Action scenes do include fight scenes, but is not the extent. Other kinds of action sequences: Where the priorities shift, a woman in a hospital sees a doctor come in and tenses up. An argument. A court when a verdict is coming in. The act of receiving information. Even playing chess - something that the characters care about, mundane things that for the characters are life & death.
Philosophical underpinnings of what will make an action scene compelling:
- Action is a conversation
Batman’s fight scenes are arguments where the villains and Batman argue their points… with fists.
Characterization,history, personality, etc aren’t suspended during action sequences. It’s not the events of the sequence that makes it’s compelling, it’s our investment in the characters.
So don’t suspense characterization, because readers will lose empathy.
Compare prequel Star Wars movies with the old ones, we are invested in Luke when he’s hacking away at Darth Vader, but in the prequels, all the fancy fighting/animation, we don’t care at all about any of them because there’s no real relationship between them.
This characterizations should be amplified. Action is where the core of the character comes out.
Goof test: flip to a random action sequence and get a new reader tell you everything they can figure out just from reading the sequence - backstory, motivation, etc. If they can figure out why the character are doing what they did, you’ve written a good action sequence.
Motives and relationship should be apparent. All stories are tales of relationships and how we become invested in them. That’s where the action scene pays off, it’s not a resolution of conflict, it’s a heightening of conflict. How we feel after is important.
A character fighting 10 thugs in a bar versus fighting an estranged father, both will have completely different backstory/motive/etc
We need time to appreciate/get to know characters before we will care if they lose/die/etc. We don’t care about ‘thug-on-the-left-#2’.
2) No one walks away
The point of a fight scene to break up or resolve conflict, which is a mistake. Something has to change, no one should walk away from conflict unscathed, which increases the conflict. If someone gets injured, that injury must do something. It shouldn’t just be a way to show them be vulnerable, so readers will relate to the character, but that doesn’t work. A wound should influence the next fight, characters shouldn’t just walk it off.
Just as it’s not a point to suspect characterization, it should be used to end characterization.
Have the emotion or plot change due to the fight scene.
Like the Star Wars scene where Luke hallucinates killing DV, and the helmet falls off and its his own face. Luke knows that, by killing DV, he’ll kinda become him. Which changes the way Luke approaches his next move/etc.
After every action sequence the stakes need to change. You can lower them, but only briefly. The payoff is when things resolve at the end of the story (not necessarily at the end of the book), so you want to keep building the stakes, increasing how invested the reader is in the characters.
Action is not a reprieve from plot.
3) Language shapes investment
The idea behind this is, we can manipulate the audiences focus, get them to look where we want them to, direct their investment. This is more structural rather than the first two which were more philosophical.
Style can change. Like, “The Martian” starts out in our nay entries, hal way through there’s an equipment failure, the author jumped back to a clinical/dry history of when the part was manufactured and leads you all the way back to the moment where it fails and you see the character fly off into space. That dryness lures you into a false sense of security, they you’re thrown back into the emotional investment of how he is going to survive. This also adds the benefit of now making it seems like an annoying connivence, cheating to get the character into trouble.
Pixar rule of storytelling: Coincidence getting a character into trouble is fine, coincidence getting them out of trouble is cheating.
Something he does is change something to immediately grab the reader’s attention. So, changing from lengthy prose to short, tense sentences. One draws the eye to details (lure into a false sense of security, to get more characterization) juxtaposed with short/actiony sentences to describe details.
Good tip: any scene with emotional intensity is best conveyed through minimal details allowing the audience to fill in whatever is appropriate for them.
The scariest thing in the world is a closed door with a faint scratching. As soon as the door opens, it’s less scary when you see what’s in.
Describing reactions is often a great way to play this, like in Disney movies, you never see the villain dying, you see the hero flinch/etc. It’s more powerful than actually seeing him die, seeing the body. Like the lightning flash in Tarzan when you see the body hanging there after seeing the vine snap.
What you choose to show influences what information the reader gets, the impressions they form about character motivations/history/etc. What is the first thing a paramedic sees on the scene of an accident vs a child, vs a mother, etc. Language reveals characterization which in turn informs what happens as a consequence.
Creativity isn’t a single muscle, it’s a muscle-group. Should devour all media as learning from one type of media (film/books/tv/comics) will inform the other.
Balancing action within a story, there’s a reason comedy & tragedy pair well because the laugh makes the next tragedy hit harder, and the tragedy makes us more desperate for the next joke.
Action is where our investment of the character is put to the test. Will they be okay? And when we’re satisfied/happy, then it’s tested again later.
If you don’t have those breathers, you get action fatigue. Readers need that bit of a break. They need a reason to care, to become invested.
In fantasy, using magic, the character’s values should be evident. Harry Potter, for example, uses it when desperate, to protect. Hermione uses it expertly because her motivation/etc is to learn, to push. She’s not upset when she screws up the potion and turns into cat, she’s upset because she couldn’t make the spell work - that she failed.
Things to remember:
Guys fight to fight, girls fight to kill. Guys are about looking strong/tight/etc. Flashy moves/posturing/etc. Girls who go to self defence classes learn to maim - go for the eyes, throat, etc.
In a disaster, most people run.