Often when I read writing tips, there is very little sense of balance. Most of them come down to a single form: “Do X, not Y”, with the small caveat that you can do Y if you do it well. The classic “Show, don’t tell” is a perfect example…except in some cases, a simple exposition deals with an info gap to get people to the next plot point. In that case, a little exposition can go a long way to avoiding stopping the action, jumping somewhere else to “show it”. Another classic used to be “Don’t use multiple points-of-view”. And then someone comes out with a fantastic book where they use multiple POV to great success. Because they did it right. Which means, often the real advice is “Do X, not Y unless you’re better than average and can actually do Y well, but know that it often doesn’t work for a lot of writers”. On the other hand, there are more advanced tomes by Lawrence Block or Stephen King that avoid that problem and give you the straight goods.
In this case, Diana Gill is an executive editor with views on how to write fight scenes (well, actually, action scenes in general). Not from a technical perspective of blocking and styling, but rather what is important:
As with all writing, think about plot/pacing/tension, or as I say over and over—characters, conflict, and consequences. Action scenes should ideally work to develop those things, not just be their own shiny diamonds, so if most of your fabulous rock-climbing or ballroom dancing or whatever action scenes don’t advance the story as a whole, take them out.
Not sure how to write a fight scene that works? (I’m using fight scenes as a stand-in for action scenes as a whole, as they’re the most common). First, think about what the fight scene does. Does it advance the plot? If so, how, and why? You don’t want this to feel like a Mortal Kombat game, where you’re just progressing through bigger and bigger fights until you can fight the Big Boss at the end.
Or does it show us the character(s)? And if so, how? For example, think of the classic Raiders of the Lost Ark scene where we’re set up for a big sword fight, and Indiana Jones just shoots the other guy, or as already mentioned, the Cantina scene in Star Wars. Both scenes show Indy/Han as someone who is quick to action, wants results, and doesn’t necessarily care about niceties to get the results.
Or consider any of the many Jack Reacher fight scenes in Lee Child’s bestselling series. They all work at a technical level, but they also reinforce Reacher’s character—how he is always analyzing and planning before the fight at an almost subliminal level, because he can’t not do that. (Child’s op-ed on creating suspense is absolutely worth a read as well.)
Action scenes need a point beyond flying fists or explosions: The Terminator’s big plot goal is to stop Skynet from destroying humanity, but in the meantime, there’s the unstoppable killer robot chasing Sarah Connor…. Make sure that the action scenes work with the story as a whole.
Of course, she has some good basic tips about checking the enjoyment level of the reader in reading it (not geeking out on the details) and keeping it realistic (like showing them tiring as they fight). But the rest of the message is pretty solid — what is the action scene about other than action?