Well, since I seem to be going through a phase of reading thriller novels at the moment, I thought that I’d talk about one of the ways that these stories sometimes make their action-based scenes especially gripping and/or compelling.
In short, a truly gripping action scene is like watching someone solve a challenging puzzle. Allow me to explain…
The best action scenes will often begin with the main character in a situation where they are outnumbered, outgunned and/or faced with seemingly inevitable doom. They then have to come up with a clever strategy or a cunning plan in order to even the odds and/or to survive. The important thing in these types of scenes is that the main character can only get out of the dangerous situation by using their brains, rather than just their fists or guns.
But, why are these types of scenes so gripping? There are several reasons for this. The first is the dramatic sense of suspense that comes from placing the main character in a seemingly “impossible” situation. The second is the audience’s curiosity about how they are going to survive. The third is the exhilarating feeling of satisfaction that comes from watching the main character outwit, outfox and outsmart whoever or whatever is threatening them.
This progression from suspense, to curiosity to satisfaction is one of the best ways to keep your audience gripped during action scenes.
A good cinematic example of this is probably the first “Die Hard” movie. In this film, a policeman is trapped inside a tower that has been seized by dangerous criminals – he’s outnumbered, outgunned and in serious danger (as shown in a scene where he injures his foot). This movie is utterly gripping because he has to use tactics, strategy and planning in order to fight and defeat the criminals. He can’t just mindlessly charge through the building shooting wildly at the bad guys, because he wouldn’t survive. So, he’s faced with a challenging puzzle and the audience get to watch him solve it.
By contrast, the fifth “Die Hard” film is considerably less thrilling because it doesn’t really contain these elements. The main character is clearly shown to be immune to danger (eg: he can fall through several layers of scaffolding, crouch next to explosions etc… with barely a scratch). Likewise, whenever he is faced with adversity, he often just mindlessly shoots his way out of it, with very little in the way of strategy or planning. It really isn’t a very gripping film, even though the action scenes are designed to look “spectacular”.
So, a truly gripping action scene in a thriller story needs to be like a dangerous, difficult puzzle. It needs to be a challenge that the main character can’t solve by just mindlessly shooting or punching their way out of it. They actually need to use their brain in order to escape a dangerous situation.
Although the action/thriller genre has a reputation for being “mindless” or “stupid”, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A truly compelling action scene is much more about intelligent puzzle solving than about explosions, car chases etc… It is about watching the main character find some clever way out of a dangerous situation that can’t be resolved with mindless brute force alone.
So, think of the action scenes in your thriller story as puzzles for your main character to solve, and you’ll end up with a much more gripping story.
Sorry for the short and repetitive article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