There are tons of ways to write action scenes, just like action scenes can be put in your stories for tons of different reasons. I might include an action scene to prove my villain is a threat, to highlight tensions in a relationship, to point out a character flaw or strength, to convey a mood, to move a plot. Depending on why your action scene is in your story, and what type of action it is (fist fight, general brawl, car chase, etc.), the way you write the scene will vary. Just like how on screen they may have an action scene in slow motion, or use jumpy cuts, or different styles of music. Some people choose to describe only hints of an action scene and allow the reader to fill in the blanks. This can work perfectly well, and sometimes it's necessary either for artistic effect or logistical reasons like there's too much going on to describe every action. But there are times when I think really describing the action, giving the reader a concrete sense of what is physically happening, can help make your story more real, and draw the reader more deeply into your plot. So the type of action scene I'll be mainly talking about writing is the straightforward, detailed fight scene.
For me the key to writing detailed action scenes is trying to describe the action so the reader can both see it and feel it happening. You want not just visuals, but other senses as well. When you're watching an action scene on TV, you hear the fists smack flesh or bones crack, you hear grunts and pants. So when you're writing an action scene you want to get your sense of sound in there too. Any sense you can include...if someone gets punched in the mouth and tastes blood, if they smell the sweat or blood or dirt when they get knocked down, and of course how it feels to get hit. All that helps make the fight more visceral, more real, and more tangible. All the other senses back up sight. When you're writing a fight, you should be able to see it in your mind's eye. And when someone reads it, they should be able to see it as well.
The first step is trying to see the fight scene yourself or figure out how you want it to go. Let's say you have Buffy fighting a random vampire. You probably won't want it to last too long because unless she's been injured, Buffy can take care of one vampire pretty easily. In fact, I'd say in general when you're writing a one-on-one fight scene it's not going to be too long or drawn out. Fighting is pretty exhausting, and unless the two fighters are evenly matched, it usually isn't too long before someone makes a mistake.
You want to have some variety in your action. You don't want it to be just Buffy punched the vampire. The vampire punched her back. She blocked his next punch, and hit him in the face. The first problem with that is the repetitive vocabulary, but even if you raid the thesaurus for synonyms for "punch, " it's still not going to be terribly exciting. At the very least, try to alternate punches and kicks. But remember there are a bunch of other body parts you can bring into it like elbows, shoulders and knees. And there are other actions like pushing, flipping, stomping, twisting...you get the idea. You also want variety if you're including more than one fight scene in your story. You don't want your fight scenes to be too alike because that bores the reader, which is the opposite of what you want a fight scene to do. Other reasons to try for variety...people's fighting styles are different. It could be hard for someone who doesn't know any martial arts to tell the difference between Faith and Buffy's fighting styles. But there's a clear difference between Buffy and someone like Willow or Giles. So take that into account as you're planning your scene.
I can't say what moves to include or how exactly you should plan your scenes, but try to watch the scene in your head like you would an episode of Buffy. Or you can even act out some of the moves if you're not sure whether they're physically possible. If you're having trouble picturing how a person would turn to get out of a certain hold, or where their arm would be after throwing a punch that missed, or something like that...move your body, act it out. (Although you may want to wait until there's no one else in the room before you start play acting. :)
Once you can see your scene, try to describe it. For some people, it may not make sense to first picture, then write. Maybe you prefer to just start writing the scene and see how it turns out. I've done that before, and if you are capable of writing a scene spontaneously that way, that's great. If you're having trouble though, think about what you want to do first. Picture it. If you're stuck halfway through the fight, try out a few different ways to finish the fight. Think about what would happen if Buffy reeled back after getting hit versus what would happen if she blocked the fist before it hit her. Think about where you're trying to go with your fight...who is going to win? Is someone going to get injured? And figure out how to get those things done.
If you don't have trouble picturing a fight yourself, but you can't figure out how to describe it, one thing I'd suggest is watching a fight scene on Buffy and trying to write out a description of that. I don't believe you have to know anything about martial arts or be any kind of expert to write a fight scene. It might help you to have a better handle on what the human body is capable of, and which moves are most effective, but you don't need to know the name for a move in order to describe it. Look at what part of the body is being used for an offensive move, and what part is being hit or used for defense. Look at how the fighters stand, where their momentum takes them, how the rest of their body moves when they kick up or out. Notice how they go from a defensive move to an offensive move. And try to put down in words what is going on in the scene, including the sounds they're making, the looks on their faces, etc.
Remember when you're writing a fight scene that there's more than one person involved. Fighting is really action and reaction, so if all you're including is one person's actions, it will feel like there's something missing. You want to convey some sense of both cause and effect. If I hit you, your head may snap to the side, or you may double over, or you may shrug it off, but there is some sort of reaction.
