So You Want To: Write An Action Movie

Action movies are a long favourite of movie fans across the world. If you want to write one, here are some points to consider before you get started.

Basics, or things that you absolutely need

Before you even start thinking about your action movie, consider those:
  • Character. These days, a lot of action movies are all about explosions. If you want to write a great action movie, make sure that your characters are realistic. It is extremely important that your audience have feelings for your characters. A staple of a bad action film is too many explosions and "cardboard characters". Action is not more prone to the Eight Deadly Words than any other genre, but its contents are more likely to break Willing Suspension of Disbelief, making it easier for audiences to notice if the Eight Deadly Words are in effect.
  • Format. Is your action movie going to be all drama, or is it going to have elements of comedy as well? Decide this before you get started. There are lots of serious action movies out there, but there are plenty of action-comedy movies, too. Choose whichever better suits your style.
  • Special Effects: Although character is important, it's fine to have a few awesome action sequences in your movie as well! Feel free to add in a few CGI explosions.

Now that you have them, think about...

Plot, or what is it really about?

The problem with action movies, as mentioned under "character" point, is that they tend to be repetitive. Those basic action movie plots are:
  • One Last Job, where the main character either promises to himself that after that he'll quit, or he's brought back from retirement because he's the only one capable. Problems:
    • Prone to long moments of reflection, especially over the photo of loved ones. Apart from the fact that some viewers are Just Here for Godzilla, it slows the pacing of the film considerably and increases the danger of Wangst.
    • The main character tends to be tired of life already and just wants to quit while being Kidnapped by the Call. Remember, part of your hero's attitude transmits to the viewers: then the viewers are tired of this movie already and just want to quit while being forced to watch.
    • It's virtually impossible that a retired man (in his 50s or 60s) will be better at action-heroey job than a 20 year old person. Human beings are at the peak of their physical abilities in their 20s and no experience will compensate for thirty or forty years of going downhill, especially given that high-energy-spending jobs are tiring and destroy the body very quickly - there is a reason why football players are retired by their thirtieth birthday.
    • Judging by the omnipresence of badasses in action movies, finding somebody who's not retired to do the job should be easy. No need to look for some tired, old man.
  • The Damsel in Distress, where main character must save/protect some lady for some reason. Problems:
    • Repetitive and tiring, especially given that most damsels are played by supermodels whose purpose is to bring young men to the cinema and Sturgeon's Law is that most of them can't act very well, resulting in some terrible, terrible performance.
    • Lady often ends up as The Load and even the prettiest girl can get tiring if all she do is whine and cry and make problems. Any person who can't take care of him/herself is annoying, both in movies and real life.
    • Lady and the hero are near sure to end up in bed together, often for no other reason than she's pretty and he's manly. At this point, it's so obvious that it's more of a surprise to the audience if they never get romantically involved. If the hero is in his forties/fifties and the lady is a twenty-something model, this can border on Unfortunate Implications.
    • Lady often turns out to be a Flat Character, and when she and the hero are the only two main characters, then even the best written hero has nothing to interact with.
  • Revenge, where the hero tries to kill somebody for something the Big Bad did to them, or the reverse is true. Problems:
    • If the hero tries to murder somebody, it'll take a long time to convince viewers that he is, in fact, the good guy. Generally, murder is not the best solution or one most sane people consider before running out of other options.
    • Opposite can be bad as well. If it's the bad guy who has a really good motivation for his revenge on the good guys, then the hero comes across as unsympathetic and viewers might start Rooting for the Empire.
    • Whichever option, in this scenario the hero is usually cold and distant, which is repulsive for many viewers. And you can't really give him a happy and cheerful personality either, because after what he went through, it'll be hard for the audience to buy.
    • As in the first scenario, lots of Angst can happen, and the border between Angst and Wangst is thin and all too easy to cross.
  • The MacGuffin, where the hero must recover/acquire something or bad things will happen. Problems:
    • If done badly, the MacGuffin can be forced and out of place. Some sort of Green Rocks being the only way to bring down evil dictator? Wouldn't well-put bullet be... you know... easier to find?
    • Sometimes the MacGuffin is thrown aside after the first act and the plot shifts into one of the above. While it can be done well - the entire purpose of the MacGuffin is to pull the hero into the story, after all - it's still odd to see that super-important object is less important than some pretty lady.
    • Show, Don't Tell works against the super-powerful MacGuffin. Being told all the movie long how awesome it is without actually seeing its power annoys people (kind of like this car dealers who keep on telling you just how great you'll feel driving this car and whatnot). On the other hand you have Hype Backlash and the object fails to meet the expectation. We don't have to tell you that it's bad.
    • Awesomeness of the MacGuffin makes it Deus ex Machina at its worst, solving all the hero's troubles in one easy (and absolutely annoying) montage. For viewers, it's like Shaggy Dog Story with happy ending: instead of seeing our characters overcome their trouble, some simple thing did it for them.

