Short Scene Critique: Sci-Fi Action


Meant to be a sneak peek into a Carina editor’s brain, and critiqued by a different editor each time, we’re going to post these critiques twice a month as long as authors are willing to let us use their work and people remain interested.

The idea here is to give you a quick insight into how we might look at a manuscript as it comes across our desks on submission. We’ll strive to be critical but not mean. Because it’s only about 600 words, 2 pages at the most, the amount of feedback is necessarily limited—we don’t have access to more than a couple of pages!

New as of March 1, 2018: instead of first-pages, we asked authors to submit one of four types of scenes: an action scene, a sex scene, the black moment or the first meeting between protagonists. This opportunity was still limited to 400-800 words, but it provides both authors and those following these critiques with an opportunity to see editorial feedback deeper into a book.

It’s important to note that this manuscript was submitted specifically for the purpose of critique on the blog, we do not/will not use random submissions so no worries we’re going to pull your piece out of our submissions inbox and critique it.

The next opportunity to submit a piece for critique will be open soon, so please watch the blog or our newsletter for more.

This month’s editor providing critique is Carina Press Freelance Editor Mackenzie Walton.


* * *

The First Page

 This was submitted by the author as an action scene.

Author A described this manuscript as the opening action scene from a standalone science fiction romance.


The jewels were worth more than she had ever seen, touched, owned, okay… or stolen. But they could buy her freedom, worth it if she wasn’t killed first. She slithered through the pipe, but drew her gun in case she ran into a security guard at the docks.

Voices up ahead; they sounded angry. Bad news. She peered out the end of the pipe, spying four well-armed guards surrounding her derelict spaceship, The Elon. Crap, their guns were probably set on kill. She fired her stun gun first. The guy nearest to her fell.

She waited several seconds, the pipe trembling around her as it took hits from the guns below. She grimaced at the deafening noise. A cease in fire, their stun guns probably recharging.  She slid out, rolled, came up on her left shoulder, and fired, hitting the big guy nearest to her ship…zing…zing….three more to go.

Captain, I hear gunfire. Are you in danger? Should I open the hatch?

Hector, The Elon’s mainframe computer asked through her ear implant.

“Not now, busy…” She fired at guy two, got him. The third came for her; she fired but missed. Four grabbed her in a vice grip from behind. She twisted, flipped over his head, landing behind him, but dropped her gun. Guard three aimed; red dot on her forehead.

“Stand down or I’ll zap you. Lay flat on the floor with your hands out,” he commanded. She hid a smile. As she bent, one hand slid to her boot, drawing a drug-doped crystal knife. She aimed it true into the man’s neck. The knockout drug hit him like an asp bite. But the last guard cold-cocked her in her jaw, flipped her to the ground with his two paw-like hands, and then stomped on her ankle, spraining it. Probably as an afterthought.

She screamed, bit him in the arm, then used strong legs to lock him in a hold while she tore a shocker stick from her shirt pocket. She jammed it into his neck, causing him to twitch like a post-coital black widow’s mate.

Captain, should I open the door and fire up the engines? 

It was Hector, again. Computers had poor social skills and terrible timing.

“Yes, ASAP! Prepare for a warp thrust…a full thrust.” She retrieved her knife from the guy’s neck.

But we’ve never used our warp thruster at full power before. What if…

“Do it!” she screamed, running up the ramp and into her ship’s open hatch; she scrambled inside, straight to the bridge, shouting instructions at Hector as he started the engines.

“Begin warp thrust countdown on my mark…engines full power…detach docking ties…engaging my safety shield….thrusters, full fire…now!”

The spaceship exploded from the dark side dock, riding a black hole rim with such force it knocked the breath out of her. The adrenaline rush from The Elon’s first full warp jump had her laughing all the way to home port.


* * *

The Critique

First off, let me be clear: action scenes are so, so hard to get right. Even veteran authors can have a tough time getting the fast pace and energized tone just right.

It’s common to approach action like you would in TV and movies—straightforward and somewhat staccato—but that doesn’t quite work in books. Without the visual element, the reader’s really depending on the author to spell out what’s happening and sell them on how they should be feeling.

With this scene, I kept wanting more description. Some of the problem is simply lack of context—we’re starting in the middle of a scene, so I have no idea how the captain is moving through the pipes or where her ship is located, and that may already be established.

But when the action starts, the detail is immediately light. How is she popping out of this pipe? Is there just a big open end to it in the middle of this room, and why? How does the first guard react as he falls? Where does the stun blast hit him? What’s the reaction of the other guards, other than them opening fire? The sound inside the pipe is described as deafening, which is a great start, but how so? Is it a metallic pinging sort of noise, or are the shots scraping the pipe like nails on a chalkboard? Are her ears ringing when she jumps out? There’s so much I want to know!

Much of the blocking (how the character is physically moving through the scene) is also vague—how is she twisting and flipping over the guard’s head? How is she able to jam the shocker stick in someone’s neck when she’s on the ground? It feels like the author has a very clear idea of how the scene looks, but needs to flesh it out some more so the reader can picture it as well.

Also, despite there being five people against one, the fight feels a little too effortless on the captain’s part. Even when she gets a sprained ankle from being stomped on, it doesn’t seem to affect her running to safety. I’d love to see it be harder for her, because even in small scenes like this, higher stakes are rarely a bad idea. Drawing the scene out would also give it more time to register with the reader. Adding more dialogue—responses from the guards, quips from the captain?—might be a way to do that, and also a way to help differentiate between the guards, who are easy to lose track of.

I totally love the moments when Hector interrupts her—the tonal shifts are jarring in a very fun way, and I’d love to see more of that. It’s also a great way to reinforce the captain’s personality and her relationship with Hector.


Would I keep reading? Yes. Action scenes are tough, and I wouldn’t judge the rest of the book based on this alone.


Do you have questions about my feedback or the First-Page Critique program? Email

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