Not A Lot Of Car Chases In Books, Are There?
February 8, 2012 12:21 PM   Subscribe

Excellent Action Scenes In Books? I'm looking for examples of tense, fast paced action sequences in novels and short stories. The written equivalent to the cinematic on-the-edge-of-your-seat-oh-crap-the-person-may-die-how-will-they-escape thing. Bonus if the situation is complex yet reads like a clear, clockwork machine.

Reason: I have a blind spot in writing effective action-y scenes and would like to see how others have pulled it off.
posted by The Whelk to Writing & Language (42 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
A bit dated now, but Robin Cook's "Coma" comes to mind.
posted by Melismata at 12:23 PM on February 8, 2012

Lee Child's Reacher books are *packed* with scenes like these.
posted by rtha at 12:25 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

My favorite action/mystery writer is definitely Lee Childs. To my "ear," he does a great job of writing over-the-top action without sounding very many false notes.
posted by mercredi at 12:27 PM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I recall Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 had some good examples of this.
posted by scody at 12:27 PM on February 8, 2012

The pizza delivery scene in the opening of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is an excellent example. He also has some well-done action scenes in Zodiac, one of his earlier books.
posted by pie ninja at 12:28 PM on February 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

The final big, multi-ship, multi-side battle in "The Scar" by China Mieville in which, just after a floating city is attacked by outside forces, a rebellion arises inside the city. If I remember correctly an outside, commando, force of near-lovecraftian fish people with their own motives also sneaks aboard. Lots of sides, lots of action, lots of strange creatures and fabulous inventions, and yet it moves quickly and doesn't get confusing.
posted by bswinburn at 12:28 PM on February 8, 2012

I feel like China Mieville does a great job with action sequences that can sometimes be... conceptually problematic. The warfare in The Kraken (involving wind golems, museum spirits, etc) and the fight scenes in Perdido Street Station (involving combatants facing backward and wearing mirror helmets) leap immediately to mind.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:29 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Speaking of Stephenson, the Bonanza section of the Baroque Cycle (it's one of the two books in The Confusion) is rollicking action from start to finish.
posted by griphus at 12:30 PM on February 8, 2012

Matthew Reilly does this, particularly his Jack West Jr. novels. The action scenes can be pretty far-fetched, but they definitely have that cinematic vibe.
posted by jbickers at 12:31 PM on February 8, 2012

The Day of the Jackal is a classic in this vein. An extremely detailed description of the preparations of an assasin and of the desperate search for him.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:32 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Neal Stephenson. His most recent, Reamde, has a couple of intense action sequences that go on for pages, but feel like they're over in a split second.
posted by cosmicbandito at 12:39 PM on February 8, 2012

You will almost certainly love the Quiller series. Each chapter ends with a cliff-hanger and picks up in the future after it has been avoided. Only later so we see how he escaped in a flashback, just in time to set up the next cliff-hanger.
posted by procrastination at 12:44 PM on February 8, 2012

How about the Infinite Jest Eschaton scene?
posted by Perplexity at 12:44 PM on February 8, 2012

Reamde also came to mind for me.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 12:56 PM on February 8, 2012

Dan Simmon's The Terror has several unforgettable scenes of carnage, chaos and death. The monster's stalking of the characters and invasions into their domain is often unbearably tense.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 12:57 PM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Bourne Identity has some really well-written action sequences.
posted by minifigs at 1:00 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Black Hawk Down. The entire book is almost non-stop action.
posted by swmobill at 1:05 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels.

Guy G. Kay has some really tightly constructed action sequences in The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Sarantine Mosaic.
posted by brennen at 1:10 PM on February 8, 2012

James Rollins' novels are so action-packed that I get exhausted just reading them.
posted by DrGail at 1:10 PM on February 8, 2012

John Le Carré's The Little Drummer Girl has a very well-done climactic action scene.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:36 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

These are oldies but goodies:

Jurassic Park by Michael Chrichton, or possibly even better: Sphere, The Andromeda Strain or The Great Train Robbery.

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy.

Ken Follet's spy novels, especially Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca.

I wouldn't call any of them great writers, but once upon a time they all sure knew how to write a great action scene.
posted by psycheslamp at 1:49 PM on February 8, 2012

Seconding Matthew Reilly, and particularly his novel Temple.

Almost unrelentingly fast-paced for most of the book, with only very short breathers between extended bouts of chase-style action. The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking, "It's like I'm reading a film."

Note: I didn't feel like I was reading a film script, I felt like I was reading a film - if that distinction makes sense.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 1:52 PM on February 8, 2012

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian has a number of horrifying and gripping action sequences. Like, so intense that I would stop breathing, and so engrossing that I did not even notice until my vision started to go.
posted by Mendl at 2:08 PM on February 8, 2012

R. A. Salvatore has long been regarded as an excellent writer of fantasy action scenes. He discusses some of his techniques here.
posted by Spacelegoman at 2:15 PM on February 8, 2012

Stephen R Donaldson has been doing incredibly detailed and involving action scenes in his past few series. One of the Gap novels has several hundred pages describing a very short amount of time in the storyline, all action. His newest Thomas Covenant series also has some very intense, well-described and involving action sequences.
posted by hippybear at 2:31 PM on February 8, 2012

The last 150 or so pages of Into Thin Air, when they're on the ascent and everything goes to shit, is absolutely white-knuckle suspenseful.
posted by mkultra at 2:31 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Cross of Iron" AKA "The Willing Flesh" by Willi Heinrich. The combat scenes in the factory are tense and unforgettable.

