Article length: 10700 words (preview 2500/wds)
Many writing experts will tell you Action Fiction is all about the Excitement it generates…
This is a backward and incomplete assessment.
Of course, you already know this cause you’ve read my Defining Genre article and know, Action Fiction is governed and driven by anger.
When Indy punches a Nazi, is he “excited”? When Edmond Dantes clashes swords with Fernand Mondego, does he thrust his blade with excitement? When the Hulk does–well, just about anything–is he excited; or are all of these characters moved to action, wicked pissed?
We’ve all been wronged. We’ve all been so angry we could resort to violence (yet long gone are the days of pistols at twenty-paces as a cultural norm). Action fiction lets us live vicariously through the hero and channel all of those moments when we wish we could have, but never did.
The excitement of action fiction to the reader, the dazzle and spectacle, are merely byproducts of anger’s colorful work.
Because anger is fundamental to the human condition, sooner or later in every story, somebody gets angry at something. Action is the one genre that acts like a party crasher, busting into any genre’s party, at any given moment.
I have Action listed as one of the six base genres, and while it’s certainly accurate referring to it as such, in reality few pieces of fiction are written as pure Action Fiction. Usually one or more other genres works in tandem with Action, making it difficult to decipher on its own.
While everyone can recognize the core expressions of action, the novice writer often has trouble knowing exactly where Action ends and a more specific genre begins, or more precisely, where other story mechanics take control.
The Action genre is like Gin, you know the alcohol. You can drink it straight, but most of the time you’ll mix it (with another genre)… When you use Gin as the main spirit you’ll always have a similar foundation; an Action Horror story and an Action Thriller, will often feel related. But push the added ingredients a little bit too much one way, or the other, and it the Action drink really becomes a drink unto its own (Action literally morphing into another genre or subgenre).
I’ll make note about Action fiction rolling over into other genres, most notably Thriller or Adventure, as we go on. But the primary focus of this article is quintessential Action Fiction.
After reading this article you’ll be a pro at understanding the boundaries of action in all its forms.
The Action genre really should be called the Violence genre; after all, violence is where anger lives 11 months out of the year.
The core expressions of modern day violence fiction are pretty straight forward;
- Car Chases
- High Body Counts
- Beaucoup Destruction
- Sex and,
(Don’t worry, I’m not getting into that 7th one in this article.)
To the novice writer, merely incorporating these eight core elements delivers on Action Fiction.
But I’ve typed up over 10,000 words in this article and you’re here reading, so we both know there’s more to it… a lot more to it.
Dunk your biscotti and let’s do this;
Justification for Violence
Recognizing that anger and violence are the driving forces of Action Fiction, we are immediately faced with a conundrum;
How can our protagonist initiate the anger and violence in our story?
After all, unsolicited anger and violence are the traits of villains not heroes! (hero; quiet down in the back row, we’ll talk more about different protagonists later.)
Well it’s a trick question chuckles, because the hero CAN’T initiate the anger and violence.
It always has to come from the MAF first (that’s Main Antagonistic Force to you newbies).
The MAF always throws the first punch delivering a severe moral offense, crime against the innocent, or personal harm to the hero.
Combining all three for the trifecta is great (you’ll hear this more than once in this article), but that first one, severe moral offense, is the primary catalyst for much Action Fiction.
The MAF’s moral offense, crime against the innocent, or personal harm to the hero, gives justification to the hero’s anger and violence. It is for all intents and purposes the opening attack in what will play out as a series of attacks between opponents.
In Action Fiction, The MAF attack serves as the inciting incident that opens the active story.
I make the distinction of “active story” understanding that NO STORY truly stops and ends, there is always content in the story universe before and after the active story in progress.
Often in Action Fiction, the story picks up with a “conflict in progress.”
For example; The Hong Kong cops trying to bust the weapon smuggling gangsters in John Woo’s Hard Boiled. The weapon smugglers didn’t just appear after Hard Boiled started, Chow Yun-Fat had been working to stop them for some undefined amount of time before the story opens.
Or Dolph Lundgren in Showdown in Little Tokyo, where he’s trying to bring down the Yakuza in Los Angeles. If I remember correctly Showdown in Little Tokyo opens with Dolph attacking a Yakuza underground fight ring in a big shootout.
At first glance of the latter, you would think, “Wait a sec, the hero is initiating the anger and violence.” But this is out of context. In reality, with this conflict already in progress, the MAF MUST HAVE delivered its initial attack somewhere in the backstory.
Cops don’t go and attack criminals before they commit a crime.
The hero can not initiate the violence.
While in theory a backstory MAF attack could serve as the inciting incident, in reality, there is always another showcase of a MAF attack opening the more focused conflict of the active story.
Let me do another one for clarity;
In the movie Predator, Arnie and his boys find the first military squad hung up and skinned. This is the MAF’s original attack (and moral offense). It justifies the squad unleashing anger and violence against the Predator.
If they had caught the Predator sitting down to breakfast, the audience would have been cool with Arnold unloading on him. That backstory MAF attack would have worked, but instead, the Predator initiates the REAL inciting incident of the active story by delivering a MAF attack in the story in progress; shooting and killing Blain (Jesse Ventura).
- If you find yourself in an Action fiction story where the MAF’s opening attack is watered down, not severe in its intensity and/or not directly focused on the hero, the story is likely rolling into Adventure territory.
Anger and Violence, initiated by the MAF opens the door to an ongoing fight between protagonist and antagonist. This adversarial clash creates three underlying narrative directions for Action Fiction;
All Action Fiction is either Retribution, Revenge, or Survival fiction
While retribution and revenge sound similar there is a clear distinction.
