Blood and Sand: How I Learned To Write Action Scenes

Gladiator fights at "Brot und Spiele"...

Tip One: The pointy end goes into the other guy.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am always writing.

Even times like this, when I’m caught between projects, I’m still writing. Playing in the sandbox, mostly. Stuff that’s never intended for publication. Scenes, moments, attempts at capturing a feeling…all that stuff’s in the sandbox. It’s where I go to experiment.

Some people might call this a waste of time. I could be working on something else, surely? Something that would pay? Or might, someday? But I’d say that those people are missing the point. The sandbox is where I go to work on skills. It’s a form of deliberate practice, which is how you really improve your abilities at things. You don’t just hammer away; you develop a plan.

Example time: I’m not great at writing action scenes. I have to work really fucking hard at giving them the appropriate tension and consequences, while still putting in enough description to work out what the hell is going on. So, one of the things I do in the sandbox is write fights. All kinds of them—fist fights, gun fights, sword fights, giant robot fights. Actually, one thing I do a lot is write versions of the fights that happen in the tabletop RPG I play with some friends. It’s an RPG; fights are going to happen. So I use those as source material and work out how I would write that event. I take some liberties, shift things around, and figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what’s the difference. I can break those scenes down piece by piece without worry, because they’re just practice. They don’t affect a plot. I can play with them to my heart’s content without breaking anything else.* I can rework them until they’re right.

Now, obviously none of those scenes will ever be published**. They’re not even a part of one of my stories. But as a training tool they are invaluable. My action scenes have improved since I started doing this; writing them is much less torturous than it used to be. And they’re getting better, faster, grittier, and more dangerous. My stories are getting better. I can write things—for submission this time—that I otherwise avoided or never thought of in the first place. All because I took the time to play in the sandbox and work on something I suck at.

In the words of Jake from Adventure Time:


*Except some bones. And cities.
**If they were, it’d have to be in some anthology called 1001 Ways To Fight Minions and Monsters: Giant Robot Edition.

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