Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Creating Believable Action in Your Manuscript

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

I love fight scenes in movies and on TV. Full of powerful moves, with lunges and uppercuts and fancy steps, they seem very real. But they’re not. They’ve been carefully blocked, with everything we see having been choreographed as if it were a dance, something that is also blocked out. Even love scenes have “intimacy coordinators” now, so that actors can make love scenes realistic. Amazing! 

But, first, these scenes must be on the page, whether in a script for video, or in a novel. And the choreography isn’t only for high-action fight scenes. Any scene, even something that seems as simple as Joe walking across the room towards Sam, can be blocked out, so the reader can “see” the action in their mind. 

Making action believable isn’t hard, but takes specific steps to achieve. 
  • I don’t think that a writer should interrupt the flow of creativity, at least in that first, all-important draft. Blocking action can be better done after the scene itself is on the page, in any one of the subsequent edits. 
  • Not every scene will be “important” enough to block every move. I suggest that only the big scenes -- where something story-changing happens -- need a step-by-step arrangement. 
  • What is the goal of the scene? The motivation behind it? The end result? If the scene is written, you may already have all this but it will matter as to how the scene plays out. 
  • Imagine the scene in your head. What do YOU see? Where are the characters? Does their location make a difference in how the scene will be played out? 
  • The personality of the characters makes a difference in an action scene. How does Joe differ from Sam? Is one of them stronger-willed than the other? Or more experienced? 
  • What needs to happen? Are they going to fight with their fists over who gets to take Susie to the prom? Or will they only shout at each other? (Even that needs to be choreographed.) 
  • Pay attention to all of the limbs involved. I read a scene where a character had three hands (yes, three!) because he was holding something in each one of them. Of course, that wasn’t the case, but that was what was on the page. Love scenes are notorious for this problem, but any action scene can fall into this trap. 
  • If you can, ask real people to help you by acting the scene out. One of my students wrote an amazing historical romance about “Lizzie,” whose daughter lived in another state. Lizzie finds out her daughter is in danger, but in the story, she barely reacted. We took the scene and assigned others in the group to act it out, even wrapping a tablecloth around Lizzie’s waist so that she would see how it felt to wear a long dress. We each took a character and, line by line, read the scene. It was amazing to watch it come to life in front of us, especially when Lizzie realized her daughter had been sold to a brothel. She jumped up from the bench and paced back and forth, clutching the neck of her blouse, her strides hampered by the fabric around her legs. She wanted to run, to race to the town where her daughter lived, but couldn’t, so she screamed at the bearer of the bad news. It went on for several more pages but the information the writer gained by acting out the scene was wondrous to watch. And she changed her story to fit what she saw.
The power was in the acting. Because we writers sometimes forget that we are talking about REAL people with REAL emotions, even though they're only characters.

Try acting out your own action scenes. Plan them first, so that you know all of the emotions and dialogue and setting is right, then "put them on stage" and see what happens.

Have you tried acting out a scene?


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at WWW.MARGIELAWSON.COM. Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at hamerse@bellsouth.net or WWW.SALLYHAMER.BLOGSPOT.COM

From Sally: I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Wow that's a lot to think about - thanks Sally! :)

  2. Acting out a scene? Something to ponder next time I get writer's block.