As promised, this week we’ll be continuing our discussion on what makes a good action story. Last week we talked about the fundamentals: grounding the story, raising the stakes, and giving characters urgency. This week we’ll be talking a bit more about choice, as well as spectacle and slowing down.
Let’s start with choice:
5. Every Choice Has a Cost
There should be price to paid for every choice your characters make. Even the little choices. If a character has to move from point A to point B, show that it costs time and energy. If they have to lift something up, it takes effort. As the the story progresses make the choices more and more costly.
The Abyss is a great example of film that’s chock full of tough choices. From the beginning, there’s a price to be paid for every choice. When Bud tosses his wedding ring in the toilet, he has to retrieve it — staining his hand blue for the rest of the film. Later when Bud decides to try and stop Lt. Coffey, he must pay the price of holding his breath for an insane amount of time, while trying to swim to the Moon Pool, through near freezing water, to try and disarm a trained killer. By the end the costs get even bigger: Lindsey drowns and must be resuscitated; Bud has to dive to depths that are impossible for humans to survive in.
This gets to the heart of what makes a hero: they overcome obstacles. That’s the whole point of an inciting incident. Make sure that for everything your characters do, they pay a price.
6. Complicate Action Through Choices
If you follow the previous suggestion, you should be okay on this. Choices are the best vehicle for raising the stakes. The best action stories begins with a choice that complicates things. This sets off a chain reaction that continues to escalate until a final resolution is reached.
There is the temptation to complicate the drama by throwing in challenges unrelated to choice. Mission to Mars does this on several occasions. At one particular moment, a micro meteorite storm comes out of nowhere and punctures the hull, causing all sorts of emergency. It had nothing to do with the any choices the characters made, it was just a random bad thing that was chucked in to try and add drama.
In good action stories there may be moments that appear to be random, but pay close attention. Is it a random occurrence that happened as they were going about their regular business, or did the choices they make increase the risk of something bad happening? As I mentioned in the previous post, action stories are about choice and power. Complications are more meaningful when they are the direct result of a character’s choices.
7. Make Spectacle Matter
One of the great things I’ve learned from working in the game industry is the importance of using spectacle correctly. In gaming, visuals always support game-play. The character design should communicate what a player can expect from a character and spectacle should be used to emphasis a player’s status in the game. When a player does well, they get some sort of visual payoff. That could be a cool death animation of a bad-guy, a burst of confetti for solving a puzzle or breathtaking vista after passing through a difficult challenge. Spectacle can also be used in the same way to show danger, and failure. It’s all about enhancing the natural experience of game-play.
Spectacle can be used in the same way in action storytelling, but instead of supporting game-play it supports point of view. Use your biggest spectacle at the most important points of your story. Kick off your inciting incident with a cool fight scene. Reveal your monster at the climax. Show all the new weapons right before you get ready for the final battle. Think about the point of view of the characters, what they are experiencing and how you can heighten that experience with the flashy details.
8. Slow Down
This is the key to telling a really interesting action story. You don’t need to be going full bore the whole time. The slow moments create a contrast with the action moments, making the action more compelling. They also help build up to the action by creating anticipation, and mystery. As I mentioned in the previous article, the regrouping or planning moments are an essential part of the action film. If you were to ask anyone to name the most memorable moments of the A-Team, chances are they will choose the planning montages where the A-team welded together some awesome contraptions to use in the final battle. It creates anticipation for what’s to come, and it also creates a template for understanding the final action; you’ve explained the plan, so going into the final action there will be greater clarity about what’s going on, and extra drama when things don’t go according to plan (which always happens).
There is also something that happens when you just have non-stop action: you get sick of it. The explosions stop being so awesome, and the monsters get old. Take a break from the cool stuff for just a couple of minutes. Let your characters laugh a bit, or plan a bit. Then when you come back to the flashy stuff it’ll feel fresh again.
Please Don’t Be Stupid
At the end of the day, I want to be giving high-fives and pumping fists as much as any other fella when the credits roll. And it doesn’t take some sort of complex artistic back flips for a storyteller to do this, it just takes common sense. Take at least as much time to make the story understandable as you do designing the gears in Bumblebee’s elbow and you’ll be well on you way.
Really, it shouldn’t be that hard.