Action stories don’t get proper respect. In academic circles they’re sometimes treated as a step above pornography, and even among the groundlings, the assumption is that action should be crappy. Inevitably, I find myself in the situation where I’m the party pooper at the movies because I can’t just sit back and enjoy a “mindless action film”. I don’t enjoy it, so I try to figure out why I don’t enjoy it, and then I make the mistake of talking about it, and soon I’ve ruined the experience for everyone.
But there’s a reason I criticize bad action films: I think action can be good.
I’ll go a step further. Action stories are the most archetypal stories out there. Maybe they aren’t profound (although they can be) but when done correctly, good action resonates with us in the purest Campbellian* sense. At their core they are about a hero striking out to take control of a world in chaos. They are all about choice, power, conflict and victory.
* Joseph or Bruce
So I’ve spent many of my waking hours thinking about what makes a good action story. This post is an attempt to organize some of thoughts into a handful of concrete elements that I think get the job done. As always, there is a big component of creating art that is instinctive. My hope is that these elements reinforce that instinct, and can be helpful in solving problems.
So let’s get started:
1. Build from the Ground Up
Good action stories are grounded. This means establishing a world where there are believable threats and costs to your character’s actions. Brad Bird talks about this in the DVD commentary of Iron Giant. In the opening minutes, there is a scene where Hogarth is running through the forest. He inadvertently runs into a tree branch. The moment is shocking and violent, and a second later we see Hogarth get up and wipe blood from his nose. This moment is crucial in establishing that Hogarth lives in a world where people can get hurt. Establishing your setting is the best way to do this. Take time to show the dangers and costs of moving through the world.
Katsuhiro Otomo does this in Akira by setting his sci-fi story in a world based on naturalistic details. Technology isn’t all-powerful. There is trash in the streets, the schools are falling apart. There are holograms, but they look kitschy. Characters stub their toes, and their butts fall asleep when they sit too long. And of course, there is blood aplenty when things heat up. Then, when the really bizarre sci-fi stuff starts to happen, it feels much more terrifying. It’s part of the world, and lives by the same rules. If a character can get a bloody nose from a punch in the face, you know that a genetically altered child, being kept at sub-zero temperatures in a massive subterranean compound is going to cause some serious damage when he gets free.
2. Raise the Stakes
In order for the audience to care about the action, something has to be at stake. Either there is something to gain or something to lose. Good action stories start with compelling stakes and continue to complicate them. With each scene there is more to lose or more to gain. Good action stories tend to have really big stakes. Typically, all of humanity, or life, or existence is at risk. In Ghostbusters, crossing the streams risks all of reality blinking out of existence. In Terminator, it’s not just John Conner’s life that’s at stake, but the survival of humans against the robots. Make sure there is plenty at stake, and make sure to increase the load as the story continues.
3. Give Characters Urgency
In a good action story the good guys and bad guys alike wear t-shirts that say, “Git’r Done”. They know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and they will follow that path with brutal efficiency. Nothing irks me more than action stories where villains delay achieving their objectives so the story can last longer. Think of the James Bond cliche where the villain explains his master plan before attempting to have Bond put to death in the most complicated way possible. It can also happen in smaller ways: villains gloating before they finish the act, or heroes trying to get one last answer before justice is served.
For a good example of what to do, look at Terminator and Terminator 2. The Terminators don’t care about asking questions or gloating over their kill, they just run straight at you and do their job. The moment that the T-1000 has John Conner in his sight, his gun is out of his holster and he is sprinting at him in that way that only liquid metal assassins run.
One of the benefits of giving your characters urgency is that it forces you to use action to counter action.
4. Fight or Flight
If you give your characters urgency, they will either be running away from danger, struggling against opposition or chasing after an objective. Fight-or-flight increases in proportion to the complication of the stakes. As the stakes are raised, characters spend more time in fight-or-flight mode. There is another type of moment that is not action oriented that is still totally appropriate, and even essential for action: the regrouping or planning scene. While it’s not high energy, it still plays an important role, but more on that later.
These first four elements establish a solid foundation to motivate a good action story. Next week will discuss more about the importance of choices and how to tune spectacle and breaks-in-action to the benefit of the story.