There is a reason why these scenarios are the most popular ones, of course: people will still go to see this movies, because they like to watch them. However, after a few months these films will blend with others in people's consciousness. So if you want to be remembered, go for something fresh and unusual. If you have no idea for an original plot, think about the above plots and consider tweaking them somewhat. Even changing a Damsel in Distress into a Distressed Dude would be something new for the genre.

So now that you have the plot, think about...

Characters, or who is who and what is he/she like

Our dashing hero

Just as with plots, there are basic types of action movies heroes. Let's just run them down quickly:
  • Grizzled veteran, who knows everything about the job, making him fairly awesome - but then, he knows it all, so no exposition for the audience.
  • Fresh meat, who knows nothing or just finished the training, and so audience learns with him.
  • Betrayed agent who must fight against organization that sent him; far on the Cynicism side of Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism.
  • Unbetrayed agent still working for the organization; position on scale varies; gives access to various gadgets.
  • Assassin or professional killer; it takes some effort to make him likable.
  • Ex-agent/assassin who finds himself in a wrong place and takes things in his hands - the right-in-wrong-place aspect makes him the most similar to the viewers.
  • Drifter who stumbles on some plot hook during his travels.
  • Overlap of the above.

All have their pros and cons, so if you want to use one of these templates, feel free. However, whichever you chose, remember:
  • Your character must be Badass. Audience likes to imagine being in the character's place, but somebody who keeps having his ass handed to him is both annoying and boring, and his credentials as action hero are questionable.
  • The Invincible Hero is boring, a Mary Sue and unlikeable, and gimmicks you'd have to use to justify giving him a challenge will shred Willing Suspension of Disbelief to little pieces that won't hold the story together.
  • Dark and Troubled Past sinks the mood pretty quickly, so use it with care. Again - and we can't stress it enough - beware the Wangst! It fuels the Narm!
  • Mysterious Past can be interesting, especially if you want your hero to be Shrouded in Myth. But look at the above points and balance them carefully with it.
  • Some sense of humor is necessary. If your character's job is killing people and he just can't relax, he'd logically be a wreck of a human being by the time your movie starts. Not to mention that nicely put one liner eases the tension on the viewers' side. Remember, the main character's attitude transmits to the viewer.
  • Your hero shouldn't know everything from Cantonese to management of T34 tank. If it looks like all he does, he does effortlessly and with full knowledge of the subject, it's strange and turns the character into an Invincible Hero. If your character doesn't know something, make it a plot point.
  • Your hero must have a sense of style, never mind how practical it is. Remember that whichever you use, it will have impact on the setting:
    • Badass Longcoat fits a drifter and rogue agent alike. It also reminds people of Westerns, and so it's good for hero who takes the law in his hand and/or fights for freedom.
    • Badass in a Nice Suit is elegant and smart, displaying aura of richness. Proper suit for an agent of government/official organization.
    • Regular clothes - jeans and t-shirt, most often - are a mark of either a very practical hero, one who can't afford anything else, or one that mustn't bring attention to him/herself, making it fit for Pragmatic Hero and betrayed agent.
  • The hero's sense of style should extend to his behavior as well - an eloquent and well-versed hero is much easier on eyes than some thug.
  • The hero must look like he can do all the things he does. In other words: waifish figure or layers of fat are wrong and should be banished. If your hero has any of those, or other handicaps (old age, missing body parts, heart problem, asthma), then you must acknowledge it and - preferably - use it as a plot point where it's due. Consider: one-eyed people would make bad shooters, as they lack three-dimensional vision, and if your character limps visibly, he's easy to knock off-balance and very vulnerable to attacks on the limping leg.

