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Action Genre: How to Tell an Exciting Life and Death Story

What is the Action Genre?

An external story in the Action genre focuses on the protagonist’s sacrifice for positive movement along the death / life VALUE spectrum while generating feelings of excitement in the reader.   

The underlying question in every Action story is:

How do I overcome powerful external forces intent on killing other innocent victims and me?

Action Genre: How to Tell an Exciting Life and Death Story

What is the Controlling Idea of the Action Genre?

The universal theme or CONTROLLING IDEA of an action story is:

Life is preserved when the protagonist makes a sacrifice to overpower or outwit their external and internal antagonists. But death results when the protagonist lacks the courage to sacrifice for the survival of self and others.

The Four Core Framework of the Action Genre

The FOUR CORE FRAMEWORK helps us meet reader expectations by bringing the core of our story into focus to create an irresistible, memorable, and shareable experience for the reader.

1. Core Need

Survival

The core need of the Action genre is our primal need to survive an inciting attack by a force of antagonism. The protagonist wants to defeat the antagonist and save others and themselves. 

The protagonist’s deeper need, which all humans share, is to go beyond survival and make life and death meaningful. We must all find the courage to realize and activate our internal potential.

2. Core Value

Death to Life

The core value of the Action genre spans life and death and all the subtle gradations in between. Damnation, or what we call the “negation of the negation” on the life-death spectrum, isn’t usually in play in this genre, but the reader should understand what the fate worse than death would be for the protagonist. The spectrum of values includes the risk of an actual injury, illness, unconsciousness, and death.

3. Core Emotion

Excitement

When the protagonist defeats the villain, we feel the core emotion of excitement because if the protagonist can successfully outwit or overpower an antagonist, perhaps readers might too.

4. Core Event

Hero at the Mercy of the Villain

The CLIMAX of the Action genre is the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene when the protagonist outwits or overpowers the villain—or not. This moment forces the protagonist to choose whether to express their unique gifts by sacrificing to defeat the villain. 

9 Conventions of the Action Genre

GENRE CONVENTIONS are specific requirements for the story’s ALTERNATE WORLD, AVATARS, or circumstances that create conflict and enable solutions. Conventions set up genre reader expectations. Without these, the reader will be confused, unsettled, or bored and quit reading.

The Action genre has nine necessary conventions:

  • An intense setting. The setting must be a disturbed, unbalanced physical and social environment that gives rise to conflict.
  • Dueling hierarchies. A growth hierarchy is at odds with a power/dominance hierarchy (or a dueling protagonist and antagonist).
  • The hero. The hero sets out on a journey or must face a challenge created by the villain and the hero’s OBJECT OF DESIRE is to stop the force of antagonism and save the victim.
  • The villain. The villain is much more powerful than the hero and the victim and the villain uses their resources to stop the protagonist and harm the victim. 
  • The victim. The victim is much less powerful than the hero or the villain and requires the hero to save them from the villain.
  • A speech in praise of the villain. At some point, an AVATAR must discover or point out how the villain appears unbeatable. The villain’s point—the reason the antagonist will not give up—also must be revealed. 
  • The deadline. There is a clock that establishes a limited time in which the protagonist must act to save the victim.
  • Set-piece sequences. Fast-paced sequences show the reader the protagonist strengths and weaknesses as well as help the protagonist gain new skills.
  • Fast-paced and exciting plot. Characters are put in extreme situations and forced to take risks.

8 Obligatory Moments in the Action Genre

OBLIGATORY MOMENTS are the must-have events, revelations, or decisions and actions that pay off the raised expectations of the CONVENTIONS.

The Action genre has eight obligatory moments:

  • An inciting attack or threat by the villain.
  • The hero sidesteps responsibility to take action.
  • Forced to leave the ordinary world, the hero lashes out.
  • The protagonist discovers and comes to understand the antagonist’s MacGuffin (villain’s OBJECT OF DESIRE).
  • The hero’s initial strategy against the villain fails.
  • Realizing they must change their approach to preserve life, the hero reaches the all is lost moment.
  • Hero at the Mercy of the Villain. The CORE EVENT of the Action story is when the hero’s gift is expressed 
  • The hero’s sacrifice is rewarded.