Weapons. You may or may not want to use weapons. Buffy usually has a stake on hand so I don't really count that as a weapon necessarily. It's almost a given. But there are other weapons you see on the show like axes, maces, the crossbow, swords, knives, etc. If you do decide to use a weapon, it will change the way you write your scene. For one thing, with a weapon the fight is more likely to end with someone dead, and there will probably be more blood, for another, a person is going to move differently if they're not using their body as their main weapon. Personally, I usually use weapons for bigger fight scenes involving more people. Someone like Giles or Willow can use a crossbow to fight at a distance, but still contribute to the action. And it makes it easier to maintain some sort of variety if your players are all holding different weapons. Another time weapons are a good thing is if you have your characters going into a battle, instead of just meeting up with a random vamp on patrol. If they're chasing a specific enemy, they're more likely to have stocked up on whatever weapon will kill the thing.
Setting. This is important because your characters aren't fighting in a vaccuum. If they're in the middle of a field or an empty parking lot, then setting won't matter too much. But if they're in Buffy's house, or the library, etc. it does matter. I'm not saying you need to give a perfect, detailed description before you start in on the fight. In fact, yuck to that :) But YOU as the writer do need to have a good idea of your setting for a couple reasons. One. When people are fighting they bang into stuff. Or jump over it. Or smash their opponent into it. The point is don't forget when you're figuring out how the fight will go and which moves to use, that your fight is a show of violent force and movement that doesn't stay in one place. If you're in a crowded space, how is that going to affect your surroundings? Two. Whatever's sitting around your setting can also be used as a weapon. On the show we've seen tons of things used as stakes: a pool cue, a pencil, a picket fence. Desks used to block someone's path. A fire extinguisher and a metal bust to bash heads. A cymbal to decapitate. Just to name a few. In fact, anything that's not nailed down could possibly be picked up by one of your fighters. Don't feel like your characters have to find a make-shift weapon. Fists and a stake are often enough. But it's something to keep in mind, and another reason to be aware of your setting.
Dialogue. You don't necessarily have to include dialogue in your action scene. But you can use it, especially if the people who are fighting know each other and are also arguing over something. On Buffy, people often exchange taunts, or Buffy uses puns during her fights, so if that's another thing to consider. But you don't need to maintain a steady stream of chatter, unless you have a specific reason to do so.
Word choice. I've already talked about variety in terms of body parts, motions, etc. Another thing that can help your fight scene is choosing the right words. Someone once commented after reading a fight scene I'd written for Buried Alive, that they thought I was using too many big words. Their point was, when they were reading action they wanted it clear, to the point, concise. They didn't want to get bogged down by convoluted sentence structure or complicated description. They wanted writing that felt like a quick punch. Now, I don't think that's the only way to write a fight scene. As I said before, actions scenes have different purposes and there are many ways to write them. So there is no one type of word you should be choosing or using. But be aware that your word choice does affect the tone of the scene. If I say, She heard a muffled thunk as a crossbow bolt sunk into his chest. It had as little effect as the first, which still protruded from the broad, muscular surface of his back. There's a difference from if I say, THUNK. The crossbow bolt hit home, landing next to the first arrow. But it did no good. There's a different feel, despite the fact that I'm describing the same action. I will say, if you're in doubt, keep it simple. Just use your own writing style, or whatever feels most comfortable to you, and try to get the actions across to your reader. If you want to play with your tone or use your action scene to serve a more complex purpose, you can experiment with a different style. But the most important thing is still clarity (unless you are specifically coming from a confused or drugged character's point of view, and what's happening is not clear to them.) Make sure what you're describing can be followed and understood. The rest is extra.
If you're writing a scene with more than just two people involved. The stuff I've said still applies. But I think there are a couple more things to remember. For one thing, you need to try extra hard to keep the characters straight. Especially if they don't have names. (If for example, three vampires Buffy's never seen before jump her in an alley.) You can do that by giving them distinguishing feature (hair color, clothes, etc.) and by describing them according to their positions. (For example, if Buffy knocks one down the next time he appears he's getting to his feet, or he's described as the one she'd tripped up, etc.) Also. In a big fight scene with multiple people fighting, especially if you have more than one good guy, you're probably not going to describe every move the way you would in a shorter one on one fight. For one thing, it could get tedious. And for another, when a bunch of things are happening at once, you're not going to be able to capture them all in perfect detail without slowing things down. One way to deal with this is to start out detailed, then fade into a more general description, especially if your good guy is fighting against a huge crowd where the action is going to get monotonous. (For example, something like... Buffy hip-checked one of the things that charged her, and yanked the sword away from him, as he fell. She slipped the stake back into her boot, and swung out with the greater reach of the sword. There was no one opponent to focus on. They were all the same. Same looking. Same acting. It was a blur of sweeping blows, swords clattering on metal, on bone. Angel stayed close to Buffy, trying not to worry about her, to focus on his own end of the battle.) Another way to deal with it is to keep your detailed descriptions, but instead of describing one person's fight from beginning to end, switch your focus from one good guy to another. This is basically what you'll see on the show. If you watch a scene like the final fight in What's My Line 2 there is a lot going on. Buffy and Kendra are fighting Spike and the female bounty hunter, Giles and Willow are battling a vampire, and Xander and Cordy are killing the worm guy. Plus Angel and Dru are going through the ritual. You see the important moments in each of the fights, your view switching back and forth between them. You want to move as smoothly as possible from one person involved in the fight to another, and you want each individual fight to contribute to the movement of the larger battle. And of course you can also combine the two techiniques I described, or use a different one.