Also, short note on gender: the majority of action heroes are men. If you want to change it in your film, remember: women can be badass, of course, but Waif-Fu is actually impossible, so she should at least have some muscles. Turning her into a Damsel in Distress the moment her dashing love interest enters the stage is also advised against. Also, a Dark and Troubled Past in the case of female action heroes tends to be connected with some sort of domestic abuse more often than when the hero is male, making us unreasonably sorry for this poor gal, even if she effortlessly kicks the asses of a hundred mooks, for no reason really - there's no rule stating that woman can't be badass without going through hell first.

And regarding race: Hollywood treats it as a rule of thumb that we'll go to see the movie only if the main character is white (or Will Smith). However, you don't have to. Sadly, making your character black, Asian or Hindu will be refreshing.

Eeeevil Big Bad

We don't have to tell you that no movie exists without conflict, and that's just the right man to provide it. Of course, gender or race doesn't play any part here, although in some cases political correctness might be advised. You have to decide whether you want Big Bad to be a person or organization. The former can be a terrorist, ex-agent, somebody with a grudge, maniac or psycho. The Mega Corp. and corrupt government lend themselves nicely to the latter. Remember, though, that your evil must have a face (or a mask), because a face is easier to hate than an idea.

You've got a whole bunch of tropes from which to make a good villain:

However, you should be careful with some things:
  • Anvilicious villains, such as Corrupt Corporate Executive polluting the Earth, were definitely overused in the latest movies. And people don't like it when you shove the righteousness into their throats.
  • Racial stereotypes are highly discouraged nowadays, and for very good reason: they're just plain offensive, and make your villains racist caricatures rather than people to actively hate.
  • Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain works in comedy to some extent, but if he presents no threat to the hero, the whole story just turns into a farce.
  • Same goes for the Not-So-Omniscient Council of Bickering.
  • Evil Gloating and Hannibal Lecture are opposite ends of a spectrum: one indicates that villain is possibly crazy and unstable, the other - that villain is sophisticated and intelligent and smart. Both types of villains can be disturbing and dangerous, so it's your choice to make.

Whatever your choice, two things are a must: a good reason for evilness (unless it's a pastiche of a genre, then For the Evulz is your friend), or at least good enough from the Big Bad's perspective, and - again - some style. Imagine, watching two hours of thug-versus-thug combat... no. A wicked sense of humor and timing is a wonder, but as with the hero, clothing speaks a thousand words.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man has a sense of elegance, but might be breaking underneath, like Norman Bates.
  • Man in White or in similar one-toned outfit stands out in the crowd, and his love for monochrome might indicate cold blood, pragmatism and lack of emotions.
  • Rich and lavishly decorated outfits hint villain's love for flair and show. Villains dressing like that are prone to Chewing the Scenery and Evil Gloating.
  • Everyday clothes that make villain look just like us highlight the fact that he can be anywhere among us, breeding the feeling of paranoia.

Hapless Supporting Cast

Those can be generally classified into four groups:

Not all groups are always present, and they don't have to be. It depends on the story.

