Screw movies. A great novel can be just as exciting and thrilling as a big-budget Hollywood tentpole. A novel can contain massive, insane action, that movie-makers could never even afford to bring to life. But how do you create an action movie on the page? We talked to 10 of our favorite authors, and here’s what they told us.
“I grew up in the 80s as big blockbusters started to become a thing, so I do think some of those concepts influence me in terms of how I approach action,” says Tobias Buckell, author of Arctic Rising. “There’s certainly some inner kid that is trying to translate those feelings I got when I saw big, epic action on a screen to a sort of driven narrative when I’m doing big set pieces in books.” At the same time, he notes that he grew up without a television, on a boat with “limited access to power in a sort of watery off-the-grid Kevin Costner Waterworld experience,” and didn’t really discover tentpole movies until he turned nine.
“ All my books start in my head as films or documentaries that I then have to adapt for a novel. If I can’t see it, I can’t write it,” says Karen Traviss, author of Going Grey. “In every scene, I’m walking the point of view character through a three-dimensional landscape and interacting with it through the characters’ eyes, seeing what they see and thinking what they think. Even my scene and chapter transitions are often pretty much the ones I learned making documentaries and features, almost to the point of dissolves and fades.”
“I think there are some actiony bits, especially in The Expanse books,” says Daniel Abraham, who’s one half of James S.A. Corey, author of Leviathan Wakes and its sequels. “And I think a lot of the best action movies — I’m thinking Die Hard, Hard Boiled, The Replacement Killers, Way of the Gun—try to strike a balance between the human sentiment of the story and the spectacle of the events. That’s not a bad thing to aim for.”
Seanan McGuire, author of the October Daye novels, including the recent A Red Rose Chain, says she definitely thinks of her work as being like action movies. “I also think of my work as having similarities to a 1980s horror movie,” she says. “I think that might be slightly more accurate in the long run, given that I am more apt to have something awful crawl out of a mirror than I am to produce a bunch of mooks with guns. Although both can be a lot of fun.”
“I think in terms of beats and set pieces. There can be long stretches of the book without any action, but they’re always punctuated with moments of tension that might or might not lead to action,” says Richard Kadrey, author of Killing Pretty. “These beats fall at specific points in the book, some of which are planned well in advance while others appear instinctively as I write. Also, when I set up a big action scene, I try to choreograph them so that each is different and memorable in some way.”
Linda Nagata, author of The Red: First Light, says she definitely thinks of this recent trilogy as being like an action movie: “These books are military thrillers, that contain lots of action, dialogue, and cutting edge technology—they are very visual books—and the story is told through the experiences of a heroic protagonist.”
“I think every present-day writer has to be affected by the strong visual content of cinema and TV,” says David Weber, author of the Honor Harrington books, including the recent Cauldron of Ghosts. “The extent to which that worms its way into his or her work is obviously going to differ from writer to writer, of course. Additionally, I suppose another hallmark of ‘action movies’ is the tight pacing and ‘forward momentum’ of the plot, storyline, and ‘energy level,’ for want of a better term. In that respect, I’m not sure which came first, the chicken or the egg. There have always been stories with that kind of pacing and energy level.”
“I feel like literary fiction is all about the interior, while pulp fiction is rooted in action, whether that action be adventure, invention, sex, or violence,” says Ayize Jama-Everett, author of The Entropy of Bones. “I’d classify myself primarily as a pulp writer with a focus on mysterious action. That means weird fights. Movies like Pacific Rim, Scanners, They Live, Blade, and even Chronicle fall into that category.”
“Habitually, when people ask what my work is “like” (and don’t look like they want to hang around for a lengthy exposition), I usually say it’s like Bladerunner,” says Richard K. Morgan, author of The Steel Remains and its sequels. “Now there’s plenty of action in Bladerunner, but I’d hesitate to call it an action movie. I don’t think action is the main point of that film, it’s much more of a cocktail than that and the real intensity comes as much from what the characters have to say as from what they do.”
