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How to Write GREAT Action Scenes!

By MaryLu Tyndall

In any great action scene your reader should be feeling and experiencing the same stress, fear, and excitement your protagonist is feeling. You want your readers on the edge of their proverbial seats! You want them screaming, “Oh no! What’s going to happen? How will they survive? Help!”

So, how do you create that kind of tension on the page?

1. Get into the head of your point of view character and ask yourself what they are seeing, smelling, feeling? What are they thinking? What are their fears? How will they react?

Try to incorporate all your character’s senses. Put yourself on that ship being chased by a pirate. When they fire their cannons, what are your thoughts? What is your body doing? Your heart? Your blood? Are you numb? Can’t breathe? If you die, what are your regrets? Who do you leave behind? Do you fear death? Can you smell the smoke? Do you hear screams? Did the shot hit the ship? Can you hear the wood snap? The captain yell?

Repeat these questions often during the scene to make sure you’re staying in character and you haven’t drifted into describing the action rather than being right in the middle of it!

2. Use the setting to enhance the stressful mood.

No matter if you’re on land or sea, setting is a great tool to enhance any scene. If you are outside, you can change the mood instantly by having thunder clouds roll in, a dog howl, darkness fall. In a house, the power can go off, a window break, a fire start. And of course on a ship, the spray can sting your face, the wind claw your skin. Use your setting!

3. Use other character’s expressions and reactions to convey stress.

Have a character wailing in terror. Perhaps another one praying! Have one tell your character they are doomed. Have your character try to help someone, but they die. How other characters around your protagonist are reacting can up the stress level significantly. .

4. Use short, choppy, sentences to convey stress and action.

Long, drawn out sentences give a feeling of comfort and ease and a sense that you have all the time in the world. Short, choppy ones give a sense of urgency, as in the passage below (taken from my next release, Escape to Paradise, Feb 2013)

Perspiration slid down Eliza’s back. Her palms grew moist. The ship pitched on a wave. Her feet skipped over the deck. Above her, sails caught the wind in a boom nearly as loud as a cannon. Still the enemy frigate came. The port railing swept up toward the sky. Eliza clutched it, hanging on for dear life. Her mouth went dry. Why didn’t the blasted Union leave them alone? Hadn’t they done enough damage?

The ship righted again. Wind tore Eliza’s bonnet from her head. It fell into the agitated sea. Strands of hair whipped her face. She brushed them aside just in time to see a yellow flame spear from the union ship.

“Hands down!” the captain yelled.


MaryLu Tyndall, a Christy Award Finalist, and best-selling author of the Legacy of the King’s Pirates series is known for her swashbuckling historical romances filled with deep spiritual themes. She believes that without popcorn and chocolate, life would not be worth living, and her sole motivation in life is to bring others closer to God.

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One Response to How to Write GREAT Action Scenes!

  1. Nice post, MaryLu! Thanks for sharing your advice!