Secrets of the Action Genre
Do you want to write a Hollywood mega-blockbuster or novel thriving on excitement and action? Does the idea of a creating a story with high speed chases, last-second escapes, feverish plans, and desperate circumstances riding on life and death stakes rouse your imagination?
Then come with me on a journey into learning about the many variations of the Action Genre. Let’s get to the epicenter of the stories in which protagonists are thrust into significant events that build and spiral to surprising yet inevitable conclusions.
Let’s get started.
What is an Action Story?
The Action Genre has many story possibilities, so let’s break this down first by the overall genre and then by subgenre.
Need to get familiar with the Story Grid’s categorization of genres first? A refresher is here.
According to Shawn Coyne, the Action story is our most primal tale. It concerns survival and securing our must-have physiological requirements. It is an arch-plot (single protagonist) or mini-plot (multiple characters) external genre that turns on the values of life and death.
In the Action Genre, physical action takes storytelling precedence. The protagonist is typically thrust into a series of challenges including multiple fight scenes, daring physical feats, tense chases, and/or violence such as shoot-outs. The stories are fast-paced. They tend to feature a resourceful protagonist fighting an antagonist (at incredible odds) in life-threatening situations.
The narrative structure of an Action story follows an ordered cause and effect trajectory. Contemporary action stories, most often, follow the Hero’s Journey. And, in common with almost all stories in all the external genres, by definition can’t be an anti-plot or stream of consciousness narrative.
Editor Tip: Organizing the narrative structure doesn’t require a linear story, though that works really well for the Action Genre. You must carefully construct time sequences ordered in cause and effect actions.
What is the Global Value?
The global value at stake describes the protagonist’s primary change from the beginning of the story to the end. In the Action story, the protagonist’s arc moves along the values of life, unconsciousness, death, and damnation.
Yes, there is something worse than death. In an Action story, the “negation of the negation” is damnation. That means that if the protagonist fails to act to defeat the antagonist, they’ll suffer a fate worse than death. The protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to reach damnation but it must be a possible outcome.
As we see in the Story Grid Gas Gauge of Need, an Action story arises from our physiological needs for sustaining life and the belief that life is worth living. The Action protagonist’s primary goal isn’t love, self-esteem, or financial rewards. It’s staying alive, saving the life of the victim, AND avoiding damnation.
What is the Controlling Idea?
A controlling idea, also known as a theme, is a simple statement that combines the story value at stake with the cause of moving it from one state to another, often its opposite. It’s the lesson you want your reader to come away with, usually subconsciously. A controlling idea can be stated in a single sentence that distills the argument your story attempts to make.
If your Action story is positive (a prescriptive tale), your controlling idea will be something like: Life is preserved when the protagonist overpowers or outwits his/her antagonists.
If your Action story is negative (a cautionary tale), your controlling idea will be something like: Death results when the protagonist fails to overpower or outwit his/her antagonists.
Editor Tip: Don’t worry if the controlling idea of your story is generic as well. Readers will never see this statement. The important thing is that you have a guide for your story. Controlling ideas are your compass. When in doubt about where your story should go next, review your controlling idea. See Chapter 34 in The Story Grid book, or The Big Takeaway.
What is the Core Emotion?
The core emotion of a story is what a reader wants to feel–the reason they choose a particular type of story.
Audiences choose Action stories to experience thrills without personal risk. The Core Emotion is excitement. As a writer in the Action Genre, your primary task is to create scenes that excite your audience.
What are the Obligatory Scenes?
Coyne describes obligatory scenes as “must-have scenes for paying off readers’ expectations as set up by the conventions of the genre.” If you leave out an obligatory scene, you’ll have a story that doesn’t work.
The Obligatory Scenes of the Action Genre are:
The Inciting Incident is a life-threatening attack by the antagonist or environment. This can be causal or coincidental.
Following the inciting attack, the protagonists avoids responsibility to take action against the antagonist.
Forced to take action (after avoiding responsibility to do so), the protagonist acts out.
