How to Slow Down Time in an Action Scene

Posted by Kristen Hamilton on June 13, 2019 at 1:35 PM

When you're writing a high-stakes action scene (like a shootout between your character and the bad guy, for example), one of the greatest disservices you can do to yourself as an author is to write the scene so that the pacing goes too quickly. What do I mean by this? Let's use an example.

Detective Collins peeked around the corner, his chest rising and falling with each heavy breath. He had called for backup, but the other units hadn't arrived yet. He was alone. When he saw the man he had been pursuing, hunched over in the alleyway, his heart gave a squeeze. It was now or never. He had to apprehend the criminal.

He took a deep breath and stepped around the corner, drawing up his weapon and squeezing his trigger finger. Three shots fired off in rapid succession. His adversary dropped, dead from a gunshot wound to the head.

Now, don't get me wrong. There's technically nothing "wrong" with this action scene—in fact, there's sensory information in there, a big part of showing versus telling a scene in fiction. But the end of the scene, especially, feels rushed and incomplete. Could it be better? You betcha. How do you do this? You slow down time.

Slowing Down Time

There's an interesting thing that happens to humans when we're in conditions of extreme stress, most commonly in life-or-death situations. In fact, police officers who have been involved in shootings all recite similar stories: They experience heightened visual clarity and tunnel vision—they become super focused on the threat—alongside diminished sound (unimportant sounds might appear muffled, or their heartbeat might be thrumming in their ears) and the feeling that time has slowed down.

"This is how the human body reacts to extreme stress," author Malcom Gladwell writes in Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, "and it makes sense. Our mind, faced with a life-threatening situation, drastically limits the range and amount of information that we have to deal with." This narrowing of senses essentially allows police officers to focus on the things that really matter, the threats to eliminate and the actions that will keep them alive.

Check out this excerpt froom David Klinger's book Into the Kill Zone.

When he started toward us, it was almost like it was in slow motion and everything went into a tight focus... When he made his move, my whole body just tensed up. I don't remember having any feeling from my chest down. Everything was focused forward to watch and react to my target. Talk about an adrenaline rush! Everything tightened up, and all my senses were directed forward at the man running at us with a gun. I couldn't tell you what his left hand was doing. I have no idea. I was watching the gun. The gun was coming down in front of his chest area, and that's when I did my first shots.

I didn't hear a thing, not one thing. Alan had fired one round when I shot my first pair, but I didn't hear him shoot. He shot two more rounds when I fired the second time, but I didn't hear any of those rounds, either. We stopped shooting when he hit the floor and slid into me. Then I was on my feet standing over the guy. I don't even remember pushing myself up. All I know is the next thing I knew I was standing on two feet looking down at the guy. I don't know how I got there, whether I pushed up with my hands, or whether I pulled my knees up underneath. I don't know, but once I was up, I was hearing things again because I could hear brass still clinking on the tile floor. Time had also returned to normal by then, because it had slowed down during the shooting. That started as soon as he started toward us. Even though I knew he was running at us, it looked like he was moving in slow motion. Damnedest thing I ever saw.

Could you imagine being in that man's position—literally, in a kill-or-be-killed situation? I sure couldn't. But, well, you're the author, so this is your job!

Putting it All Together

Let's take a look at that scene again, except this time let's incorporate some of the most important elements that result from human adrenaline:
(1) heightened clarity and tunnel vision,
(2) diminished sound, and
(3) slowed-down time.

Detective Collins peeked around the corner, his chest rising and falling with each heavy breath. His heartbeat pounded in his ears, but his vision was crystal clear. He had called for backup, but the other units hadn't arrived yet. He was alone.

The man he had been pursuing stood hunched over in the alleyway, looking down at something. It didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was the weapon in his hand.

Collins took a deep breath, relishing the sting of the icy night air in his lungs. It was now or never.

He stepped out from behind the wall, drawing up his weapon and squeezing the trigger. The criminal turned, raising his own weapon, his eyes flashing with hatred and his finger tightening over the trigger. Collins had a moment of panic—was the safety off? What if his aim was wide?—but the weapon bucked in his hand as three shots fired off in rapid succession.

His adversary was thrown backward with the impact of a bullet, falling motionless, as if in slow motion, to the cobblestone street below him. The gun skittered off to the side, no longer a threat. The man lay dead from a gunshot wound to the head.

See the difference? It's subtle, but so effective.

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Book editor Kristen Hamilton is the owner and sole employee of

Kristen Corrects, Inc., where she provides manuscript editing

services for traditionally and self-publishing authors. Several

authors whose books she has edited have won awards and have

topped Amazon's best sellers lists.

Reading is Kristen's passion, so when the workday is over, she

can usually be found curled up with a good book alongside her

four cats. She loves watching cat videos and scary movies,

eating pizza, teaching herself French, and traveling, and she is

likely planning her next vacation. She lives outside of Boise, ID.

Categories: writing

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