How (Not) to Write Satisfying Action Scenes
Part 2 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
By K. M. Weiland
Imagine this. You sit down to write the biggest action scenes in your entire story. They’re gonna be epic. Giants will collide. Empires will topple. The conflict will be definitively decided once and for all–and readers will be glued to the page.
This is, no doubt, exactly what the folks at Marvel Studios intended for the action scenes in the second movie in their cinematic universe: The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton. (Yeah, Edward Norton.)
Remember that one?
Frankly, it’s pretty easy to forget. There are couple relatively subjective reasons for this:
1. This was the second Hulk movie to come out in less than five years. (Three different Spider-Man franchises is one thing, but does anyone really want more than one Hulk? Nuh-huh.)
2. The Marvel cinematic universe was still in its infancy, so a lot of people didn’t yet realize Incredible Hulk tied into the phenomenally successful Iron Man (which we discussed in last week’s installment). In fact, more people than not thought this version was somehow a sequel to Ang Lee’s underwhelming Hulk.
3. In a lot of ways, this movie feels like it’s from a different universe altogether (and not in a good way as with, say, Guardians of the Galaxy).
4. Edward Norton vs. Mark Ruffalo. Who you gonna remember?
As you may recall, this post is the second in a series about the writing lessons we can learn from the excellent (and sometimes not-so-excellent) storytelling techniques used in the Marvel movies. I’ll admit upfront The Incredible Hulkwas the only movie in the series I didn’t re-watch during my recent re-visitation of all the Marvel movies. I could maybe justify $4 to rent it it, but I just couldn’t quite stomach the two hours of my life it would require to watch it again.
Suffice it that this is easily my least favorite movie in the entire series–not because I hate it, but simply because I have difficulty summoning any kind of emotional reaction to it, period.
Why is that? Glad you asked, because that’s exactly what we’re going to examine–and learn from–in today’s post.
Why Your Action Scenes Might Be Failing
Honestly, my most vivid memory of The Incredible Hulk is how boring the action scenes were. That final battle between Hulk and the Abomination? Ugh. Kill me now. Or, wait, better yet, kill each other. Right. Now.
Naturally, it’s a disastrous thing when an action movie fails because its action scenes are so dull and unengaging. Incredible Hulk‘s action scenes didn’t fail because they weren’t well-done, well-choreographed, well-CG’d, or didn’t include enough smashing.
Nope, they failed for a much simpler and more universal reason: they failed on a plot level. This is a pitfall any writer–regardless of your genre or the nature of your action scenes–must be wary of.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, the secret to getting readers involved in your story’s action scenes isn’t the action itself. Rather, the single most important ingredient is giving them a reason to a care about, first, the characters, and, second, the outcome of the battle.
Incredible Hulk failed as a movie because it failed to do this on two different levels. Take a look.
Action Scene Secret #1: Your Protagonist Must Be Present
Seems like a no-brainer. But it’s not. I’ve read more than few lamentable stories in which the protagonist went completely AWOL for some of the story’s most important action scenes, right up to and including the Climaxitself. When you pull your protagonist from your story, you’ve just removed the readers chief reason for caring about what happens.
So why is Incredible Hulk guilty of this? After all, Bruce Banner is onscreen for 90% of this movie and 100% of the action scenes. Isn’t he?
Bruce Banner–our mild-mannered, conflicted, (semi-)interesting human protagonist–is only present in this film about half the time. The rest of the time we get… the Hulk. In other words, we get a green computer-generated cartoon character who has one emotion (smash!) and very little in the way of verbal skills.
For all intents and purposes, the Hulk is not Bruce Banner. What this means, of course, is that when Bruce hulks out in the action scenes, the one person we’re supposed to care about most disappears from the story. (Note how much better the Hulk character works in action scenes in the Avengersmovies because we still have so many other characters we care about onscreen with him.)
Keep your protagonist front and center during the action scenes. He should be the one whose decisions and actions move the plot. Just as importantly, he should be the one making the choices that will cause the consequences he has to face and live with later on.
Action Scene Secret #2: The Conflict Must Be Personal to Both Protagonist and Antagonist
A story’s external conflict should be an extension of its internal conflict. On an interpersonal level, this means the relationship between your protagonist and the antagonist needs to be about more than just two strangers slugging it out. Whether or not the characters start out knowing each other before the story, the conflict needs to become extremely personal by the time the Climax rolls around.
Again, The Incredible Hulk gets a big fat red FAIL on this one.
Now, granted, Bruce Banner’s conflict with General William Ross is very personal. Ross wants to protect his daughter from her ex-boyfriend Bruce, and Bruce wants to escape Ross’s less-than-righteous plans for turning him into a super soldier. There’s a history
here. There’s a relationship here.
The problem is this: just as the Hulk is, essentially, an impersonal avatar of Bruce Banner, so too the Abomination is an egregiously impersonal extension of Ross’s will. Royal Marine Emil Blonsky is perhaps the most vapid of all the many one-off antagonists in the series. He shows up halfway into the movie, possesses zero personal interest in Banner, turns into the Abomination (another single-note cartoon character), goes crazy, the end.
The final battle between the Hulk and the Abomination is the single most boring battle in the Marvel universe for the simple reason that the audience has about as little connection to either character as the characters have to each other.
(Contrast this to the Captain America movies Winter Soldier and Civil War, in which both audience and protagonist have a tremendous personal investment in the outcome of the conflict with the antagonists–former friends Bucky Barnes and Tony Stark, respectively.)
Don’t tack on physical clashes between protagonist and antagonist as mere eye candy. Build the external conflict out of the relationships between characters, so the stakes are high and the consequences vast.
The irony of actions scenes is that, when they’re at their best, they’re far more about the emotion than the action. Concentrate on building your action scenes out of the tight weave of your characters’ motives and goals and the overall conflict arising between them. Accomplish that, and your readers will never be bored by your action scenes.