The protagonist discovers, and/or gains an understanding of, the antagonist’s MacGuffin (the antagonist’s object of desire). Alternatively, (when the antagonist is a monster, animal, or environment), the protagonist gains an understanding of the antagonist’s nature or purpose.
Having decided to act, the protagonist’s initial strategy to overcome or defeat the antagonist fails.
The protagonist reaches an all-is-lost moment and realizes they must change their approach to overcoming or defeating the antagonist in order to salvage some form of victory.
The climactic and central event of the Action story is where the protagonist is at the mercy of the antagonist and the protagonist must express their gift in order to save the victim (and usually themself as well).
In the ending payoff of the story, the protagonist’s sacrifice to save the victim is rewarded.
What are the Conventions?
Coyne explains Conventions as elements in the Story that must be there or the reader will be confused, unsettled, or bored. Without them your story won’t work. Conventions, unlike obligatory scenes, are specific requirements for a story’s characters and/or methods of advancing plot. They can be turning points and do not have to be used in any certain order.
The Conventions of the Action Genre are:
The protagonist’s role as a hero must be clearly defined throughout the story. Their object of desire is to stop the villain and save the victim. They are setting out on a journey or must face a challenge created by the villain. The hero is much less powerful than the villain. The protagonist can also play the role of the victim (The Fugitive) or, in some extraordinary stories like Fight Club, the hero can turn out to have been the villain all along.
The victim’s role must be clearly defined throughout the story. The victim requires the hero to save them from the villain. The victim is much less powerful than the hero or the villain.
The antagonist’s role as the villain must be clearly defined throughout the story. The villain is much more powerful than the hero and the victim. The villain uses their resources to stop the protagonist and harm the victim.
Editor Tip: The villain provides all the conflict that drives the story forward, so make them compelling. The villain must be one single person, a connected group of people, or a unified force throughout the story. If the apparent villain in the beginning of the story isn’t deeply connected to who/what we discover is the villain in the end of the story, your story won’t work. Make sure you nail this convention with clarity.
There is a speech in praise of the villain. At some point, a character must point out how the antagonist appears unbeatable.
Editor Tip: The speech in praise of the villain is an easily misunderstood convention. I like the way Story Grid Editor, Anne Hawley, clarifies it: “The speech, once the province of the evilly-laughing Bond villain praising himself, has morphed and become much more subtle in modern works.” It can be as small as a secondary character pointing out to the protagonist that the antagonist is far more powerful than the protagonist. Or it might be the protagonist themselves stating, during an all-is-lost moment, that they can’t beat the antagonist for a particular reason.
The plot is fast-paced with action and excitement throughout the story. Characters are put in extreme situations and forced to take risks.
*Each subgenre has additional and tropes and conventions.
What are the subgenres?
Action Adventure: Person Against Nature
In this story, the setting typically changes as the protagonist journeys from a specific starting point to a clear destination. The settings dramatize the sense of danger and obstacles to overcome. Requires sidekicks. Some of the enduring plot devices of the Action Adventure story include:
Labyrinth: The protagonist must escape a maze-like edifice. Examples of this story are Die Hard, Fish Wielder, and Maze Runner.
Monster: The antagonist is an animal. An example of this story is Jaws.
Environment: The antagonistic force is the natural world. Examples of this story are Gravity, The Road, The Martian, 127 Hours, and The Perfect Storm.
Doomsday: The victim the protagonist must save is the environment. The protagonist’s success or failure determines the fate of an entire people. An example of this story is Avatar.
Action Epic: Person Against The State
This story has a theme of heroism with grandeur, as the protagonist’s success or failure determines the fate of a large group of people. The story often encompasses a large backstory and a vast setting. Not to be confused with a Society story. Some of the enduring plot devices of the Action Epic story include:
Rebellion and Conspiracy: The antagonist is a tyrant. Examples of this story are Star Wars (Rebellion) and The Bourne Identity (Conspiracy).
Vigilante: The antagonist is a criminal organization. An example of this story is Above the Law.
Savior: The antagonist is intent on social destruction. Examples of this story are The Dark Knight and Fight Club.
