Action Genre Conventions

Download the Action Genre Cheatsheet

What’s the Genre?

Shawn tells us the answer to many of the problems that arise as we plan, draft, and revise our stories can be solved by asking and answering the question, what’s the genre? The global genre is like a utility belt with lots of tools because it’s shorthand for the collection of characteristics readers expect to see in your story, the ones they’ll miss if they aren’t there.  

Within the Action Genre, there are four subgenres, determined by the force of antagonism, and each subgenre includes four “plots,” with their own conventions. You can think of plots as sub-subgenres, but really they are specific types of Action stories we encounter that have similar elements.

Action-Adventure: Person against Nature

  • Labyrinth (power divide created by the labyrinth, though it’s not the villain): The Hunger Games, The Wizard of Oz, Pan’s Labyrinth. The Even Chance is the movie version of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower.
  • Monster (villain is an animal): Moby Dick, Jurassic Park, Jaws
  • Environment (villain is the global setting): The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (both were books before they were movies); “To Build a Fire” the short story by Jack London, Gravity.
  • Doomsday (victim is the environment): The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, Independence Day, and The Forge of God by Greg Bear.

Action-Duel: Person against Person

  • Revenge (hero chases villain): Seven, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
  • Hunted (villain chases hero): Treasure Island, The Fugitive, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Pirates of the Caribbean series
  • Machiavellian (hero sets two villains against each other): Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars
  • Collision (villain sets two heroes against each other): Troy, Princess Mononoke

Action-Epic: Person against the State or Other Large Organization

  • Rebellion (hero against a visible tyrant): Star Wars
  • Conspiracy (hero against an invisible tyrant): The Spy Who Dumped Me, The Bourne Identity, Enemy of the State
  • Vigilante (hero against a criminal organization): Above the Law
  • Savior (hero against villain intent on social destruction): Black Panther, The Dark Knight

Action-Clock: Person against Time

  • Ransom (deadline imposed by the villain): Ransom
  • Countdown (deadline imposed by circumstances): The Andromeda Strain
  • Holdout (hero must holdout until others can rally): The 300
  • Fate (time is the villain): Back to the Future

The sixteen Action genre plots can be employed in other genres with Action elements. In fact, some of the examples above are good examples of the plot even though the global genre is something other than Action.

  • The Fugitive is a Thriller with a Hunted plot
  • Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a War story with a Revenge plot
  • Yojimbo is a Western with a Machiavellian plot

(For more information about the Action genre generally, check out this post from Rachelle Ramirez.)

Which subgenre is the right one for your story?

Writers sometimes feel confused or overwhelmed by all the choices within this genre. For example, their setting might include something like a labyrinth, but also a hero against a visible tyrant. The Hunger Games is a great example of this potent combination. Which subgenre and plot are appropriate in that situation? I’ve given the answer away above, but let’s unpack it so you understand why Labyrinth is more accurate than Rebellion in The Hunger Games.

I start by looking at the Action conventions generally, and then I narrow my focus to the relationships between the primary players: the hero, the victim, and the villain.

As you look at the subgenre and plot choices, you can begin to think of likely conventions that stories like these might require.

I’ve spent the last season of the Roundtable Podcast studying conventions in Action Stories because I wanted to collect a list of subgenre conventions. So far my biggest takeaway is that subgenre conventions arise from the specific relationship between the hero, victim, and villain, as well as the setting, when it impacts those relationships in a meaningful way. Before we get into that, let’s take a step back to identify what conventions are and what they do in the story.

What are conventions?

Conventions are the necessary ingredients a reader expects to find in a story of a particular genre, and come in three main categories: characters, setting, and means of turning the plot. In other words, when you introduce specific types of characters in a specific type of setting and combine with specific circumstances, the reader expects the story to be of a particular type.

Action Conventions

On the Roundtable Podcast, we’ve shared the conventions for the Action genre (and the other eleven Story Grid genres) in our show notes. You can explore the archive here. The official Story Grid Action genre cheat sheet lists the following conventions:

  • Clearly defined hero, victim, and villain
  • Hero’s object of desire is to stop the villain and save the victim
  • Power divide between hero and villain is large
  • Speech in praise of the villain
  • Other conventions specific to the subgenre

When you understand how the hero, victim, and villain relate to one another and interact, you’ll be able to choose your Action subgenre and plot with confidence, but you’ll also have the keys to solving a whole range of other problems related to your story.

Who inhabits the primary roles, and what do they want?