It’s important to realize that “just seeing a movie in your own head that is exciting and trying to describe it to the reader is boring for the reader,” says Buckell, who also wrote Sly Mongoose. “It’s like having a dream described to you. It may mean a lot to the speaker, but it comes off as one thing after another.”
“With fiction we really reward immersion, into a landscape or another person’s mind, and stakes,” adds Buckell. “I really think that in fiction the trick is to use action to push the character into making snap choices, narrowing down moments of the plot so that the depend on and turn on the moment of action, but that the impacts of actionhave meaning based on the set ups the writer creates leading up to that point. You’ll often find that people who remember heavy action oriented books, upon re-reading, may find that the set up to that action lasted for a third of the book. It’s just that it stood out so much, and was so important to the characters, that you forget the rest of the iceberg in favor of the action that stuck up over the water of your memory.”
“That applies to good movies and screenwriting as well,” says Buckell. “People forget how many major ‘action’ movies are two thirds of a build up toward a single violent act that dominates the memory. I remember Rocky being a movie that was nothing but boxing. Yet upon rematch, it’s mostly about training. It takes forever to see the first Alien. And so on.”
Other authors offer more nuts-and-bolts advice. “I change my sentence structure in action scenes, using either long run-on sentences or short, even choppy ones,” says Kadrey. “This creates the sense of long action sequences interspersed with film-like quick cutting.”
Nagata similarly offers a few tips to make your writing more action-oriented: “keep the plot tightly focused around the protagonist, and don’t slow things down with excessive description. This includes descriptions of people, places, and emotions. On a related note, limit world building to the essentials. In other words, write sparely, and make every word count. On a structural level, prefer short paragraphs to long ones, avoid rare and unusual words that the reader might stumble over, and of course, use an active voice.”
When asked what the most crucial element of writing an action movie on paper, Abraham immediately responds, “Chapter length.”
Abrham adds: “Keep in mind, I’m talking about good action movies here. Bad action films are just as boring as bad any-other-genre films. But the idea of something propulsive that sweeps you along into the next act while you’re still recovering from the last one? Yeah, chapter length around 3000 words. And making sure you don’t raise a question and answer it in the same chapter. And ending chapters with. . . not necessarily with a cliffhanger, but with an invitation to read the next one.”
“I try to pay as much attention to the building or releasing of tension that a chapter does so that a reader isn’t left with a place at the end of a chapter where they feel it’s a logical place to put the book down,” says Buckell. “When beginning writing, I see many writers viewing chapters as akin to short stories, with events needing wrapped up. They write chapters as complete, almost stand alone units. But what you need are chapters that end with the reader wanting to know more. Not necessarily cliffhangers (though those are great), but questions or events that propel the reader forward. The middle of a chapter is more likely the place a chapter break needs to occur.”
A key part of writing good action is “the ability to immerse the reader in the action as it occurs,” says Weber. “Movies do that through sight and sound, [but] books have to do it through imagination. On the other hand, we have unlimited control over camera angles and lighting, not to mention a bottomless special-effects budget.”
“I don’t think we can get away with some of the absolute insanity incorporated in a lot of action movies,” adds Weber. “For example, in one of the Transformers movies we see an actor caught by one arm after falling a couple of stories, swing around like a berserk pendulum in the process, without having his limb physically ripped from his body in the process. Not only that, he can use it normally seconds later! You can’t sell that to a reader. You just can’t. But you can involve the reader personally in the action sequence and you can—by verb choices, viewpoint shifts, choices of adjective or adverb — steer the reader’s experience and imagination.”
“Action doesn’t necessarily mean blowing stuff up and lots of fistfights, although those are always fun,” says Traviss, who also wrote some acclaimed Star Wars novels. “Psychological turmoil in the character’s head can be just as effective in a novel. So can letting the reader watch the character walk into a situation that the reader knows is going to end in tears but the character doesn’t, which is another extra layer that the internal view in a novel can convey vividly.”