Action Duel: Person Against Person
In this story, opponents are polarized for combat and only one side can win. Some of the enduring plot devices of the Action Duel story include:
Revenge: The protagonist chases the antagonist. An example of this story is Seven.
Hunted: The antagonist chases the protagonist. An example of this story is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Machiavellian: The protagonist sets two antagonists against one another. An example of this story is A Fistful of Dollars.
Collision: The antagonist sets two protagonists against each other. An example of this story is Troy.
Action Clock: Person Against Time
In this story, a limited time frame (in which the protagonist must be successful) drives the dramatic action. Some of the enduring plot devices of the Action Clock story include:
Ransom: A deadline is imposed by the antagonist. An example of this story is Ransom.
Countdown: A deadline is imposed by circumstance. Included here are many time travel stories. An example of this story is Andromeda Strain and Back to the Future.
Holdout: The protagonist has to hold out until others rally. An example of this story is The 300.
How do you create an Action story?
Since stringing together a bunch of confrontations and fight scenes won’t likely build a story, you need some basic guidelines.
Here, you introduce the characters and setting of the story world. You set the plot in motion and create questions in the minds of the audience. You make them want to learn more.
You’ll begin by introducing the ordinary world where the protagonist is shown doing something they consider normal.
Editor Tip: Their normal doesn’t have to be what the average audience member considers normal. It’s relevant to character. The goal is to show their baseline, what they will change (or fail to change) from by the end.
Demonstrate their flaw and/or fear to establish empathy in readers. Before the protagonist is in jeopardy, we need to want them to live. This flaw or fear can be used to great effect as the thing they will have to overcome in order to save the victim.
Demonstrate the protagonist’s want. This can be internal or external. This is also used to encourage empathy. Make the want blatantly clear.
Introduce supporting characters as rich and interesting.
Editor Tip: Give them distinctive names, appearances, mannerisms, emotions, and actions. Use description to evoke a sense of their broader culture or background. Don’t allow them to be a meaningless victim, flawless hero, or solely evil antagonist. It’s imperative that every character have a clear and supporting role for your protagonist.
Grab your audience’s attention with a life-threatening inciting incident (causal or coincidental) that launches the global story as soon as possible.
Editor Tip: Creating a powerful inciting incident (and subsequent conflict) involves a universal threat all audiences can understand, condemn, and view as worth fighting.
After the initial problem, the protagonist registers this new information but chooses not to act (perhaps choosing to delay making a decision or being prevented from making such decision).
Make the stakes clear. Stakes in Action stories do not belong in subtext. What can the protagonist gain? What can they lose?
The middle build belongs to the antagonist who is continually putting obstacles in the way of the protagonist.
Your goal here is to build tension and increase the stakes for the protagonist. You might answer some questions here but you’ll want to raise even more. The protagonist is confronting increasingly complicated challenges. Demonstrate how they are learning (possibly changing) and setting new goals.
Create a scene where something happens that forces the protagonist to accept the quest. Accepting the quest is what launches the middle build.
At the midpoint of the story, the protagonist shifts from avoiding the problem (by relying on old patterns of behavior and thinking) to actively attacking the problem (with a new way of viewing the challenge).
Editor Tip: Up to the midpoint of the story, the protagonist has been generally running from the villain, playing for time while they figure out a strategy or develop new skills. The midpoint is where they turn and begin actively going on the offensive.
Crossing Story Grid terminology with that of The Hero’s Journey, your story’s middle build will contain the second major progressive complication of your global story (crossing the threshold), the third progressive complication (test, allies, enemies), the turning point complication (the ordeal), and the crisis (apotheosis).
Editor Tip: Remember, in an Action story without a secondary internal genre, you do not have to demonstrate how the character changes. Think of Mark Watney of The Martian and James Bond of the 007 movies. They never change.
You will slowly expose your protagonist to greater and greater danger due to the bad choices they make (and hate making). As you slowly expose your protagonist to greater and greater danger due to the bad choices they make or are forced into, you create rising action. A central dilemma must be solved before the global story can move forward.