First let’s look at the major players inhabiting the hero, victim, and villain roles and what each wants (global object of desire). It’s easy to assume I mean “strong and good character,” “vulnerable or weak character,” and “strong and evil character” for these three roles, but that isn’t all there is to them. (In fact, filling these roles in unexpected ways that are still true to their purpose is a great way to innovate your Action story.) We need to look beneath the surface and beyond the cliches to get at the heart of who they are to understand how they work together to create a satisfying Action story. I’ll start with the “strong evil character” first because they drive the action in an Action story. We may read to see what happens to the hero, but the hero would have no purpose without the villain.

The villain is the force of antagonism that creates conflict by endangering the victim, which causes a specific object of desire to arise within the hero. The villain wants something that puts the victim at risk. Villains come in different varieties: an aspect of the environment, another person or group of people, the state or other large organization, or time. The nature of the villain narrows your choice of subgenre. (For more information about the role of the villain, check out this post from Valerie Francis.)

The victim is the person or people attacked by the villain. They want to survive, but might not be aware of the full extent of the risk, if at all. They can be a single person of great importance to the villain, someone in the wrong place at the wrong time, a group of people, all of society, or even the environment.

The hero is a character who makes a sacrifice for the benefit of the victim(s). The global object of desire that arises within them is to defeat the villain and save the victim.

Notice that these are roles embodied by characters. That means one character can inhabit more than one role (e.g., Richard Kimble in The Fugitive is both hero and victim), and more than one character can inhabit one of the roles (e.g., the team of heroes in The Andromeda Strain or the team of villains in Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Examples

The Hunger Games

  • The villain is President Snow, who wants to keep the districts in line, supporting the Capital; he uses a whole host of people to help him in this endeavor, including the gamemakers and career tributes who do the killing for him.
  • Prim, Rue, Peeta, and Katniss are all victims who want to survive the Hunger Games.
  • Katniss is the hero who wants to save Rue and Peeta, but she also wants to survive so she can return to her district and look after her younger sister Prim.

Pirates of the Caribbean

  • The villain is Captain Barbossa and his crew of undead pirates who want William Turner’s blood because it’s the key to lifting their curse.
  • William Turner is a victim who wants to survive, but is willing to sacrifice himself for Elizabeth.
  • Elizabeth is a hero who wants to stop Barbossa and save William because she is in love with him.
  • Captain Jack Sparrow is a shapeshifter who wants to get his ship back. He sometimes joins forces with the villains, hero, and victim when their interests are aligned.

The Spy Who Dumped Me

  • Highland is a secret criminal organization (represented by Ivan and Raisa Petrenko, also known as Tom and Marsha) wants the USB stick back door to the Internet to steal everyone’s secrets and gain even more power in the world. Working with, for, or in competition with them are Nadedja the assassin, Drew, and Duffer, double-agents, who want money or power for themselves.
  • The victims include Audrey and Morgan, who are representatives of the members of society unaware they are at risk. They don’t want their secrets revealed, but they also want to survive trying to save the world from Highland.
  • Audrey and Morgan, with sidekick Sebastian, are the heroes who want to prevent the USB stick from falling into Highland’s hands, but also to prevent them from conducting any other schemes to gain more power.

The Andromeda Strain

  • The villain is an organism, code-named Andromeda, that appears to want to expand throughout the universe and that kills almost every living creature it encounters on Earth as it spreads. The military and their Scoop project helped the organism reach Earth.
  • The people on Earth are the victims, most of whom don’t know what is happening, but who want to go on living their lives.
  • The heroes are Stone, Leavitt, Dutton, and Hall (three scientists and a doctor on a handpicked team of experts). Each member has individual objects of desire, but the overall goal is to identify the organism and discover its characteristics so they can contain it before the organism destroys life on Earth.

What the characters in these roles want determines how they interact with one another. The hero, victim, and villain cannot simply walk away from the fight, but must see it through to the end of the line.

Because the hero wants to save the victim, they must make themselves vulnerable to the villain’s power, which highlights another convention, the power divide.

Power Divide

The power divide between the hero and villain is large. It isn’t just a matter of being stronger, though that is often part of it. Power is the ability to get people to do what you want them to do. The nature of the specific power divide between the hero and villain shows you which subgenre and plot your Action story belongs in.

The nature of the power divide comes from the way the hero and villain conduct their business.

The hero has a regular strategy for getting what they want and solving problems. The villain also has a regular strategy for getting what they want and solving problems.

