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I always learn a lot about about writing by reading other works and following their examples. Right now I'm very bad at writing action scenes; the best I can do is write around them, describing the situation and the outcome without ever delving into the details of the physical action. So now I'm on the lookout for anything that could serve as an example for me to study.

The last book I read with action scenes still vividly in my memory is Dune. I liked it because it did a good job at describing the nuances of the scenes while always keeping every detail relevant and crucial to the overarching story. Overall though I've read very little in the way of action.

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possible duplicate of What's Essential In A Combat Scene? –  John Smithers Jan 30 '11 at 20:51
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Well... I've tended to find that action scenes vary a lot across genres, but here are some books with a few of my favorites:

  1. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson: This has some GREAT action scenes with a very unique magic system. Quite frankly, I think they're some of the best described action scenes I've ever read.
  2. Eye of the World by Robert Jordan: First book to his Wheel of Time series; there's plenty of action in this one, ranging from scenes with a few people to an entire battle (or two). I think Jordan is at his best in this book, and he does a great job of stirring up emotions in the reader through his action.
  3. Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy: a modern spy / espionage / special forces book with some great military action. The action scenes here are always incredibly detailed, yet fast paced. They're also very tense.
  4. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton: maybe he has other books with better action, but I've always been particularly fond of this one.

I don't know exactly what genre you're going for (or if you even care), but those are a few that jump to mind. I think they all have a great range of scenes, from "tense" (action, but non-combative) to outright fighting.

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I'm just now reading the Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin, which has plenty of good swordfights and describes the mechanics pretty well.

Mercedes Lackey is good at describing tactics of army movements (at a swords-and-sorcery tech level) with generic fighting descriptions.

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I pretty vividly remember the fight scene in about all of Robert Ludlum's novels. If the name doesn't ring a bell: he wrote the Jason Bourne novels ("The Bourne Identity" is the first in the series).

Not sure which to recommend, probably the Bourne Identity (if you've seen the movies, the hand-to-hand scenes are on the same level in the books).

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David Gemmell and Bernard Cornwell are both well-known (in certain circles at least) for their excellent battle scenes. Simon Scarrow also does an excellent job with combat scenes. Robert Low is actually a bit too gorey for my tastes, but he has some excellent battles at sea and on land.

Scarrow, Cornwell, and Low all write historical fiction and are therefore more realistic. They also have a good mix of individual combat and full-scale battles between armies. Low writes about Viking warfare. Scarrow writes about the Roman Legions in ancient Britain and the Middle-East as well as novels following the lives of Arthur Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte. Bernard Cornwell has written books about the American Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, Arthurian Britain, Alfred the Great's Britain, The Hundred Years War...Well, you get the idea. He also has excerpts available on his site here: http://www.bernardcornwell.net/

Naomi Novik also writes good action scenes. She writes about a draconic air force during the Napoleonic Wars, but there are many good naval and ground fights as well.

Conn Iggulden is good too. He's written a tetralogy retelling Julius Caesar, and is currently writing a series about Genghis Khan.

Lee Child's Jack Reacher series is very good. He can make any scene suspenseful. His writing style is somewhat unique as well. The series is about a former MP living off the radar, but usually getting involved in trouble of some sort in every town he passes through.

I can think of so many more...Brent Weeks, Rafael Sabatini, Jim Butcher, Lois McMaster Bujold....

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For a completely different kind of action scene, I recommend any of the Black Company books by Glen Cook. The Mistborn books, recommended above, are outstanding for action by individual characters and small-group fights. In the Black Company, Cook mixes scenes of individual sword swingers with scenes of larger troop-level battles. You don't get either the blow-by-blow account or the individual emotional content that you find in Dune or Mistborn. You do get a sense of seeing the whole battle at once, though, which I find rewarding. It also gives Cook at different way to delivery payoff on preparations his characters have made.

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I thought the battle/fight scenes in Stan Nicholls' The Orcs were pretty good. Detailed, graphic and fast-paced at the same time.

However, I found that you can only read so much about people/creatures grappling, hacking, slashing and hitting each other and the book quickly turned out to be just an endless string of these fight sequences, only held together by a rather ridiculous plot, which unfortunately rendered the end result quite boring despite all the superbly written action sequences.

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There are different approaches.

  1. David Gemmell and each of the Druss books.
    • Gemmell had the ability to write very simple but entertaining heroic fantasy. His Druss character was the best of them (Waylander close 2nd) because Druss was this indomitable force of will and strength on the battlefield.
    • Probably the best large action scene is in The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend at the Skeln Pass. Gemmell was at the top of his game writing these scenes.

  2. JV Jones and her character Raif Sevrance. There are two specific battle scenes that completely engage me every single time I read them.
    • Raif at Duff's Stonehouse. The way Jones writes this scene and what follows is mesmerising. Raif slowly descends into a mindless rage, where all that matters are the hearts of his enemies (and hearts being a big deal).
    • Raif on the Bluddroad, when the Wagons are attacked. This is memorable not so much for the battle scene, but for the preceding buildup to the battle. The way Jones makes real the almost-slowing-down of time before the battle, spending time describing the snow, the horses, the sweat.

  3. Robert Jordan and Rand al'Thor
    • Book 6, The Battle of Dumai Wells. One of the greatest battle scenes and culmination of "tension" in fantasy that I have read. Astounding piece of work that is at the very top of my memories of reading WOT years ago.

  4. George R R Martin (GRRM)
    • There are so many scenes of battle / violence in his ASOIAF books that serve as memorable. Even the first prologue-ish chapter in the very first book has a sword-fight. Cataloging them is too crazy.
    • Advice: Read the ASOIAF series with the mindset of studying how he writes his action.
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Gemmell's Troy trilogy is absolutely amazing as well. The first two books, IMHO, have some of his best battle scenes...Mrs. Gemmell completed the third book after his death, and while she did an astounding job, the battles did suffer a bit...I'm afraid we disagree about Dumai Wells. It's a decent battle, but I don't remember it as well as, say, Rand holding the Stone of Tear after it fell, which was awesome...Not criticising, just sharing my opinion. –  kitukwfyer Mar 25 '11 at 1:33
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For modern combat, I highly recommend anything by Stephen Hunter (his book Point of Impact was developed into the Mark Wahlberg movie "Shooter"). Hunter writes knowledgably about guns and combat, and primarily but not exclusively about sniping. One of his less-well-known books with some great set-piece action is The Day Before Midnight. He also wrote a nonfiction book called American Gunfight, about the assassination attempt on President Truman that cost the life of a uniformed Secret Service agent. One of the "gimmicks" of the book, though I liked it, is that in the middle of the narrative about who did what when, Hunter breaks into a stream-of-consciousness description of the gunfight from the points of view of the various participants, trying to emphasize the chaos and the fastfastfast nature of events, as opposed to the nice clean narrative we're used to in fictional gunfights.

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Cannot go wrong with Robert Ludlum such as the Bourne Trilogy which someone already mentioned or Prometheus Deception.

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protected by Neil Fein Nov 29 '12 at 6:03

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