Here, you will include your climax (the resurrection, Hero’s Journey terminology) and the resolution of the global story. The protagonist confronts their fear or flaw, rises to the challenge, and either survives and succeeds against the villain, or fails and dies.
The climax plunges the protagonist into a life and death battle. The protagonist outsmarts the antagonist, rather than using their inferior brawn, and lives (prescriptive tale). Or the protagonist fails to outsmart the antagonist and dies (cautionary tale).
Editor Tip for the Prescriptive Tale: Just as the protagonist is about to be killed by the antagonist, enable them to win. Give them sudden courage, ingenuity, a tool, or a revelation that you have subtly foreshadowed–i.e., set up–very early in the story.
The ending payoff is where you ramp down the tension and action with scenes that answer the primary story questions. How have the characters changed? What have they learned?
If you’re writing a series, the resolution can foreshadow new adventures.
Action requires a fast pace. You achieve this with efficient scene turns. At the line writing level, active voice, shorter sentences and strong verbs, increase the sense of forward momentum. Focus on describing deeds, movements, and gestures rather than thoughts. Keep setting and other description brief and relevant to the action.
At the global story level, you can ensure a quick pace by keeping all actions oriented to the characters’ goals.
Does this mean that an Action story should never let up? No. Your goal is not to create ceaseless action, but to create chains of cause and effect in events of varying length and intensity. Chains of dramatic events with potentially dire outcomes are crucial for an engaging action story.
But your reader needs a break now and then, and humor is a perfect way to deliver it. While sustaining an action sequence often means the author is relying on tension, humor breaks tension. Keep in mind that tension also breaks humor. Both humor and tension rely on the build and a break (set up and pay-off). Both can set up an expectation and then subvert it. And both can involve juxtaposing the everyday with the terrifying, absurd, cliche, or all three.
Cynical humor works well, especially in darker Action stories. Humor tends to work best when both the recipient and the deliverer of the joke are in on the joke (the humor is self-aware).
Even if some characters are dark, they all must be sympathetic in some way. They should stand for something and have a consistent, if not malleable, view of their world. Each character should view themselves as the hero of their own story. Create a villain that is complex, seemingly authentic, and possibly subtle. Evil isn’t always obvious.
Even in fantasy stories, create a recognizable world with a consistent history. Don’t ask your reader to suspend disbelief more than is absolutely necessary to your telling of the story. Actions and reactions of characters must believable within the fictive world you create. Respect your audience by researching and carefully planning your setting.
If the story theme is old, the payoff must be fresh and new. This is especially true in Action, where it can be tough to innovate. Allow your raw ideas and bold thinking to take your writing where other writers are hesitant to go. You must convey excitement rather than tell your reader something is exciting. Your primary goal is to entertain.
Read thoroughly in the Action Genre and compare your work to the masterworks and the guidelines here. The best way to move toward innovation is knowing what other writers have already done. For some examples on how this is done, check out the Editor’s Roundtable discussion on Action stories for Wonder Woman, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Jack the Giant Slayer.
On Moving to the Next Level in Your Writing:
Now you have the basics of the Action Genre and are ready to finish that story.
Need some extra help completing your manuscript? Grab a spot on my calendar for a free half-hour consultation so we can determine how I can best help you meet your story goals.
Interested in other articles I’ve written on genre? Check out these links:
Secrets of the Performance Genre, Secrets of the Morality Genre, Secrets of the Status Genre, Secrets of the Society Genre, Secrets of Writing Memoir, Secrets of the Crime Genre, Secrets of the Worldview Genre, Secrets of the War Genre, Secrets of the Action Genre, Secrets of the Thriller, Part One and Two, Secrets of the Horror Genre , Secrets of the Western Genre, and Secrets of the Love Genre, Secrets of the Big Idea Book, Part One, and Part Two.
I wish you the best of luck and hard work with your story.
Image credits for the Gas Gauge and Action Slider infographic to Anne Hawley. Special thanks to Anne Hawley for editing this post.
Author Rachelle Ramirez
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