“Watch a lot of action movies and things like that, but also watch dance competitions and roller derby and other real-world action things,” McGuire advises. “Pay attention to how people use their environment, what they do with the world around them, how they interact and manipulate things to their advantage. And then turn the dial up to eleven. A lot of it is about grounding things, though. Reality gets to be stranger than fiction. Fiction needs to be justified.”
“My own approach to writing violence and dynamic action is to go full on, make no apologies for it but at the same time make no attempt to justify it as somehow ‘good’ or ‘right,’” says Morgan. “It’s exciting, yes, exhilarating even, it’s a ride—but it’s also sickening and horrific and costly, and I think you have to show that.”
One thing that defines a ton of action movies these days is their three-act structure. But how much do authors feel like they need to stick to this same template in writing action-oriented books?
“I would argue that you can use the familiar three-act structure as scaffolding for a very effective and compelling action story,” says Cherie Priest, author of Chapelwood: The Borden Dispatches. “There’s a familiar trajectory to it—the wind-up, the upward momentum, the third act that’s almost entirely climax...and so forth. If you can structure a novel in more or less the same way, and give it large, dangerous moving parts, the end result can offer a similar vibe.”
“My books generally have three acts simply by the way I visualize and structure stories,” says Kadrey. “It’s not something I planned. It’s just way my mind works.”
“I think that all stories, whether they’re oral, written, or visual, fall naturally into some kind of three-part structure,” says Traviss. “Even individual scenes break down that way. Those three-part modules bolt together into a bigger story arc that can also be broken down into three parts. That’s how you develop the pacing, or at least how I do: You reveal the set-up to the audience, build the doubt and tension so that they ask, ‘Okay, now what’s going to happen?’ and then pay off, partial resolutions for scenes, full resolutions for at the end of the book.”
“From my experience one almost needs to pay more attention to Freytag’s pyramid for action: build, build, build up to an apex of stakes, then deliver,” says Buckell. “So [the] bomb defuser has to work on a small bomb in a building that’s been evacuated. Then it’s a bomb at a gathering of people who can’t be evacuated in time. Then it’s a bomb in a stadium for the finale. It doesn’t have to be in threes, it just has to escalate logically so the reader follows along. Whether emotional stakes for the character, or just stakes around them.”
“The plot structure of most of The Expanse books has been five-act, but that’s really more for our convenience wrapping our heads around the outlines,” says Abraham. “In reading the books, I’m not sure you’d see it. We are keeping a close eye on trying to keep the story suspenseful and having things that are visually striking or conceptually awesome. There was one book where we chose a particular plot moment because it would be beautiful to look at.”
“I think the three act structure is what readers expect from plot driven work,” says Jama-Everett, who’s also the author of The Liminal People. Ask any of the early editors of my work and they’ll tell you that the first drafts have no triptych verisimilitude. But when shaped by the desire for accessibility, that’s often what I’m left with.”
Jama-Everett says that he has a fondness for “straight ahead freight train going 100 miles and hour” storytelling, in which the reader is just catching a snippet of the plot. But modern-day readers of action-oriented fiction “want to be catered to, to be told rather than shown,” so he ends up falling into a more conventional structure with more exposition, and a rising action leading to a “climax, revelation, denouement and resolution.”
But Weber says he doesn’t really think in terms of structure at all:
I don’t think in terms of act structures when I sit down to write, and I think my plots are more character driven than action driven. Obviously, there’s a lot of action in them, and that action defines the options that the characters face, plus the consequences they suffer, but in my mind, the action is the frame for the characters’ decisions and reactions more than the heart of the story itself. I think that action movies tend to make the action a full-fledged “leading actor” in the film, whereas I think in my books it plays the part of a supporting actor. The degree to which structure affects (and is affected by) the action elements of my stories has more to do with how you present the action in a way that drops the reader into the middle of it. That goes back to what I said above about viewpoint cuts, language choices, and other “directorial” decisions that manage the pace and the perspective from which the action comes at the reader. So I think there is a structural support, let’s say, to the fashion in which action books and action movies reflect one another, but not in the sense — in my mind, at least — of adopting anything like a formal structural parallel between them.
