The root of Action Movies can be found in the Western, the American creation myth. It’s about conquering the Wilderness and creating a Nation, against savages and outlaws. Nowadays, of course, the stagecoach is no longer a stagecoach, but an armored car, and the horses have been transformed into muscle cars and motorbikes (we all know Vin Diesel is proud).
A prime example for the Action Movie is still DIE HARD (1988): A police officer from a foreign town must rescue his wife and a number of other hostages who have been captured by a German terrorist group in a high-rise building during a company Christmas party.
Now let’s take a deep dive into the action story form…
The main subgenres of action movies.
Action is the most cinematic of all genres, because motion pictures, having evolved from silent movies, put the emphasis on the action of characters. Not every action movie consists of explosions and chases, but they’re a valuable part of its aesthetic. The characters in the action movie are archetypal heroes who want to win a battle. If you want to write the screenplay for an action movie, you should know the most important problems of the genre, which we look at in great detail: Action itself, typical Action characters and the difference between Action and Suspense.
- 1 Action movies with plot
- 2 Action Movie with Character
- 3 Action instead of Suspense
- 4 Writing the Action Scene
- 5 Action Movie Subgenres
- 6 The Action Movie Checklist
Action movies with plot
The biggest problem with the action movie genre: usually lots of action but little plot. Just because the fight scenes in a movie are as long as possible doesn’t mean that a lot happens in it (I’m looking at you, John Wick 4). Action is not the same as plot, because plot means, among other things, variety. A thrilling action movie can overcome this lack of plot in a number of ways. Mainly by giving more power to the adversary in the story and hiding their true nature better, by adding more twists and turns to the plot, or by positioning several adversaries in such a way that they attack the main character alternately and in different ways (not just through physical violence) – this creates increasing pressure on the main character, which drives the story forward and keeps the audience engaged.
Action Movie with Character
Avoid flat and boring action heroes. Give your character something individual. It can be a special vulnerability (John McClane in DIE HARD), a big secret (JASON BOURNE), or a weird quirk (Evelyn in EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE). The character of your hero is fed by their previous history, but must be anchored in the here and now of the story. Flat characters usually lead to a form of action parody, but even parodies work better when they’re based on human characters rather than cardboard cutouts. One quality that action characters definitely need to have is that they’re good at what they do. Be it that they are perfect men or women of action, or that they just always get incredibly lucky. There’s a reason why most of these actions characters are ex Navy Seals, police officers or hitmen.
Action instead of Suspense
If you want to write an action movie, make sure that your characters repeatedly engage in open, physical conflicts, culminating in the greatest conflict in the finale. If these conflicts don’t exist, the story slips in the direction of a suspense thriller. As long as you are aware of this, and you actually desire it, everything’s fine. But more often than not writers do this subconsciously and are not happy with their end results. If you want to write an action thriller, you should primarily work from the thriller and combine it with the action movie. For a true action movie, you need to focus on action first.
Writing the Action Scene
A good action scene is precise and minimalistic, so cut out all the fluff. To write action scenes, you need to know your character’s strategies and struggles. In the action movie, the tools at hand are the tools of warfare. It’s all about defeating the adversary in a physical confrontation. This can be done with fists or with weapons. Characters set traps, try to lure the other out of cover, dodge their attacks and so on. The setting plays a major role in this. Take DIE HARD as an example: The beautiful limitation of a small location created a lot of pressure on the characters. Precisely because there’s not much space in the building, it’s possible to use a lot of details like glass sherds, a firehose and the like.
In any case, you should know who your hero’s adversaries are and how they relate to each other. Who is the “final boss”? How does your hero plan to defeat them? An important element in the action genre, but that’s not found in every movie, is the training, i.e. the preparation for this confrontation. Are there things your character learns that they can use in battle? Are there things that they don’t learn and that you can use as a handicap for them?
Action Movie Subgenres
Each genre has developed certain subforms. Here are the most prominent action subgenres:
In the action adventure, the hero is on a journey, mostly in search of something. It’s important that they are placed in direct relation to the world or the universe. Action adventures often feature fantastic elements. A further specialization is the science-fiction action adventure, for example STAR WARS: A young man uses his skills as a fighter pilot to rescue a princess and defeat the evil forces of a galactic empire.
In the action epic, the hero is placed in relation to their world or their nation. It’s about the change in a country through one or more characters. The best-known national epic of the Germans is of course the Nibelungenlied, which takes place at the time of the Great Migration Period (around the 5th century). A more modern example of this subgenre is THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX: A group of idealistic radical leftists want to change their society, but become embroiled in increasingly serious crimes that lead to their downfall. This movie leans more towards the action genre than the crime story, which is clear by the anti-heroes of the story. They are terrorists whose motivation is different from that of common criminals. The thematic closeness to the western is evident through the behavior of the outlaws who are ready to tear down the foundations of civilization.
There are two versions of war movies: either they are about the strategy of the commanders or the comraderie of the soldiers. Two submarine movies represent this dichotomy, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER follows a CIA analyst leading a group of Navy officers to capture the Soviet Army’s newest submarine, while DAS BOOT focuses on the struggle for survival of a simple submarine crew in WWII.
The suicide mission is closely linked to the war movie. This is about a single mission where it’s clear from the start that the heroes won’t return. The movie INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS shows how freely and creatively a writer can deal with historical events: A group of Jewish assassins is planning to eliminate the Nazi leadership elite in occupied France.
In sports movies, the hero’s battle is a sporting competition. Sports movies have the problem of being very predictable: an underdog is underestimated, trains hard and usually wins in the end. If you manage to subvert these expectations, finding your own structure, then you can write an exciting sports movie. The king of sports movies is still Sylvester Stallone’s ROCKY: An unknown boxer with no future gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take on the heavyweight champion.
In any case, make sure to write the story of a believeable person, not the story of a sporting achievement. Rocky Balboa finds his great love in Adrienne, from whom he draws the strength to take control of his life. Rocky’s yell for Adrienne at the end shows what the movie is really about and that no matter what the outcome of the fight, he has achieved his personal success.
The action comedy focuses on a hero who overcomes his adversaries with wit and charm. One should remember that action and comedy are two completely different concepts. A great link between both genres is the Trickster archetype like Axel Foley in BEVERLY HILLS COP or Zeki Müller in FACK JU GOEHTE 3. A Trickster is a crook who tells jokes by nature, but who still has a strong internal drive has to achieve his want. He often disguises himself and pretends to be goofy, but in reality he can handle almost any situation. He’s not to be confused with the Loser, who’s actually silly and has very little drive.
Experimental Action Movies
The movie RUN LOLA RUN shows that action movies can also be experimental in nature and still very successful. The popular action form was used as a basis here, but a very unique structure was found, which should always be our goal when writing: After a failed money transfer, a young woman has 20 minutes (and three different chances) to get the missing 100.000 bucks.
The Action Movie Checklist
Here’s a quick checklist for writing a good action movie:
- Know your genre or subgenre
- Create highly individual characters
- Come up with many unique twists and turns
- Ensure open conflicts between hero and adversaries
- Make the characters use different war-like strategies against each other
If you consider all of these points, you’ll be on the right path to a good, action-packed story.
Top Action Movies 2022
Maybe you’ve already seen one or the other:
TOP GUN: MAVERICK
SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 2
THE ADAM PROJECT