I've gotten some critiques for a wip, and one reviewer pointed out what they rightfully perceived as an issue in one of my action scenes. The reviewer didn't feel the way they thought they were supposed to feel about the scene (a sense of danger), so they naturally thought something was wrong with the scene (lack of danger). But what's interesting is that I never intended for the reader to feel any sense of danger at all in that scene. That's not what the scene was about for me when I wrote it. Aside from making me realize I had to make my intentions more clear, this scenario made me think of action scenes in general and authors intentions with those scenes and how we readers bring our own tastes and experiences to an author's creation.
What is an Action Scene?
Action scenes require a character to be in motion. A character simply entering the room is action. Not riveting action, but action nonetheless. The character is acting, is in motion, and is not static. Action scenes focus more on what's actually happening in the moment in contrast to exposition scenes where information is explicitly being conveyed.
Types of Action Scenes
Violent action scenes include life or death situations and the use and/or threat of violence. These usually make up most action scenes you’ll find in modern storytelling. They include, but are not limited to:
Action scenes don’t always involve violence. Non-violent action scenes include anytime characters are in motion in a non-confrontational environment. They include, but are not limited to:
- Comedic/lighthearted situations - slapstick, wacky adventures.
- Acts of seduction/sex.
- Journeys - When characters travel from one location to another.
- Sports - Any sport that doesn't require physical contact may be considered non-violent. (football, hockey, rugby, boxing, and MMA would be considered violent because of the physical contact requirement)
- Races - When characters are racing toward a “finish line”. This is in contrast to a chase scene. Here, a single character may be late to class, and is racing to turn his report in before class is over.
- Other - non-confrontational situations that usually get summarized or skipped entirely, due to lack of tension.
Each type of action scene is combinable and interchangeable with another. There can be some overlap between them all, but there’s usually a main focus to a scene. For instance, a non-violent scene can change and become violent or contain a brief hint of violence, but it's mostly played safe.
The Heart of the Matter
The heart of any action scene lies more in the character's inner/outer struggle, and less about the threat of any abstract danger. Good action scenes have more behind it than the action itself.
Personally, I've never once read a book or watched a film and felt any sense of tension specifically from the dangerous situations depicted in the story. For me, the tension lies more so in how I feel about the character and what I want to happen to them in terms of success or failure.
The character has a goal. The conflict is preventing her from achieving that goal. Assuming we care about the character, we root for her to succeed. What we rarely ever do (or maybe it's just me) is sit on the edge of our seat thinking the protagonist has any chance of dying. Spiderman/Batman/Superman always have zero chance of dying. There would be no more movie if they died. And depending on the story, the main character could already be dead, so death wouldn’t even be a threat to him or her.
How to Use Action Scenes
At it's essence, most actions scenes seem to boil down to the prospect of win or lose. Life or death is probably the most extreme version of win or lose. You could also refer to it as: success or failure; victory or defeat.
The easiest way to write action scenes is to give your character a concrete goal to achieve. Make it a goal they cannot turn away from. They have to go after that goal or else they’ll fail gym class/lose the girl/the world with blow up/etc. Then threaten their goal with an appropriate opposing conflict. It must be a complication directly related to the goal, something that completely hinders the character, seems almost impossible to overcome, and spells disaster whether violent or non-violent. The reader wants to watch the character squirm, while rooting for them to succeed. This is what brings out the best in characters and makes for the juiciest action scenes.