Retribution based stories are about punishment for a criminal offense or infraction against the greater good.
While there’s always an air of it being personal between characters in the story (more on that later), retribution turns on the law of the land, for subverting bad outcomes, stopping and punishing folks who have done bad things, and restoring balance to world.
Basically the MAF tries to do something “wrong” or has already done something “wrong,” and stopping it or bringing the MAF to justice restores equilibrium.
Retribution fiction encompasses a lot of Action Crime Fiction. When a crime is committed in the real world, simply arresting someone is the goal. The arrest sends the criminal through the judicial process, which hopefully leads to justice.
This may work for crime and court fiction, but for Action Fiction, there is no time for satisfaction through the court.
Even when arrest is the end goal in a lot of Cop Action stories, the struggle to reach that arrest must entail measures of actual punishment. The criminals have to get punished in the active story, before getting their final long-term punishment out of story. This is why I refer to the classification as retribution and not simply “justice.”
Of course, in plenty of Retribution Action stories, the criminal is smoked before they ever get arrested at the end. Sorry not sorry, but the idea is that the hero at least tried to do it “by the book.”
Revenge stories are wholly personal.
They turn on personal satisfaction for responding to the MAF attack. It has nothing to do with law of the land, or restoring balance, in fact, revenge stories are quite happy with making an even greater mess of things as long as personal justice is delivered.
In Revenge Action Fiction, the MAF has already done something “wrong” that there’s no avenue of justice to restore equilibrium. The only thing left to the hero is personal satisfaction.
Revenge Action fiction of course is the fertile playground of Anti-heroes (more on this later).
Survival Action is not Survival Horror
In Horror, we know it’s all about survival; the sinister forces at work are literally working to murderly urder the heroes.
In Retribution and Revenge Action, survival is always at risk because the hero is engaged in his dangerous mission, the way a cop always puts his life on the line every day he goes to work, but survival is not the core focus of the character or the narrative.
Sure in all action fiction the MAF and its agents will go after the hero at some point, but it’s simply not their primary goal of the entire story, unless it’s specifically, Survival Action fiction.
Survival Action fiction isn’t motivated by anything other than the living status of the heroes. Predator is arguably Survival Action Fiction, Assault on Precinct 13, Dredd, The Running Man… all stories where the core MAF goal is the death of the protagonists and in turn, the hero’s primary goal is simply survival.
Keep in mind, in all three categories of Action Fiction (even Survival Fiction), there usually are more specific character goals.
For example; Stopping a big shipment of drugs, or guns, rescuing a group of hostages, arresting all the members of a crime syndicate, etc. In the Running Man, resistance fighters try to break the corporations tyrannical grasp by taking out their satellite, this goal eventually becomes the hero’s goal.
Where all Action Fiction is one of these three classifications of stories, it means a core narrative undercurrent directs the more specific character goals.
Combining all three categories for the trifecta makes for stand out Action Fiction.
- Survival fiction without a human MAF rolls over into Adventure (Cast Away) or Disaster Fiction (Meteor, Volcano or Hurricane Shark stories; more on that later).
- Survival fiction without any Retribution or Revenge underpinnings, usually rolls over into Horror.
Now that we understand;
- Action Fiction is fueled by anger and violence,
- perpetuated FIRST by the MAF,
- creating a Retribution, Revenge or Survival situation for the hero,
we can now look at the executing Action Fiction at the fundamental level.
The most potent use of the eight core expressions of Action Fiction; anger and violence materializes to its highest level through;
High Tension, High Jeopardy Struggle.
In the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics, I define Tension as; a heightened emotional state derived from an immediate danger or threat.
In other words, stress or anxiety from expectations of a bad outcome.
Jeopardy in a nutshell is danger. The distinct presence of potential loss, failure, or harm.
Since Tension is really a byproduct of jeopardy, the declaration; High Tension, High Jeopardy struggle, is a bit redundant. But it’s important enough to underscore. This concept is critical to effective action fiction.
There are three primary ways to express High Tension, High Jeopardy struggle in Action Fiction:
Direct fighting conflict between opponents. This covers everything from hand-to-hand, to gunplay. It can include only two opponents or entire armies.
One opponent trying to catch the other. On foot, on horseback, in cars, planes, trains, tanks, whatever…
These are High Tension, High Jeopardy struggle situations without a human opponent.
Indy running from the boulder, Ironman flying into space where his suit can’t withstand the atmosphere, Dr. Richard Kimble jumping from the top of a dam, are all examples of stunts. Extreme Risk feats.
Since we’re talking execution now, it’s worth noting here;
- High Tension, High Jeopardy moments with struggle but less violence, moves Action Fiction into the realm of Thriller.
- High Tension, High Jeopardy moments without physical struggle, moves Action Fiction into the realm of Psychological Thriller.
It’s absolutely imperative to understand that the High Tension, High Jeopardy moments alone do not define Action; STRUGGLE IS KEY.
Since Action Fiction is ultimately a long, sustained battle between opponents, a lot of similarities spring up from the Ultimate Fight article. Look to that article for specifics on how to develop great action scenes in unto themselves.
However you build out your action scenes realize, the Struggle is one of the most important elements to grasp and implement.
Without struggle, we simply have displays of violence (which serve to diffuse tension and jeopardy, not build or sustain it).
Without struggle, when a character simply displays and engages in violence effortlessly (or for all intents and purposes unopposed), we devolve into a “showcase of badassery.” As you’ll see in a second, this is useful in limited qualities to introduce or highlight a character, but no matter how you crack it, prolonged displays of violence without struggle get old real fast.