All right, so I've taken an old action scene I wrote and tried to make it less clear so you can see the difference between an action scene that's too hard to follow and one that's easier. This scene has the same moves as the one below, but I've stripped the detail. (This isn't a complete scene. I just took a chunk from a larger action scene, so it ends abruptly.)
"Angel!" Buffy said, her voice sharp with fear. She stopped his fall with steady arms and set him back on his feet.
He tried to face his attacker, but she passed him. Someone grabbed him, and he tried to get free. He was able to break the hold, and he tripped the vampire; which gave him a moment to notice there were five vampires surrounding them. Buffy was fighting two, and another attacked Angel. Angel stepped on the vampire's hand and kicked him in the face.
Two other vampires grabbed him and punched him. He tried to get away and the next punch grazed his head. He kicked out, but it didn't stop the vampire. Buffy staked the vampire from behind. And the other vampire tried to use Angel as a shield.
Since I purposely tried to make it bad, there are a lot of problems with that scene. None of it feels immediate because I took out all the description of how it felt. And it's hard to keep track of which vampire is which because there were five in the beginning and there's nothing to help indicate where each one is coming from, if one of them was on the ground and got up, if another came from behind, etc. I also took out the verbs that have impact like slam, stomp, lunge, stun, etc. Using hard action verbs gives the scene an edge that adds to the feeling of _action._ Even though the scene does tell you the sequence of events, the sense of action/reaction doesn't really come through. In some places you can still see it. He kicked, but it didn't stop the vampire. But in most places, all the actions are chopped up into their own sentences, almost like they have nothing to do with each other. Basically, there's nothing to help the viewer really get a sense of what's going on. The descriptions of the movements aren't detailed, and there's no depth to the writing.
And here's the same scene as taken from Three Doors.
"Angel!" Buffy said, her voice sharp with fear. She stopped his fall with steady arms and set him back on his feet.
He turned toward his attacker, but he was sluggish, and she had already passed him, putting herself between him and the vampire. Arms grabbed him from behind, and he cursed under his breath, struggling against the grip on his torso. He broke the hold, and used his leg to trip the vampire up, then used the moment of breathless hesitation to take stock of the fight. There were five vampires surrounding them. Buffy fought two at a time, her limbs moving like machinery, smooth and merciless, sending one to his knees with a sweeping kick, and punching the other in the face. The third was lunging toward Angel from the ground where he'd fallen when Angel tripped him, and the other two were hurrying down the street toward the melee. Angel stomped on the vampire's hand, and caught his chin with the toe of his boot, stunning him.
But the adrenaline rushing in his ears didn't move his body fast enough to evade the grasp of the two latecomers. One of them held him, while the other punched him in the face. His head snapped back and the dull thudding of his skull exploded. Blood dripped into his eye, thick and metallic. He blinked it away as best he could, and saw the next punch coming. He lunged to the side, pulling the vamp that held him slightly off balance. The punch still grazed his temple with enough force to cloud his vision with floating white sparks and green dots. He kicked out at his attacker, but the vampire shrugged the blow aside like an impertinent gnat and closed in again.
Buffy's hands clamped down on the vampire's shoulder, and she jerked him toward her, slamming her stake through his back before he'd fully realized she was there. The vampire holding Angel tightened his hold, pressing the human shield Angel provided closer to his body.
I don't think this scene is the epitome of everything a fight scene should be. But it does give a better sense of what exactly is going on than the previous one.
I think the most important thing to remember when you're writing an action scene is that you don't want your reader to end up having to stop or try to figure out what you're talking about. This is the type of scene that you want them to be able to breeze through so they can feel the excitement of the action. I think at best, the writing disappears in a way. It should be seamless enough that the reader is almost seeing it, rather than reading it. Kind of a lofty goal, but I think worth shooting for.
Any questions? Ask me