The villain is not vulnerable to the hero’s ordinary strategy.

The hero is vulnerable to the villain’s ordinary strategy.

Why is this important? If the hero could overpower or outwit the villain by using their ordinary strategy of solving problems, then the story would end right away. There would be no stakes, and the story would lack tension and narrative drive, if the hero could stop the villain right away. It is only after the hero reaches an all is lost moment and realizes the villain can’t be defeated with the same strategy, that they can decide to express their gift and through it find a way to outwit or overpower the villain.

A Question of Morals

Another element of the power divide is a moral question. The villain has a wide range of tactics available that the hero does not because the villain feels no reluctance about putting the victim or others at risk. This can take three forms:

  • The villain can embrace evil, and therefore feels no shame and has no boundaries when it comes to pursuing their global object of desire. Barbossa is living in a state of damnation, has embraced evil, and doesn’t care who must die to relieve his tortured soul. The couple representing Highland fully embrace their evil plans and order the death of anyone who gets in their way.
  • The villain can be amoral, like the Andromeda strain or the shark in Jaws, that is simply going about its business, without noticing the harm they inflict on the victims.
  • The villain can be corrupted so that they believe they’re doing the right thing and that any ends justify the means. President Snow probably believes he’s preserving society in an environment of scarcity by maintaining total control.

More specifically, the villain can use the victim and their vulnerability against the hero. The hero’s object of desire is to save the victim, and the need to consider their safety can be a big disadvantage. Think of John McClane (hero) in Die Hard, whose wife is among the hostages (victims) held by Hans Gruber and his team (villains) in Nakatomi Plaza. Once Gruber learns her identity, he has a significant advantage over McClane, who can’t be as ruthless as the villain.

Examples of the Power Divide

The Hunger Games

Katniss Everdeen is a smart and sophisticated young woman and an excellent hunter. Her normal strategy to solve problems is to be resourceful and use her skills.

President Snow, as an individual, would be no match for Katniss. But Snow’s normal strategy for solving problems involves controlling the narrative of society and leveraging fear and hope to get large groups of people to do what he wants them to do. His government controls the resources in society, keeping people in the districts poor and malnourished. Snow hires gamemakers who create life-threatening circumstances within the arena, without risk to themselves. Snow pits the tributes against one another, and they compete for scarce resources before (the favor of sponsors) and during the Game (food drops and other needs), so they won’t join forces and refuse to kill one another.

The labyrinth gives Snow a distinct advantage over Katniss as she enters the system of the Hunger Games, where the odds are not in her favor.

Pirates of the Caribbean

Elizabeth is an ordinary human, though she is resourceful, clever, and brave. She solves problems by learning and acting quickly.

Captain Barbossa leads a crew of undead pirates. They cannot be defeated like other foes on the high seas. Barbossa and crew have the strength of the undead and are immune to guns and blades.

Barbossa’s power lies in who he is as a cursed and undead pirate, rather than something outside himself.

The Spy Who Dumped Me

Audrey and Morgan are ordinary young women without training or expertise in the realm of international spies and organized crime, though Audrey has mastered single-shooter video games, and Morgan is an accomplished circus performer. Their ordinary strategy is to rely on each other to talk through problems and find solutions.

Highland is a large criminal organization with massive financial resources, information, and personnel to do their bidding. Their usual way of dealing with problems is to send highly trained assassins and double-agents to torture victims, obtain what they need, and clean up any mess. They also have the advantage of being secret—even the international law enforcement agencies don’t know who’s behind the organization.

Highland’s resources and the hidden nature of the organization give Ivan and Raisa their advantage over Audrey and Morgan.

The Andromeda Strain

The heroes are experts in their respective fields of science and medicine. Their usual method of solving problems is to use the scientific method and established protocols. They have access to a state-of-the-art facility, designed by Stone and financed by the US government, designed to give them the time they need to follow protocols to determine the nature of alien substances or organisms and how to contain them safely. If those methods should fail, they have a nuclear bomb, automatically triggered in the event of an emergency, that will wipe out the entire facility, including the alien organism. The only person who can stop the bomb is a single man without children or other family, who is thought to be less susceptible to an emotional decision in an emergency.

The Andromeda strain is a mysterious alien substance that kills people immediately or causes insanity and suicide. It arrived on Earth via a US government satellite that malfunctioned and landed in a small community, killing all but two people. The organism is highly contagious and transmitted through the air. It mutates to survive new conditions, while dividing at an exponential rate. It thrives under almost any conditions. In fact, the team learns that a nuclear reaction would give it more energy and power to spread, rather than killing it.