Peckinpah made a movie out of it.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 2:44 PM on February 8, 2012

Well, if you like crime\detective books, Joe R. Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series are great for that, especially Vanilla Ride and Devil Red. As is pretty much anything by Andrew Vachss (who I discovered thanks to Lansdale, and actually has a whole book dedicated to car chase The Getaway Man ). You should also take a look at Walter Mosley's work.

Sci-fi wise: I also really enjoyed The Mirrored Heavens by David Williams. Zelanzy's Amber series and Lord of Light have pretty engrossing action scenes as well.
posted by Gygesringtone at 2:56 PM on February 8, 2012

I recently finished a remarkably excellent novel called Flood by Richard Doyle, about a hypothetical flooding of London due to the failure(s) of the Thames Barrier (and a bunch of other stuff) and it is quite literally wall-to-wall (or cover to cover) action scenes written in a journalistic style. There was an especially gripping scene near the beginning of a book depicting a helicopter rescue, but it's just chock-a-block with similar stuff. Really, really good, and completely and utterly overlooked - I found it for a buck at a thrift store.

Michael Crichton is pretty good for this sort of thing too. My favourite of his is Prey, but the Jurassic Parks (Jurrasics Park?) are great as well. James Rollins has good action scenes too, as does Matthew Reilly (though I've only read his first three or four, before all his work became about this annoying "Scarecrow" guy).

Seconding The Willing Flesh and Black Hawk Down (and in defence of the latter, there really are only so many ways to write a variation on "The Humvee was riddled with bullets", so don't let that stop you).

Dan Simmons writes some brilliant action scenes in Hyperion. The works of Niven & Pournelle (esp. Footfall and The Mote In God's Eye) are brimming with them as well.
posted by tumid dahlia at 3:10 PM on February 8, 2012

In Sci/Fi Fantasy, Brandon Sanderson is well known for writing cinematic action.
posted by yeolcoatl at 4:13 PM on February 8, 2012

McGrave by Lee Goldberg, sounds like it is right up that alley.
posted by jimw at 4:55 PM on February 8, 2012

Conn Iggulden's books about Ghengis Khan have some excellent fights: from small scale to huge battles.
posted by Prof Iterole at 5:38 PM on February 8, 2012

John Sandford's first book in the Virgil Flowers series, Dark of the Moon, has some just incredible action scenes. I gasped aloud while reading one.
posted by Malla at 5:56 PM on February 8, 2012

The Ted Chiang short story Understand culminates in a battle of minds between the two main characters that is quite action-packed. Sort of like Gandalf and Saruman going head to head.
posted by Arch_Stanton at 6:44 PM on February 8, 2012

can't believe no one has mentioned the hunger games trilogy yet.
posted by raw sugar at 9:31 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Chapter 3 of Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks will meet your needs. After his assassination, a military officer awakes in a virtual afterlife. He is just getting used to the simulated world when he is killed again. Then, despite clever precautions, killed again. And again and again and again in an escalating spiral of move and countermove, until---something else happens. The pacing is perfect. Of course it will make more sense if you read the book from the beginning.
posted by drdanger at 11:03 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

^^ Actually section 3 of Chapter 2, I think. ^^
posted by drdanger at 11:15 PM on February 8, 2012

Try some Joe Abercrombie. He's a British fantasy writer who combines pulp (action, excitement, danger) and literary sensibilities (character development, moral choices, language that is neither affected nor clunky) well. All his books are worth getting (apart from Best Served Cold), and his best is The Heroes.

However, if you want one action scene, try "Among The Stones" in Before They Are Hanged. This is a suspenseful scene where a small group of heroes fight off a band of mercenaries that somewhat outnumber them. Each skirmish is polished off quickly in its own section so the impression is of a lot of intense short bursts of action, with an accumulating effect of fatigue and suspense. (Because each skirmish is dangerous -- no casual kills here -- the amount of risk to the heroes seems to mount up as the chapter progresses.)
posted by laumry at 2:20 AM on February 9, 2012

There's a holy shit scene in John Ehle's The Land Breakers involving a great many rattlesnakes. Plenty of fights with grizzly bears too.
posted by Iridic at 9:06 AM on February 9, 2012

The fight between The Mountain and The Red Viper in George RR Martin's book 3 of the Song of Ice & Fire series is pretty intense.
posted by lalochezia at 11:32 AM on February 9, 2012

Also the Red Wedding from the same series. But you really need to get INVESTED in the characters, so that when their end....or escape comes...... you are breathless.
posted by lalochezia at 11:37 AM on February 9, 2012

James Salter's descriptions of fighter jets flying and fighting in the Korean War are amazing in Burning the Days.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 2:37 PM on February 9, 2012

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