The action genre is a high-octane thrill ride that gives the audience all the explosions and fights they can handle. But how can you utilize the lessons and tropes of action in your own writing?
Great action movies and television are like riding roller coasters. They pump up the adrenaline and take us places we can only imagine. They're fun, explosive, and can be kind of hard to write. Action movies need to keep the pages turning but also set up brilliant set pieces that stick out amongst an already crowded genre.
Today we'll go over the action genre, look at examples in film and television, talk about how you can mix and match with other genres, and get you ready to tackle your own action movie or TV show.
What is the Action Genre?
Action movies and TV are defined by their lead characters and villains. Usually, they're very clear-cut, with no grey area between right and wrong. The stakes can be huge; the fate of the world or even just the fate of a building, like in Die Hard.
What was the first action movie?
Many people cite The Great Train Robbery (1903) as the first action film. And it set up many of the tropes and expectations of the action genre.
From Bruce Lee to Chuck Norris to Arnold to Sly to Vin Diesel to Ronda Rousey, action films and TV have always been defined by the superstar actors who work again and again. The fan base loves seeing the same actors and if you can make it as an action star, like The Rock, you can pretty much crossover to being the biggest on-screen presence in the world.
The history of action movies has changed throughout the decades. As CGI and special effects became more prevalent, we were able to make stunts safer. Still, action movies have always been defined by the performers willing to risk their lives to capture something cool.
Common tropes in action movies and television
Action films and series usually thrust our heroes into challenges that typically include fighting, gun or swordplay, chase scenes, and extraordinary feats. They always stack the odds against their heroes and make sure their lives are threatened at every turn. The hero usually wins and the villain usually loses.
But these tropes can be subverted and flipped depending on the story and the other genres included.
Let's look at some examples to nail down the action genre.
Examples of Action Films
In this section, I picked mainly franchises to talk about. Stand-alone action movies seem to be a thing of the past. If your action movie makes money, you get a sequel. Sometimes dozens of them, like in James Bond. But the modern action movie looks a lot like the Fast and the Furious franchise.
It has car chases, muscled heroes, bravado, and tons of quippy one-liners.
Look no further than Fast Five for one of the greatest action set pieces of all time.
If you love car chases, then you probably saw Mad Max: Fury Road in IMAX. I did. It was awesome. I'm not sure my eyeballs ever recovered. What this action film does so well is keep the action going at a feverish pace. There's no gray area. Max and Imperator Furiosa are good guys. Immortan Joe is a bad guy.
These chases keep you on the edge of your seat and feature lots of plant and payoff.
But action movies are no all about cars. They're also about, well, running and kicking ass. For that, we should shine a light on Mission: Impossible.
This franchise takes spies into bad-ass territory, always focusing on the nitty-gritty and making saving the world feel stylish.
Mission Impossible: Fallout takes us to the edge of a cliff for a one-on-one battle that will determine the fate of humanity.
Examples of Action Television
The action genre is not totally confined to movies. The rise in quality of television along with production value has allowed action to bleed into the small screen. Shows like The Punisher show it is possible to get the same level of action you got in movies with the same name.
While The Punisher focuses on brute strength, shows like Into the Badlands center more on the choreographed fights and action you'd see inside The Matrix.
We talked about spies on the big screen, but what about the small one?
Jack Ryan takes a character we've seen in theaters and brings him home. But the action still has to be there. The story focuses on spies living day-to-day, with a season-long mission. It's a smart way to tackle action on TV while building a story that has legs as well.
People keep coming back to the action genre because it's so easy to pair it with any of the other film and television genres. Action is a great way to keep your story exciting while subtly moving character forward. Take one of my favorite movies of the past few years, the action comedy The Nice Guys.
The Nice Guys blends the action and jokes to keep you laughing while also thrilling you with shootouts and close calls.
Action also lends itself to adventure and science fiction, like in Avengers: Endgame. We've covered writing blockbuster movies and writing action movies is similar. You want to emphasize character at the heart so we understand the stakes might be for the world, but the people at the center of that world matter.
Also, when you're dealing with the future and tech, lots of cool action scenes can take place. Or even Time Travel.
Action thrillers like Taken can prove valuable as a franchise as well.
Taken also leaned into the famous line action movie bit, but this time without humor. Only intensity and anger.
Finally, what happens when you mix action and horror?
Probably something like World War Z.
World War Z takes zombies and speeds them way, way up. It still shoots within horror conventions, jump scares and evil creatures, but the gunplay, chase scenes, and hyper tech is all action genre. It executes this mash-up on the blockbuster scale as well and creates cross-appeal with both the horror and action audiences.
What's next? Learn all about TV and Film Genres!
Film and TV genres affect who watches your work, how it's classified, and even how it's reviewed. So how do you decide what you're writing? And which genres to mash-up? The secret is in the tropes.
Click to learn more!