Punching Up Your Action Thriller

By Glen Erik Hamilton, June 2021

Labeling your novel an “action thriller” may seem limiting, or even redundant. Doesn’t every thriller novel have at least one fight or chase scene these days? And isn’t the action genre more suited to movies, where character development often takes a back seat to spectacle?

While spy novels, heist stories, and military adventures may get the lion’s share of attention, I’ll argue that at their heart, every modern thriller incorporates elements of the action thriller. And when a novel is focused primarily on delivering exciting, breathless action scenes for the reader, it’s as pure and uncut an experience as any genre.

Whether you have one action scene in your novel or a dozen, many of the basic rules are the same. Let’s start with some foundational blocks…

Start with Character

The first concern is that we understand and empathize with our characters. We’ve all been bored by books or movies in which Character A races to Location B in search of Object C. While it’s active, it’s uninteresting, and that’s nearly always because we don’t give a damn about either the heroes or the villains. They’re just stick figures pushed around by the plot, rather than full-realized characters making choices we can relate to.

In an action thriller, there’s an additional need to establish the capabilities of those characters. Is your protagonist a pacifist who hasn’t been in a scuffle since the second grade? A federal officer, trained in firearms but now out of practice? Or a former gang member and veteran of a hundred street brawls?

Once we know what our central character can do (at least until pushed), we also need to provide some hint as to the forces arrayed against them. The antagonist should be formidable, ideally much greater in skill or influence or numbers than our heroine can hope to achieve. How can the protagonist hope to overcome such odds? The mere idea of confronting such an enemy should give the central characters pause. And make the reader keen to know whether victory is possible.

The Inevitable Fight

Yet confrontation must happen, because of the second rule: Clear goals that continually force these opposing sides to clash. Whether the hero is trying to recover a priceless jewel the villain has stolen, or protect a witness from the villain’s henchmen, the conflict must be unavoidable. And the consequences for failure, at least on the hero’s side, must be dire.

A few bullet points (naturally) on the action scenes themselves:

• Keep the sentences short and direct.

• Make the reader aware of the position of each character involved–don’t have them surprised when a thug they thought was across the room suddenly lands a punch on our hero.

• Use the active voice. Characters do things, they don’t have things done to them. If you type the word “was”, try again. “Jimmy was stunned by the punch.” vs. “Jimmy stumbled against the wall, his head reeling.”

• It may seem counterintuitive, but take your time with action scenes. As though the world has shifted into slow motion for your central character. Action scenes are likely why your reader picked up the book; give them the blow-by-blow. Your scenes will be clearer, more distinctive, and more exciting.

• A caveat to the first bullet: If your character’s brain is a little scrambled (Jimmy just took that blow to the head, after all), sentences from their point of view might be dream-like or disjointed to show that confusion. It’s a fun variation; use it sparingly.

• Escalation: In a longer action sequence, things should go from bad to worse for our protagonist. Is your heroine being chased through a crowded marketplace? What if the police join the pursuit, and being arrested would cost her one chance to deactivate a bomb? What if she twists her ankle? What if one of the police recognizes her, and now she can’t return to her house or use her car for fear of those being watched?

Action is Plot and Character Working Together

Besides being intrinsic to the plot, your action scenes should also advance the story, and perhaps even shift a character’s goals. Your heroine Laura is racing after a fleeing suspect, only to see that suspect jump into her best friend’s car to make good their escape. Is Laura’s best friend in cahoots? Have the suspect’s accomplices kidnapped her friend? The reader will be eager to find out.

Moreover, action scenes should reveal hidden depths in your characters. What they are willing and able to do in a crisis (and not always for the better), and their instinctive reactions. What if Laura and her friend recently had a falling out that was prompted by Laura’s misplaced anger, and still feeling guilt over her poor behavior, Laura momentarily hesitates to chase after the escaping car?

Choose Your Battles Wisely

Scene after scene of hand-to-hand combat might make for an acceptable movie, but it’s less viable for a novel. An action scene can be as big and loud as a castle siege or as focused as picking the lock on a desk drawer when your reader knows the silent alarm has been tripped. While it’s tempting to have each action sequence be bigger than the last, throwing your readers a few curveballs (and sliders, and knuckleballs) will keep them guessing. Varying the scale and the stakes for each exhilarating moment pays dividends.

The One-Two Punch

The primary goal of any thriller is to excite the emotions of your readers. There are two keys to do that: Suspense, and Surprise.

Suspense involves a sense of dread for what may happen, the fight yet to come. The town bully who must eventually be challenged. The invading army only miles away. Making a plan for the heist. Fraught situations like these build anticipation for the reader and encourage them to stay up way too late to find out what will happen.

Surprise is the reaction to a sudden reversal. The traitor’s attack from within the castle walls. A suitcase of cash your protagonist had hidden earlier is now gone. The rival gang robs the bank on the same morning. Your characters scramble madly to survive, even as they realize how much worse this calamity makes their already awful circumstances.

The Calm After the Storm

Of course, your novel can’t be non-stop action. Or more accurately, it shouldn’t be. While pace is critical to any thriller, and especially the action thriller, that doesn’t mean the pedal touches the metal on every page. Giving your characters time to regroup, lick their wounds, and reassess their options and priorities between fights and chases is essential. Not least for the frenzied reader, who by now is turning pages so fast they’re suffering paper cuts. Allow everyone to take a breath.

Most importantly, these moments of respite allow your characters to display emotions other than panic or fury. This is where your action novel *really* makes its mark, through the changes in perspective or personal growth that arise from all this terrible (and terribly thrilling) conflict. A fight is one thing. A fight that changes your central character’s worldview is another.