  • Love Interest is generally of the opposite gender than the main character (but kudos for you if you make it the same). He/She can either be an action hero in his/her own right, or Damsel/Dude in Distress to be saved or protected. Whichever you use, remember that he/she should have some skills and abilities that would allow him/her to contribute to the plot more than once a film (look again at "Damsel in Distress" plot above). Remember, too, that eventual romance between them shouldn't be forced or unnatural, because if you do this badly, it will end up looking as if the grizzled action hero raped the girl/guy. Unless you are going for Jerkass Hero and far, far Cynicism end of the scale, don't go in this direction.
  • Techno Wizard can be one person or many people. He's usually quirky or an Insufferable Genius, although it's nice to make him a full-fledged character in his own right. He eases the strain of Willing Suspension of Disbelief by doing things the main character can't and thus proving that our hero isn't some omnipotent superbeing. He also provides information and gadgets to the hero, acting as Mr. Exposition to the viewers. Try avoiding Hollywood Hacking and Hollywood Science, please. Note also, that it's better for your Techno Wizard to use Buffy Speak than Techno Babble, because among your viewers there'll be people who know the subject and if you get something wrong, they'll mock you relentlessly.
  • Mission Control and the Boss are the people/person your hero works for. Techno Wizard might be part of the Mission Control roster. Mission Control is the organization that provides your hero with data, funds and equipment. The boss is the face of Mission Control and the hero's immediate superior who communicates with the hero, providing him the data. He/She's not necessarily the Mission Control's boss. Also: notice how the shape of your Mission Control and Boss affect the setting:
    • Mission Control can take different shapes:
      • The Oddly Small Organization is, well, small, independent and usually unconnected to any huge organizations or governments. Most likely, it's in direct opposition to them. On the other hand, huge, sprawling organizations are facilities of either Mega Corp. or government and thus, by movie logic, more likely to be Evil All Along and turn against the hero - or at least, more likely to be morally gray.
      • A small organization has a more homemade and used feeling, while a huge company has more hi-tech, professional aesthetics.
      • For the hero, a small organization will be more like an ally than an employer, while in big facilities, it's the other way round.
    • The boss can vary as well:
  • Mooks and the Dragon are the collection of Red Shirts your hero can blow up or kill without remorse. They can be Faceless Goons or The Brute in many bodies. Conservation of Ninjutsu is in effect here - the more mooks, the easier they are to kill, and the less, the more qualified they are. The Dragon, on the other hand, is a step between mooks and Big Bad. While Big Bad is the brains of the operation, The Dragon leads mooks in field and does all the dirty jobs. He's the only named mook, the only one that survives direct contact with the hero and the best trained one. In other words: he's the supermook. It's nice to make him a Foil for the hero.

Remember, despite us using mostly male pronouns here, nothing's set in stone.

Setting, or where do things happen?

That's the interesting thing. You have to place your story somewhere in timespace. Time is easier to chose, as there are very few possibilities:
  • The past: either Twenty Minutes into the Past or further. If you place your story at the turn of the century, it's likely to turn into something about the war on terror. A Cold War story instantly solves the problem of who is to be your bad guy, and gives you some pretty nice visuals. The further into the past you go, the less your story is an action tale and the more it becomes an adventure story. As a rule of thumb, decide that anything happening before World War Two is Adventure or Spy Thriller.
  • The present: it lets you incorporate the War on Terror and terrorists in general into your story, as well as address some present problems (Whether it's good or bad is not ours to tell). It also allows you to cut on the exposition and introduce some familiarity, as well as use today's tools (Facebook, Google, cloud, F1 cars) in your story.
  • The future: Twenty Minutes into the Future or further. The first one is Like Reality Unless Noted, sort of a hybrid in which you can incorporate both the present day world and state-of-the-art technologies seamlessly. The further you go, the bigger the chances that your story will turn into either a Cyber Punk or Science Fiction story, but it's a bit harder to feel where it stops being an action story and starts being one of the above.

So when you have time, you have to decide on the place. Whichever you'll choose, you have to take that into an account when creating a story. If your character, for example, is white and the action takes place in Shanghai, he'll obviously stand out. Same goes for Asian woman in Iraq or Saudi Arabia. A Canadian in a Central American country will constantly sweat and feel like he's burning alive, and someone who spent the last decade of his life in Texas will dress in layers of sweaters in Norway. A language barrier will be huge, as well.

Apart from geographical concerns, don't forget about political ones. In other words: Do. Your. Research. How much does the government observe people? What are the chances that you can bribe your way out of prison? Are cars cheap enough for villains and heroes to change them often? Do they accept Visa in the shops? How good is the Internet and mobile coverage? How easy is it to leave and enter the country?

Find out, and incorporate this into your story. Pay attention to the fact that some environments work differently than others. If your story involves shooting aboard a tanker ship, check just how much people can dent before something either explodes or the ship will be so out of balance that it will start to sink. In an airport, remember just how many cameras observe everybody and how many armed people there are.

