Knuckle Sandwich with a Side of Bullets

by Mike MacLean

Way back in December, Bryon Quertermous, editor of Demolition Magazine, blogged on a subject I hold dear to my heart–action scenes.

Fist Chances are, if you write crime fiction or thrillers sooner or later someone is going to throw down.  Fists will fly.  Muzzles will flash.  Blood will spill.

But what’s the best way to go about writing these sequences? 

Duane Swierczynski, author of The Blonde, is no stranger to this bloody art.  He commented that keeping descriptions to a bare minimum allows the scene to "take place in the reader’s mind."  On the other hand, too much detail in an action scene can distract a reader.

Swierczynski makes a good point.  Years ago, I attempted to read a thriller by an ex-special forces dude (who will remain nameless because I’d rather not end up in the cross hairs of sniper scope).  I put the book down after the very first action scene.  An entire paragraph was used to painstakingly describe the simple act of drawing a pistol.  It was like reading a technical "how-to" manual.  Needless to say, my heart was not pounding with excitement. 

And that’s the key.  A good action scene should make the old ticker go thump, thump, thump.  Often, it’s not the bullets and roundhouse kicks that accomplish this; it’s the SET UP.  The emotional build up before the fight.  The conflict assembled into the narrative.  The trash talking that fills the pages with tension. 

But sometimes, as both writer and reader, I yearn for blood on the page.  I Pistoloptics1_2want justice served up with a machinegun or nice crushing elbow strike to the larynx.  Simply put, I want my protagonist to kick ass.

What’s worse than slogging through 100s of pages of a thriller only to have it end with a minimum of ass-kickery?  (ass-kickery, copyright 2007 M.MacLean).  I’ve thrown books across the room for less.

Too much description can bog the reader down, boring him into skimming pages (a cardinal sin among crime and thriller writers).  Too little can leave the reader feeling unsatisfied (another sin if you’re looking to sell your next book).

So, what do you think Murderati readers?  What makes a good action scene?  Who writes the best?  Who does the best job of the "set up"?

14 thoughts on “Knuckle Sandwich with a Side of Bullets

  1. Rob

    Lee Child is an undisputed champ of the action scene, I think. David Morrell is another one who can keep the action moving and your heart pounding. There are others, of course. I hate to exclude anyone, but these names in the crime/thriller genre come easily to mind, which says something. As far as the “set-up” part, I think Dean Koontz is a master at this.

  2. Naomi

    I agree with Rob about Lee Child. Victor Gischler is also great at absurd, over-the-top action.

    I admit it–in my heart of hearts, I’m a girlie-girl, so I don’t naturally gravitate towards action (kung-fu movies are the exception for me, however). I’m wonder what women writers do good action.

  3. Mike MacLean

    All good picks. Both Child and Morrell seem to use clear, unfettered language in their action scenes. Maybe that’s the key. Get to artsy and you’ll distract the reader with your prose.

    Greg Rucka also comes to mind. He and Child have a way of making the action feel earned.

    Of course, there is also Barry Eisler who creates a great balance in his martial arts sequences. He adds just enough description to make it feel authentic but doesn’t go over board with the terminology.

  4. Mike MacLean


    That’s a great question. I wish I’d thought of it. How about it gang? What women writers do action up right?

    And you are so on target with Gischler. If it’s over the top action you’re looking for SHOTGUN OPERA is the book for you. That thing is like a John Woo movie on paper.

  5. Rae

    Agree with the comments about Lee Child, and would add Robert Crais to the list. As far as gals who write great action, Nora Roberts in her incarnation as J.D. Robb does a great job, as does Zoe Sharp.

  6. billie

    Diana Gabaldon in her Outlander series. She gets me very involved in the weaponry, etc. and I’m not really into all that stuff.

    (although you’d never know that if you heard me exclaiming while watching Firefly and The Unit on DVD – somehow both those shows make me want to march around wearing a leg holster with a big fat gun in it)

  7. Louise Ure

    An overwritten action scene can be as bad as an overwritten sex scene. TMI, in my opinion. Leave a little wiggle room for my imagination, please.

    And I agree with the votes for Child, Sharp and Eisler above. I’d add Ken Bruen for the surprisingly understated (yet gut wrenching) violence in his work.

  8. Duane Swierczynski

    Hey, thanks for the mention, Mike. I’d agree with all of the names mentioned here so far–and underscore David Morrell. FIRST BLOOD is full of great, gut-wrenching action writing. And don’t forget Richard Stark. I remember the opening chapter of THE MOURNER as being a particularly sharp fight scene that’s incredibly vivid.

  9. Fran

    For fluid and heart-thumpy action written by women, I’d add in Nicola Griffith. She kinda sneaks up on you and thumps you on the back of the head with her action scenes. Kinda like Louise does.

  10. JT Ellison

    Aw, great question, Mike!

    I’d throw John Sandford into the mix too, as well as John Connolly (whose action sequences are both creepily hair raising and breathless). I agree with all the earlier mentions, especially Child and Eisler.

    As far as women… Karin Slaughter does a nice job with ratcheting suspense through action.

  11. Rob

    Women writers who write good action: Jan Burke’s novel, BONES, has some pretty breathtaking scenes. Tami Hoag is another good example. Don’t forget Janet Evanovich, too.


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