Action Scenes: 5 Steps to Write Complex Conflict

A while ago, I bragged about how my daily word count was only 2,000. No big deal, you guys. 

And I was able to sustain it for a while. "Ye gods, this book practically writing itself!" I exclaimed as I blew through the exposition and rising action. The project was fresh and new and funny and...

I completely fell apart at the climax.

My word count slowed to a crawl as I slogged through what exactly I wanted to happen. I've only recently gotten past it and I've come out the other end to help you not get stuck in your own work.

1. Identify the Groups

Sit down and pick out who all is involved in this conflict, where they are, where they're going, and what they're trying to do. A short description will work. Writing this stuff on individual note cards is a good idea. For example, from my book Vessels:

ASHIRA, being held at knifepoint by a traveler, needs to get free.
MWARTHES, stabbed in the back by another traveler, needs to slay everyone and free ASHIRA.

2. Write the End

That's right. Figure out how you want the conflict to end and work toward that goal. If you don't know where you're going, you can't figure out what happens along the way.

3. Get a Table

You've seen those movies where the king or the general stands before a grand table with a giant map on it. Little flags representing enemy and ally units dot the conflict zone. That's essentially what you'll be doing so get a table.

4. Take Turns

I play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. I love running games and many times, as a Dungeon Master, I have to oversee a lot of action going on all at once. Having everyone take turns is not only helpful, it's a core gameplay mechanic.

                                                                                                                                                Roll for initiative.

                                                                                                                                                Roll for initiative.

How it Works

  • A 'turn' takes about 6 seconds. So 10 turns = about a minute.
  • Everyone (players, monsters, enemies, etc.) rolls a die to determine initiative. Whoever rolls highest goes first. Next highest roller goes next and so on.
  • A player on foot may move up to 30 ft. and take an action once per turn.
  • When everyone's turn is spent, a new round of combat begins.

It's not beyond reason to get little figures (or everyday objects) and arrange them on a table. You won't have to roll initiative because you're the author and you know who goes first and who will win. Take notes along the way of all the steps that have to occur to achieve the goal. Or you could write what happens in each turn on a notecard.

5,. Rearrange

Maybe after you put your forks and coffee mugs away, you're not satisfied with what you have. Maybe the scene just isn't exciting enough. Maybe you see that before X can happen, Y needs to come first. That's why writing on notecards is helpful. You can add, subtract, and completely rearrange the events of the action scene. But at least you've taken a step in the right direction.

So if you're having trouble figuring out all the little details of your great big action scene, take a moment, bust out some character placeholders and some notecards, and play it out. You'd be surprised at how easily you can work when you have your characters set down as objects in front of you.

What are your thoughts? Have you tried something like this or does something completely different work for you? Leave a comment below!