Technology, or what does(n't) this button do?

Ah, Hollywood Science. Yeah...

Hollywood Science and how to avoid it

It's bad if your work disregards laws of physics. It's even worse when it's so blatant everyone can see it. Recent movies went as far as to state that cloud technology is a mystery nobody understandsnote  and that you can hack someone's security system by plugging into their power socketnote . If you're lucky, people will not notice it in favor of the story, but often they will notice and it will kick them out of their Willing Suspension of Disbelief with a fit of laughter and little to no chance of recovery.

How to solve it? The same as with other problems: Do. Your. Research. Write your story so that it will be logical and that technology won't turn into some all-solving magic. In opposite to magic, technology is something people generally have everyday contact with and so they will know if you screw something up. When you finish writing your script, give it to the average teenager to check for technology inconsistencies. If he/she suddenly bursts out laughing at some technology or the way you used it, you're doing it wrong.

In case of the future or currently-very-state-of-the-art technology, keep in mind Sanderson's First Law: An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic. Replace magic with your technology and you have it in a nutshell: explain your technology without Techno Babble, so that your viewers can understand how it works. It doesn't require you to describe in detail how do the, let's say, nanites work. It's enough if you state something like "nanites in your blood burn themselves while doing their job, so you have to be careful with your super-strength or you'll overheat". Having this rule set, show that it's working and don't abandon it in favor of a cool shot.

Acceptable Breaks From Reality

Acceptable Breaks from Reality are something your movie would be pretty boring without. Such breaks include things like police arriving on the scene of shooting after it's already over (Truth in Television in some places, and in others, it would only confuse the viewers if a third side joins the combat), skipping over exhausting explanations in favor of less accurate, but easier to digest comparisons (Lies to Children, in other words), Switch to English and using English as a Common Tongue (easier to watch the film without subtitles, and sometimes the actor's command of language he/she's supposed to be speaking is atrocious) or fact that everybody's badass.

And don't forget that Every Car Is a Pinto. In fiction, everything is Made of Explodium because Stuff Blowing Up is really, really cool.

After all, above all else, you should have fun!

Additional data, or copy from the best

The Greats

  • What really brought the genre to the fore is the Badass Grandpa of action heroes, James Bond himself. Based on Ian Fleming's books, the series has been going on for over half a century now, giving you an unique opportunity to study how the genre and its solutions has been changing over time. Take a look at 007, too - he's the vehicle that's keeping this series moving. While Bond-esque copycats abound, figure out what all iterations have in common and spin it for your own needs and amusement.
  • While Mr Bond may've kickstarted the genre, what sent it to twenty first century was another JB - Jason Bourne. The Bourne Series not only invited Shaky Cam into mainstream, it also presented a smart protagonist, a Love Interest who's more than just a supermodel for JB to sleep with and something of an inversion of Bond. While 007 is charming and suave in his classic incarnation, Jason Bourne is more down-to-earth, Pragmatist and gritty. When you look for agent working for government, see James Bond; when you want an agent gone rogue, see Bourne.
  • Another variety - an action hero supported by a group of specialists - is presented to you by Mission: Impossible movies, especially from 3 on. While the original series was a Spy Drama, the movies are certainly focused on action. M:I movies' strengths are interplay between the cast members, creative gadgets and amazing stunts.
  • For characters that may well be called Anti Heroes, take a look at The Transporter, especially the first film. It's classy romp with good choreography and nice action, and if you're interested in seeing how far you can go away from reality without it crashing down, look no further than to the sequels.
  • For many, a staple of action movies is, and forever will be, Die Hard, especially the first. It has codifed an entire plot setup and presents a character who, while unquestionably Badass, stays closer to reality than most others, not to mention that it's a nice lesson on how you can have suspenseful and entertaining movie without jumping all around the world.

Further Reading

  • Blowing Up The Movies is a series of essays on various action movies and what makes them work. It's written primarily for the Feng Shui RPG, but the analysis is worthwhile whether you play role-playing games or not.