Last week I blogged about writing sex scenes. As I mentioned, I write them much less often and more sparingly now that my books are suspense driven. The scenes I’m more likely to struggle with are action scenes.

Good actions scenes can combine plot, setting, character, and, in an historical novel, historical background. Dorothy Dunnett writes brilliant action scenes, such as the sword fight between Lymond and Richard in The Game of Kings, the race over the roofs in Lyons in Queens Play, Lymond and Philippa’s escape through the fog-shrouded streets in Checkmate, the opening sequence with the barge in Niccolò Rising. The settings come vividly to life, characters are revealed, relationships change (very notably in the case of the scene with Lymond and Philippa), the plot advances.

I love good action scenes, but they don’t come easily to me as a writer. Perhaps because of my theater background, I’ve always had an easier time with dialogue. When it comes to action scenes, I have to map out the scene were carefully in advance. If they take place in a real setting, such as the chase through Covent Garden Market in Beneath a Silent Moon or a scene I just wrote at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, that means looking at reading up on the setting, looking at pictures (period engraving and paintings and drawings if possible), sketching out a map of the setting, making lists of descriptive detail I want to weave in, and then “blocking” the action. In the midst of all this choreography I have to remind myself to think about what’s going on with the characters, how the scene changes things for them, what it reveals, how it moves the plot forward. Inevitably my first draft of the scene does about a tenth of what I want it to accomplish. But once I have the basic action down, I can begin to layer in details of character and plot and setting.

What are some favorite action scenes of yours? What do you think makes them work? Writers, do you enjoy writing them? What are the challenges?

I’ve just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Mélanie to Raoul with more about the intrigues at the Congress of Vienna, particularly the love affairs of the Duchess of Sagan.