Q&A

How Should I Alternate Action Scenes?

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Hi!

Very general question on plotting, but… is there anything in particular one should think of when alternating between calmer parts of a novel and more action-filled parts?

I’ve really tried to take all the advice on how every chapter should have conflict etc., and there shouldn’t be dull and pointless parts, to heart. I think the layout of the novel as of now lives up to these conditions, and there’s a single clear and pretty simple throughline. Still, some conflicts are directly about MONSTER ATTACKS, and others are about solving mysteries related to the monsters so as to better handle them next time, and finally there’s also relationship stuff and conflicts related to THAT interweaved with the monster stuff. So some conflicts, you could say, are action-packed, and others are much calmer in nature.

Is there some general rule for how to alternate between action and calmer scenes?

Best, Dvärghundspossen

Hey Dvärghundspossen, great to hear from you again!

I can’t say for certain without reading your story, but from what you’ve said, it doesn’t sound like you have a problem here. It’s critical that the story have conflict, but that conflict doesn’t have to take the form of action. Action is an easy way to generate conflict, but it’s not the only way, and often it’s not the best way.

Let’s say in chapter three you have a monster attack. Very exciting, much conflict, everyone has a good time (well, everyone reading the story anyway). Then in chapter four your characters start investigating where these monsters came from and who created them. That’s a perfectly natural transition, and no reader is going to feel let down that there aren’t monster attacks in this chapter too. What matters is that the characters are still dealing with the same underlying conflict and throughline. In fact, the change of pace will probably be welcome.

The instinct that action automatically equals compelling conflict has led many authors astray, because they inject meaningless fight scenes into the story when what they really need to do is focus on the throughline. To illustrate, allow me to compare Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed to The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Crescent Moon starts off with a violent battle against ghouls and then leads into a mystery about who summoned the ghouls and why. Excellent, sounds great. But then we get scene after scene that have almost nothing to do with the ghouls. We meet all the characters’ friends, and then meet the friends’ friends. Then we get unrelated worldbuilding and a lot of angsting over a possible romance. None of this has anything to do with the ghouls.

Eventually, Ahmed tries to make the story more interesting by having two characters run into some goons who want to beat up a young woman in the name of religious dogma. A fight ensues. This is certainly action, but it has nothing to do with the main conflict, so it’s just as boring as the other filler.

Compare that to The Curse of Chalion, which has almost no action at all. Instead, every scene is dedicated to the political-intrigue throughline. In one chapter, the protagonist investigates what the villain is up to, and he discovers a plot to force the princess into a bad marriage. Then the next chapter is about plotting with the princess to avoid said marriage. Then we have to deal with the fallout. Bujold never needs to have random goons attack, because her characters are always dealing with the same throughline. That generates plenty of conflict on its own.

As to your question about alternating between action and non-action scenes, this is all context sensitive, but in general audiences will get bored of anything if it happens for too long. So if you have one scene about fighting monsters, the next scene should probably be different in some way. That doesn’t mean it has to be a radical change. You could make it an investigation or social scene, but it could also be a different type of action. If the hero fought monsters last time, maybe in this chapter they fight a royal guard who thinks the hero is responsible for the monsters. Heck, you could even stick with monster fighting so long as there is something fundamentally different about it, like escalating from dealing with minions to a big boss.

Based on your question, the one thing I’d say to watch out for is making sure the romance is also related to the throughline. A lot of authors stumble here, as it’s easy to spend entire chapters on flirting or agonizing over a forbidden romance. The critical thing here is the romance should either be super important to the plot, like a story where the villain and hero are secretly into each other, or be subtle enough that it can be worked into other scenes. Curse of Chalion is another great example here. The hero’s love interest is also a part of the political machinations, so they have plenty of scenes together where romance can bloom as they plot the villain’s demise.

Hope that helps with your question!

— Oren

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Pretty much like Oren said.

    What I’ve always found is that you need to allow for the reader to ‘come down’ a little after an action scene, so just having one after another doesn’t work too well. Your scenes should be important for the throughline, but calm scenes can also be important. Just as there’s a point where you can’t scare people any more in a horror story (hence horror and humour, to calm the audience down again, work well together), there’s also a point where people can’t be any more hyped about all that action and those glorious fights. If you look at action movies, you’ll find that every intense action scene is followed by something much calmer – even if it’s just the hero dressing (usually) his wounds.

    Basically, scenes should at least serve one of two purposes: they should either expand the reader’s knowledge of a character or they should further the plot. Ideally, they do both. If you have several plots (monsters and romance, I would guess), you will have scenes dealing with one plot only (or even, because it’s necessary, only dealing with one or more characters). If you can, make a scene about at least a character and a plot. If a scene serves neither character understanding or the plot, throw it out and see if you can convey whatever may be in it another way.

  2. Michael Campbell

    Also recognise that people are willing to accept a large change in time if you use a new chapter.

    Jumping to the hero sitting by the campfire after the raging battle is easier for the reader to accept if it’s the start of a new chapter. Throw in a line along the lines of “You were lucky I rescued you…those monsters fled when I turned up but you were down for the count.”…and the audience won’t mind the idea that the battle didn’t flow seamlessly into the next moment.

    Always remember. It was Alfred Hitchcock who said; “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”.

  3. Adam Reynolds

    There was a recent YouTube video from the channel Just Write about the Aquaman film that covered this issue. While I haven’t seen the movie, it talked about the fact that the movie had effectively jump scares into actions scenes, an overcorrection to the problem of too much exposition:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AmLl5Q70izQ

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, the video also pointed out that the movie is actually two movies rolled into one, which is why many characters don’t get the time they deserve. Also something to keep in mind when you’re writing a story.

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