Let me start by saying that, although the two genres are similar, you should never confuse the action genre with the thriller genre. Although thriller stories might feature scenes of thrilling action, they’re more about the protagonist outsmarting the antagonists than about the protagonist fighting the antagonists. In fact, a good protagonist in a thriller story should avoid violence as much as possible.
The action genre, on the other hand, is a little bit more mindless. It consists of mindlessly violent stories, comics, films and games that are designed to tap into the most primitive parts of our minds and make us vicariously feel like we’re badasses.
As long as you possess a vaguely functional moral compass and can distinguish between fantasy and reality, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying these types of stories. They’re cathartic, they make us feel confident for a while and they don’t require much complex thought
But, although things in the action genre might be mindless to read, play or watch, actually creating interesting fictional scenes of mindless violence can be surprisingly difficult. So, here are a few tips:
1) Context And Morality: Even if your story consists of your main character doing nothing but fighting people, you still have to think very carefully about context and morality.
We’ve all seen action movies which feature absolutely bizarre fight scenes. No, I’m not talking about characters fighting with unusual weapons, I’m talking about characters fighting in situations where a fight wouldn’t realistically happen.
In other words, if you’re going to include a scene of mindless violence in your story, it has to happen in a situation where your audience would expect a fight to happen. Yes, you can show your main character battling hordes of henchmen when he or she is sneaking into the villain’s headquarters, but showing your main character randomly starting a martial arts fight in- say- a swimming pool is probably going to confuse your readers rather than thrill them.
Likewise, the moral context of the mindless violence in your action story can be the difference between something that will thrill your audience and something that will horrify them. Yes, in real life, violence is rarely (if ever) morally good in any way. But, in fiction, it’s a totally different story. To give you an example of what I’m talking about, I refer you to the first-person shooter genre of computer games.
Notice how, in virtually all of these games, you fight against equally-matched enemies or against enemies that are more powerful or more numerous than you. This is because making the audience identify with someone powerful who attacks someone weaker quite rightly makes the audience feel like they’re bullies, rather than badasses.
Likewise, notice how the characters that you fight in almost every FPS game generally tend to be evil characters (I mean, there’s a good reason why the very first popular FPS game was set during the second world war. There’s absolutely no moral ambiguity whatsoever when it comes to fighting against nazis).
Also, be sure to notice how these evil characters will often attack you first, usually as soon as they see you. Showing the main character fighting someone without a “good reason” to do so in an action story just makes them look evil, rather than heroic.
2) Fairness: Although it might be tempting to make the protagonist of your action story or comic an invulnerable god or goddess with superhuman abilities, this is a bad idea.
Even though your protagonist may be an expert in combat, it’s important to remember that they’re still human. This doesn’t mean that you should show them actually experiencing the realistic effects of violence (eg: serious injuries, death etc…), but you should at least pay lip service to this.
Why? Because showing that your main characters aren’t invulnerable actually makes your audience think that they’re more impressive. If your main character emerges victorious from a dramatic fight with three heavily-armed opponents with a few cuts and bruises, this shows the audience that there’s a chance that the main character could have lost but didn’t because of his or her expertise at combat.
However, if your main character emerges completely unscathed, then it’s less impressive because your audience knows that your character wasn’t really in any danger at all.
For a good example of this, I’ll mention something that I mentioned in my review of the fifth “Die Hard” movie. In the first “Die Hard” movie, John McClane suffers a serious injury after treading on some broken glass. Not only does this reinforce the fact that he’s only human, it also makes the fact that he still manages to defeat the villains despite these injuries, even more impressive.
Now, watch the fifth “Die Hard” film. At no point in this film does it seem like John McClane is actually in any danger. He can stand next to explosions and not even be knocked over. He can fall spectacular distances and get up, like nothing has happened to him. He’s invincible and, as such, anything he achieves is less impressive as a result.
3) Pacing: Yes, the action genre is considerably more violent than most other genres, but have you ever noticed how even the cheesiest action movie consists of more than just ninety minutes of constant fighting. There’s usually at least a couple of non-violent scenes in there. There’s a good reason for this.
Watching or reading about literally nothing but constant fighting gets boring after a while. Even game designers in the heyday of the FPS genre (eg: most of the 1990s) recognised this fact and often included things like puzzles and explorable areas to break up the action slightly.
In other words, if you’re making something in the action genre, you need to give your audience a break from mindless violence every now and then. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it’ll actually make them more interested rather than less interested.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