Time allows the Andromeda strain to spread, as it adapts to its new environment.

Speech in Praise of the Villain

In the Action Genre, the speech in praise of the villain is a convention, not an obligatory scene. It helps us to understand the villain’s point, because a villain without a point isn’t very interesting. But a speech from the villain or other character should also point to the power divide between the hero and villain. (To read more about the villain’s speech, check out this article from Steven Pressfield.)

Examples of the Speech in Praise of the Villain

The Hunger Games

President Snow tells Seneca about why they allow a winner in the Hunger Games (at about 49 minutes). After all, they could easily kill all the tributes. Allowing a winner gives people hope, which is stronger than fear. But too much hope is dangerous, so they must contain it.

Pirates of the Caribbean

In a scene aboard Barbossa’s ship (starting at about 54 minutes), he tells Elizabeth about the curse of the Aztec gold as they sit before a sumptuous feast on the table of his cabin. It leaves him and his pirates consumed by greed and desire that can never be satisfied. The only way to rid themselves of the curse is to find the last piece of gold and the blood of Bootstrap Bill’s child (which he mistakenly believes is Elizabeth). When she realizes what he plans to do, she stabs him with a knife, but he removes it, and when she flees from the cabin, she encounters the skeletal forms of the crew.

The Spy Who Dumped Me

Audrey and Morgan wake to find themselves restrained in a gymnasium (at about 52 minutes) they’ve been kidnapped. Marsha and Tom, whom Audrey believes are Drew’s parents, talk to her. They ask her where the drive is, and when she doesn’t answer the question, Marsha hits Audrey. Morgan realizes they aren’t who they said they were, and Marsha tells her they met to negotiate the sale of the drive. She was there as insurance, so they wouldn’t kill Drew if the negotiations didn’t work out. When she tells them she flushed it down the toilet, the call the assassin to torture them. Marsha and Tom leave.  

The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda strain cannot speak for itself, so the team members speak for it as they discover its nature and properties. They speculate about, but cannot know what motivates the organism, beyond the need of living things to reproduce themselves.

  • The organism is still present and potent after being brought into the facility, killing animals who are exposed instantly.
  • Only a tiny amount of the substance was caught by the satellite, requiring a strong microscope to spot it, and yet it spread killed all but two people in the community where it landed, and continued to grow.
  • Has a crystalline form and can multiply exponentially in a vacuum.
  • It can live on anything and produces no waste.

Conventions Specific to the Subgenre

There are many more stories to read and watch before I’ll feel confident that I’ve identified the conventions specific to the subgenres. But I’ve created a spreadsheet where you can find my working hypotheses, as well as the conventions for the Action stories I’ve studied so far. Your comments and suggestions are welcome. I’ll update the sheet as I continue to study the Action genre next season and beyond.

But don’t take my word for it. I encourage you to put these findings to the test. Read and watch the Action stories listed along with others. Identify the conventions (and obligatory scenes) yourself. It’s a surefire way to level up your understanding of story.

Solving Problems

Once you know your global genre, when you get stuck planning, drafting, or revising the story, you can review the conventions and how you’ve established them to see if you’ve set up the elements a reader expects to find. If Conventions are the setup, the Obligatory Scenes are the payoff. These scenes include a series of events, choices, and revelations that create incremental change over the course of the story. The changes move the global life value needle along a particular spectrum, which in the case of the Action genre is the LIFE/DEATH continuum. In the next season of the Roundtable Podcast, I’ll be studying more Action genre stories to show how the obligatory scenes pay off the promise of the conventions and adding to the sheets to my Action spreadsheet.

Download the Action Genre Cheatsheet

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About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
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Author Leslie Watts

6 Comments

Leslie Watts says:

Thanks, Johne! It was fun to gather these pieces together, and I’m glad it’s valuable to other writers too!

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siddhardha says:

what about mission impossible series ? is there any sort of structure involved? sometimes i do wonder is how to write scripts in action genre following these structure and all? do really have to follow structure or it comes along with story? could you tell me brief

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Leslie Watts says:

I would say the Mission Impossible films abide by the conventions and obligatory moments of the global genre and conform to fundamental story structure. Any writer who wants to meet or exceed the expectations of their audience needs to establish and innovate the global genre conventions because they are the foundation of audience expectations for a story of that type. If a chair had no seat or legs, would we still call it a chair? Probably not.

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