And Morgan says that the three-act structure is part of dumbing down speculative fiction: “Personally, I think the whole three-act thing is a bit of a curse—it’s the ball and chain we drag with us in genre fiction as a result of our close association with the movies as a popular form, the dumb-as-fuck yardstick for an industry that doesn’t really understand - or even like very much - the unpredictable mercurial magic at the heart of its own product,” says Morgan. “The whole point of a novel is that you have the space to do so much more than you do in a movie, and it’s a great shame to see that space being reduced and codified in the quest to make novels digestible through a painting by numbers approach with subtitles for the hard of thinking.”
Long before Hollywood was spending hundreds of millions of dollars putting explosions on the big screen, authors were creating addictive action in book form. So what classic books do these authors recommend?
“The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the best-paced action books I’ve ever read<” says Jama-Everett. “I know it was a serial, so maybe it doesn’t count. I know damn near every chapter ends of a cliffhanger, I don’t care. Dumas knows how to keep me interested.”
“The Silver John stories of Manley Wade Wellman are great in that they don’t waste a single word on excessive narration,” Jama-Everett adds. “I think that was true of all of Wellman’s writing, I’m just most familiar with the Silver John Stories.”
“And Robert McCammon is a beast when it comes to plot,” says Jama-Everett. “He’s a working writer that is doing that raw plot driven ass kicking in its purest form. Every page has a bang and every random rumination is fiendish foreshadowing in disguise.”
“Stephen King has made me think a lot about the topic—both in what he gets wrong, and in what he gets right,” says McGuire. “I love the way he handles a slow build. No one else does it better. It makes the action, when it finally comes, hit twice as hard.”
“For me, Walter Tevis,” says Abraham. “His book The Queen’s Gambit is a great example of the tension and propulsion of an “action” plot without conflating it with violence. It’s book about a girl who is a brilliant chess prodigy and also hooked on pills. It’s driven by whether her talent or her addiction will win out, and it reads like anaction story because of the pacing and the structure.”
Morgan recommends the novels of James Ellroy: “He gets the intensity inherent in action, and delivers it without worrying about candy-ass shit like who’s actually doing it or whether you can sympathise with them or not. His prose is a masterclass in delivering that thuggish, amoral intensity, and in the process also delivering a genuine reflection on what violence actually is.”
Kadrey says, “When I started writing fiction, I admired Robert Stone’s action language in books such as Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise. I can’t come up with other writers at the moment, though Jim Thompson had a flair for brutality. I think starting with Stone twenty-plus years ago, my style has worked out through practice and instinct.”
“When I read Sandman Slim [by Richard Kadrey], I started to get a feel for the potential of a first-person, present-tense voice,” says Nagata. “This can work really well for an action story because it forces the tale to be predominantly in-the-moment, which keeps both the character and the reader on the edge of the action.”
But Weber says that reading history is just as important as reading science fiction:
From the science-fiction perspective, I’d have to say that H Beam Piper played a major role, and so did Keith Laumer, but I was probably more influenced in that respect by heroic fantasy writers like Robert E Howard. To be honest, though, a lot of my own attitude towards action sequences — which, I think, underlies the way I structure them in both science fiction and fantasy — has a lot more to do with all of the history I’ve read over the last fifty years. That may sound odd, but I’ve spent a lot of those years trying to get inside actual, real-world, historicalaction on battlefields, aboard warships, in aircraft flying over enemy territory. The very best history for doing that is to read firsthand, first-person accounts by the men and women who were there, trapped in those situations. If you have an imagination that can listen to those words, you almost have to begin to see how the action that affected these people, often with horrendously traumatic consequences for the entire remainder of their lives, actually played out when it happened. That’s the sort of “punch-in-the-gut” impact that makes an actionsequence truly work, I think. It’s less the special-effects, velocity, and sound level than it is trying to appreciate and project the way all of that energy, momentum, and violence impacts on the characters caught up in it.