One Timeline

Returning to my set of threads, I am now able to pick a point on one, connect to a point further along on another and so on until I have a very clear little movie scene in my mind. Yes, many details end up deleted, but that’s a good thing. Remember, you’re trying to take complexity and distill it down to a single simple narrative. Keep those threads handy though, we still have a couple of steps to go, but the more difficult steps are done.

Now, We Can Go Back to Writing

At this point, I have a single visual flow of the scene. Next step, I write it. I have less to describe and less to worry about. Things are happening off-screen, but not the essential, single timeline elements. Once written, I read it through and focus on pacing. Is it still too dense? (Hopefully not) Does it dwell on one moment by zipping past others? I can assure you, with practice you’ll eventually find your first cut lacking these issues. Perhaps, it may be a bit staccato or lacking some punch, but you’re a writer – you’re back in your home element and you have a number of options at hand. You can relook at sections of threads you cut and maybe add one quick back and forth. But most likely, you’ll be looking to fill out your stage elements with additional props. Maybe a falling bowl of petunias can add just the right amount of levity for a comedic scene. Also, the reverse is true. Now that you know the entire mini-movie, you can eliminate anything that doesn’t move the story along and keep the pacing fresh and taut.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned, I don’t do this often – mostly when I’m stuck or tired of cat wrangling my thoughts. There have been times, however, when I employed this technique in an otherwise simple scene. In our video discussion, I brought to mind a short story I had written which had started with a mildly animated scene: a couple were splitting up and having a final discussion which was relatively civilized yet somewhat acrimonious. The two were moving through the rooms of the apartment as the person leaving was collecting the last of her things. On the first write I felt it was significantly lacking in flow and tempo, and that left some of the more humorous dialogue feeling flat. They went from room to room talking until it ended with the apartment door closing. So, I decided to map it out as an action scene. Suddenly, furniture and objects were there to navigate around or manipulate if I needed to. The best part, as the writer, was the last moment as they stood at the open doorway. She made a last check of the items in her bag, offered up some positive words, then left – closing the door behind her. But here was the sweet thing. Now, I had him standing right there, in my mind’s eye, with the room’s entire layout – never described but present if needed – and I had him perform one simple action: he reached up and locked the deadbolt. That moment defined, for me, exactly what was in his mind and changed the tone and actions I had initially planned for him. She was done – that was obviously written – but he was just as done. See, know your stage.

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