The mechanics of writing action in fiction seem pretty straightforward, at least on the surface. The characters do something which results in something else happening. Action begets reaction, and like a row of falling dominoes, the story keeps rolling forward until the writer calls a halt to it at the end.
But more than simply giving characters something to do, action propels the story and keeps the reader hanging on to see what comes next. Effective action writing doesn't simply mean using active versus passive verbs. It also includes pacing and choosing the right words to keep us strapped in and riding the rollercoaster of your story.
To Stay Active Or Not?
One of the first 'rules' I encountered when it came to writing was the dictate to use active instead of passive verbs. Passive verbs include the words is, are, was, etc. The consensus is that a sentence like 'She was excited' is a boring, snooze-inducing way to lose a reader. Indeed, if you can use something more engaging like 'Her heart thundered with excitement', you should. Throw some descriptors in there, and it's even better. 'Her heart thundered like a racehorse being whipped by a frantic jockey on Derby Day.' Now there's an image to make your readers feel they're right there.
That's not to say the passive voice can't offer good reading too. Used in moderation and in the right circumstances, passive verbs can set the tone for a relaxed or even exhausted mood. In the following passage I want to make you feel the excessive effort it takes for the tired character to walk across a floor. Passive verbs slow the action here, dragging it out to better demonstrate the effort required. Try this on for size:
She was tired; bone-weary, head-drooping tired. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been so exhausted. Her whole body was heavy with fatigue, and her feet dragged the floor, unable to lift as she shuffled forward.
Did you feel that? I hope so.
And Speaking of Sharing Your Feelings...
I am one of the worst when it comes to 'feeling' in my writing. As in, 'She felt his hand move up her thigh' or 'He felt the world beneath him tilt.' If there is anything as sluggish and passive as 'feeling' in writing, I'm not aware of it. And I, like many others, do it ALL THE TIME. I spend a ridiculous amount of effort during the editing of my work cleaning every character's 'feelings' out of my stories.
Of course the characters are feeling what happens to them. It goes without saying. So don't say it. 'His hand moved up her thigh.' 'The world beneath him tilted.' These two statements work fine with no flab to weigh them down.
Varying your sentence lengths in a scene can make or break the action. Short sentences give us quickness and immediacy. Longer sentences drag the action out, imparting information and anticipation. In a typical scene where characters are simply living their lives, I'll alternate the two. Here's an example from Alien Salvation:
"I'm not sure that's a good idea." Aaron frowned, putting down his binoculars too. The past two years had been harsh to him. He was in his mid-fifties, but living in hiding and then seeing most of Earth demolished in cataclysmic explosions had aged him badly. His eyes were sunken, his face almost skull-like. It broke Lindsey's heart to see him look so old.
Here's the pattern for the above passage: Short, medium, short, long, medium, short. The varying beats give us a rhythm that flows. Contrast that with what it would have sounded like had I used only short sentences:
"I'm not sure that's a good idea." Aaron frowned. He put his binoculars down. The past two years had been harsh to him. He was in his mid-fifties. However, he'd been aged badly from living in hiding and see most of Earth demolished. His eyes were sunken. His face was almost skull-like. It broke Lindsey's heart to see him look so old.
Chop-chop-chop. It doesn't get much choppier than that, does it? It doesn't work here, but such scene structure does have its place. I like predominantly short sentences in extreme action sequences, where effort and danger are immediate. Like this passage from the same book in which the Kalquorians are preparing for a battle they cannot possibly win:
"I'm ready too." Bacoj patted his own blade, slung on his belt. It too was utilitarian, not showy with a plain black handle and sharp edge. It would do the job nicely.
Now that Vax's worst fears had been addressed, he and Bacoj looked steady. Resolute. Ready to die killing mortal enemies. Japohn felt a rush of pride for his clanmates.
It was a good way to go out.
Next, let's get a look at the first example again using just mid- to long-length sentences:
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Aaron said with a frown as he put his binoculars down too. The past two years had been harsh to him, because even though he was only in his mid-fifties, living in hiding and then seeing most of Earth demolished in cataclysmic explosions had aged him badly. His eyes were sunken, his face almost skull-like, and it broke Lindsey's heart to see him look so old.
I don't know about you, but I had to read this over twice before I could take all the information in. There were no easily digestible, bite-sized chunks there. It made for very laborious reading. I'm not sure there are any times you want to pile long sentence after long sentence on your reader. When the action is slow, perhaps during more more descriptive passages, you'll certainly find more involved sentences. But give your audience a break here and there by mixing up sentence length. They'll like your stories a lot more.
Finding the Right Words
One of my favorite writers Stephen King is on record as saying, "Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule." Mr. King never had to deal with Asperger's Syndrome apparently. Like many Aspies I will fixate on a single word or phrase, and without my thesaurus I will repeat it over and over on the same page, sometimes two or three times within a single paragraph. Just ask my proofreaders.
I'm willing to invite Mr. King's ire by using my thesaurus because getting the right word onto the page is vital. Some words simply work better than others, so do whatever it takes to get the correct ones. Rely on adjectives and adverbs only as a last result. 'Forcefully landing a rock hard blow' isn't as succinct as 'potholing his face in with my fist'. When possible, you want that one perfect action word that will leave no doubt in the reader's mind as to what you meant. Choose carefully.
As another example, think about the variations on the word push. What comes to your mind when you read, "He pushed her into the car" as opposed to "He propelled her into the car" or "He muscled her into the car" or "He jammed her into the car"? Each example gives a whole different picture to the same forceful action, doesn't it? So you need to carefully consider what feeling you're trying to impart to your readers and choose your words accordingly. And if you have to use the diabolical crutch of a thesaurus, so be it. Sorry, Stephen.
So that's my take on writing action. It's all about making the reader feel the passion, the struggles and the triumphs while keeping the story rolling on to the end, whether bitter or happy.