I. What is Action?
Also called “action-adventure,” action is a genre of film, TV, literature, etc., in which the primary feature is the constant slam-bang of fights, chases, explosions, and clever one-liners. Action stories typically do not explore complex relationships between human beings or the subtleties of psychology and philosophy. Instead, they are high-octane thrillers that simply aim to give the reader an exciting ride. (The word “thriller” is synonymous with “action” in this context.)
II. Examples of Action
One popular example from 2015 is Mad Max: Fury Road, a highly acclaimed movie about a chaotic future world in which humanity is slowly poisoning itself to death through environmental degradation. The movie, which is basically just one long chase scene, follows a small band of characters as they try to escape the desert wasteland where they live.
A few great movies and TV shows have managed to work as action stories while also bringing in more complex elements. Game of Thrones, for example, has plenty of action in the form of wildling hordes, zombie armies, and of course fire-breathing dragons. But what makes the show so popular is not just the action: it’s also the family dynamics and various human stories intertwined with all that action.
Michael Crichton is an action author, famous for such classics as Jurassic Park, Eaters of the Dead, and The Andromeda Strain. Crichton’s work stands out within the action genre for a number of reasons. For one, he did extensive scientific and historic research for each of his books. Second, he managed to create complex characters, and his stories have great human drama alongside the compelling action sequences.
III. The Importance of Action
Action stories work because they’re fun. People enjoy watching/reading them, even if they are not mentally stimulated by the genre. As for what makes action stories so popular, that’s tough to answer. On one level, the sheer simplicity of action stories may account for their popularity. Action stories are very easy to understand, and they work with themes that every human being can easily understand.
On another level, action stories get a lot of their power from archetypes, mythical figures that are common to all cultures and seem to be hard-wired into the human psyche. Every culture produces stories about heroes, monster-slayers, demons, mentors, temptresses, etc., and action stories frequently draw on this deep well of cultural ideas.
IV. Examples of Action in Literature
Beowulf is a great work of literature and extremely important in the history of Old English, but it definitely has elements of an action story. The main archetype is Beowulf himself – the heroic monster-slayer who swims all the way to Denmark to try his hand at killing the monster Grendel. Over the course of the story, Beowulf fights tougher and tougher enemies until he finally has to face the great fire dragon.
If you want to learn how to write effective fight scenes, The Golden Compass is a great book to start with. The final duel between the Panserbjorne is an extended fight that has a beginning-middle-end structure, along with changes in pace and repeated use of a wide variety of literary devices.
V. Examples of Action in Popular Culture
Any movie with Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, or Sylvester Stallone. With very few exceptions, these movies have a combination of fast-paced action, relatively simple characters, and a strong archetypal hero who saves the world (or at least his loved ones) from whatever danger is looming. Hundreds of movies have been made in this genre, and when you analyze them they are extremely similar.
Video games are a great medium for telling action stories, especially in the RPG genre. RPGs give you the opportunity to create your own hero, which allows you to immerse yourself more fully in the story. Of course, the character options are extremely archetypal: in many RPGs, you can choose the fighter/slayer archetype (warrior, barbarian, etc.), the trickster archetype (rogue, thief, sorcerer), the healer archetype (cleric), and many others. Like action movies, these games also have a fairly black-and-white moral system, though you may have the choice to play a character on either side.
VI. Related Terms
An adventure is an unusual experience, especially one that involves lots of excitement or risk. It has to involve leaving home in some way, and usually has a component of fun and a sense of freedom. Action stories often revolve around adventures – a young boy leaves home to become a wizard or a starfighter pilot, say. However, action stories do not necessarily involve adventure. An action story could be about a man trying to evade a serial killer within his own home, which would not be an adventure.