20 Skeletal Scenes of the Action Genre

Each obligatory moment should coincide with one of the twenty scenes that make up the FIVE COMMANDMENTS of the four QUADRANTS. We call them skeletal scenes because they provide the structure for our stories.  

Beginning Hook

  • Inciting Incident: An attack or threat from the villain.
  • Turning Point Progressive Complication: The protagonist senses disorder and realizes the nature of the threat.
  • Crisis: The protagonist faces a choice to run away to reluctantly engage.
  • Climax: The protagonist agrees to engage.
  • Resolution: Fix it and forget it mission.

Middle Build One

  • Inciting Incident: The protagonist sees a whole new world.
  • Turning Point Progressive Complication: The protagonist becomes the target of the antagonist.
  • Crisis: The protagonist faces a choice to comply or defy.
  • Climax: The protagonist chooses, after which the antagonist asserts their dominant power.
  • Resolution: The protagonist reaches the point of no return.

Middle Build Two

  • Inciting Incident: The protagonist is dropped into chaos when encountering an unexplained event.
  • Turning Point Progressive Complication: The all is lost moment.
  • Crisis: How can the protagonist’s death be meaningful? The protagonist faces a choice to go in the face of uncertainty or give up.
  • Climax: The absolute commitment of the protagonist.
  • Resolution: The protagonist prepares to enter the ultimate arena.

Ending Payoff

  • Inciting Incident: The protagonist enters the sanctum of the antagonist.
  • Turning Point Progressive Complication: Someone the reader cares about dies.
  • Crisis: Do the ends justify the means?
  • Climax: The protagonist is at the mercy of the antagonist.
  • Resolution: The protagonist is rewarded.

Action Genre Subgenres

The Action genre can be further broken down into four subgenres with four plots each based on the selective constraints and the nature of the forces of antagonism:

Action Adventure: Person Against Nature

  • Labyrinth: The primary force of antagonism is a maze-like edifice. Examples include The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and Die Hard (1988).
  • Monster: The primary force of antagonist is an animal or other living thing. Examples include Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton and Jaws (1975).
  • Environment: The primary force of antagonism is the global setting. Examples include “To Build a Fire” by Jack London and Gravity (2013).
  • Doomsday: The victim is the environment. Examples include The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells and Independence Day (1996).

Action Duel: Person Against Person

  • Revenge: The protagonist chases the villain. Examples include The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and Seven (1995).
  • Hunted: The villain chases the protagonist. Examples include “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003).
  • Machiavellian: The protagonist sets two villains against each other. Examples include Serenity (2005), A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Yojimbo (1961).
  • Collision: The villain sets two protagonists against each other. Examples include The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Troy (2004).

Action Epic: Person Against the State

In these stories, the luminary agent must confront group-derived interpersonal conflict, societal institutions, or tyrants.

  • Rebellion: The protagonist faces a visible tyrant. Examples include The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope (1977).
  • Conspiracy: The protagonist faces an invisible tyrant. Examples include The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum and Mission: Impossible (1996).
  • Vigilante: The protagonist faces a criminal organization. Examples include Above the Law (1988) and Daredevil (2015-18).
  • Savior: The protagonist faces a villain intent on social destruction. Examples include The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Dark Knight (2008).

Action Clock: Person Against Time

  • Ransom: A deadline is imposed by the villain. Examples include Ransom by David Malouf and Romancing the Stone (1984).
  • Countdown: A deadline is imposed by the setting or circumstances. Examples include The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton and On the Beach by Neville Shute. 
  • Holdout: The protagonist has to hold out until others rally. Example: 300 (2006).
  • Fate: Time is the villain. Examples include Back to the Future (1985) and Passengers (2016).

Additional Resources for the Action Genre

Dig Deeper into Genre


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