What works for me is to become a “student of the game” (one of my dad’s favorite phrases) and immerse myself in my scene’s topic. Let’s say, for example, I’m writing a battle scene. Here’s what I would do:
- Re-read sections from authors who craft terrific battle scenes to learn how they capture action and emotion. I physically pull these books down off my shelves and stick Post-its on the most appropriate sections. I make notes about what might be the same or different in my own scene.
If one of the authors describes the odor of a swamp his troops are slogging through, but my battle takes place on a mountain, I still find a way to incorporate a sense of smell. It makes the action come alive if my character thinks about how the fresh breeze seems at odds with the blood and destruction around him, or if the odor of men and battle actually overwhelms the usual smells of his home.
- Watch your favorite battle scenes from movies or TV. For an added bonus, try it once without the sound. Again, I jot down thoughts about the flow of battle, what elements seem to be in action at the same time, and how they’re working to accomplish the same goal.I also observe facial expressions and emotions that are similar to what I want to capture in words for my characters. I hold these snapshots in my mind as I’m writing to help me choose phrases that build a similar image.
- Listen to songs that convey the tone of battle. When I’m writing a battle or action scene, I usually go for songs that portray intensity, fast-paced chaos or a tense build-up. (Note: That can be anything from Requiem for a Dream to 30 Seconds to Mars.) Sometimes, the music even helps me figure out the timing of a battle—I start to choreograph it to match the mood and rhythm of the song.I like to break battle scenes down into micro-scenes and find songs of inspiration for those, too—the moment my characters realize they’re going to lose (or win), the moment someone sees their friend fall across the field, the moment a tactical move works better than they expected, etc.
After I go through these three steps, I usually have a pretty good idea of the descriptions, places, emotions, actions and pacing I want to use in my next scene. Then, I just have to get it on the page. I stuck with the battle example because it’s pretty straightforward, but I’ve also used this approach for love scenes, arguments and initial world building. Now, you try!