Action scenes are the most memorable aspects of any fiction. Fast-paced and intense, they sear themselves into the audience’s memories. Battles between the hero and the lesser mooks punctuate the plot, while the final showdown between the hero and the villain serves as the climax of the story. And that is what action in storytelling is: a climax. A climax that must be built up to.
Violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. When someone resorts to violence, it’s because he wants something out of it. What he wants, and who he is, drives what he will do. What he does defines the action scene that follows.
I say ‘action’ here, and not ‘fight’, because ‘fight’ implies a physical contest. At the highest level of violence, or in specific contexts, there is no contest. The actor moves in such a way that contesting force is not possible. When both parties have high-level training, skills and experience, you have an incredibly intense scene. Even at lower levels of force, a professional is going to act differently from a civilian. This is anathema to Hollywood and conventional fiction, which uses resistance and and back-and-forth for drama, but it is reflective of real-world violence.
The events that lead up to the action scene is as important as the action itself. It defines the players, the location, the tactics, the tools, the moves. When revealed judiciously, it builds up tension, stretching it out, winding up the audience for the big finish. Doing this successfully requires authenticity to keep the reader immersed in the scene, and that requires the parties acting in a believable manner.
In some cases, violence may appear to come out of nowhere. Done properly it create dramatic impact. But to do it properly, the creator has to know why the actors do what they do, so he knows what they will do and how they will do it. He doesn’t have to reveal the build-up to the audience, the defender doesn’t need to see the set-up, but the creator he does need to know what the initiators are doing and why they are doing it before they appear to the reader.
When I write, the action scene is the last scene. By this I mean that before I write the action, I figure out everything that has to take place before the scene, and what everyone involved wants. This includes the following:
What do the players want? What does the initiator want, and why does the defender want to deny it to him?
How important are these stakes to the characters involved?
How does each party perceive the importance of what the other party wants?
Violence happens because the aggressor wants to take or achieve something by force, and/or when the defender wants to prevent the aggressor from doing it. The importance of the stakes drives the intensity of their actions. Someone who wants something badly is going to exert greater effort into achieving it than someone who wants it lightly. How one party perceives how badly the other party wants something will influence their actions, and either party can attempt to alter this perception.
Let’s use the opening moments of the bank robbery scene from Heat as an example. The robbers want money, and they want to live to escape with the money. The guards want to protect the money, and live. The staff and customers are caught in between them, and want to live.
The robbers kick off the heist by neutralizing the security. They put down two guards and force the third to surrender, then ziptie them all. The leader of the crew tells the civilians the following: they don’t want to hurt anybody; they’re here for the bank’s money, not their money; their money is insured and they won’t lose a dime; they should think of their lives and don’t be heroes.
This scene is an example of force through communication, speaking to everybody’s needs. The robbers know the guards are there to protect the bank’s money, so they have to neutralise the guards immediately. With their superior firepower, the robbers could have easily executed the guards. But if they had done that, they would have signaled that they were bloodthirsty terrorists. It might cow the hostages, but someone among them might feel that the robbers would kill everyone and decide there is nothing left to lose. That would require a violent response, which might trigger a violent escalation. Nobody wants that. By overwhelming the guards, yet sparing their lives, the robbers show that they are professionals.
The speech that follows reinforces this. They reassure the civilians that they don’t want to hurt them and that the civilians won’t lose a dime. The takedown and the speech changes the hostages’ perceptions of the threat to their lives and the risk/reward ratio of resistance. It reduces their motivation to resist. With every action and word, the robbers communicate that all the civilians have to do is lie down and keep still, and it will all be over soon. Everybody gets to live, nobody loses anything, and anybody who resists gets to share the fate of the guards.
This scene shows how professionals use force to achieve their goals, by overpowering potential resistance and reinforcing communications. Violence itself is used as a means of silent communication. To do this right, you need to know what everybody wants before the scene starts—and what everybody thinks what everybody else wants.
Social or Asocial Violence
Violence comes in two flavours: social and asocial.
Social violence is about prestige, esteem and honour. The actor uses violence as a means to increase or reinforce his social standing. It may also be a means of reinforcing social norms.
A young punk eager to prove himself to his seniors in his gang may pick a fight with random people. If he loses, he loses nothing; if he wins, he gains their approval. As he has nothing to lose and everything to gain—or so he thinks—he is motivated to be extremely aggressive towards everyone around him. When he picks a fight with someone, he wants to show his dominance. He insults the victim, shoves him, spits on him, does everything he can to show that he can do whatever he wants to the victim without the victim being able to resist. By displaying dominance over others, his own position in the dominance hierarchy in his in-group increases.
When insulted, a gentleman from a harsher time may challenge the offender to a duel. By showing a willingness to do violence, he preserves his image as a man. By accepting the challenge, the offender does the same. Locked in the cycle of wanting to uphold their image and avoid losing face, they meet at a field of honour with swords drawn. The prospect of violence, and the possibility of injury or death, keeps tempers and tongues in check throughout society. Failing to accept or offer a challenge is seen as unmanly, demotivating people from refusing to obey social norms, preserving this culture.
Asocial violence is about attaining a resource or a goal. Violence is a means to an end. The victim is merely an obstacle that has to be removed to achieve that end. Going back to the example of the bank heist in Heat, the robbers are displaying asocial violence. They quickly and efficiently remove the guards from the equation, without bragging or showing off to their buddies. That in itself communicates to witnesses, and the audience, that they mean business.
Social and asocial violence can be intertwined. To be initiated into MS-13, a prospect must assault or murder someone, either an enemy or an innocent bystander. To minimise risk to himself, the prospect ambushes the victim, usually with a weapon. He overwhelms the victim, preventing him from resisting, and keeps up the assault until his superiors are satisfied. The motive is social (joining the gang), but the method is asocial (ambush and overwhelming violence). At the strategic level, it reinforces the gang’s fearsome reputation and intimidates anyone who might try to oppose them.
The stakes and the type of violence informs the tactics and techniques employed by the parties involved. Preventing social violence is fairly simple: walk away, apologise, stay away from toxic people. Dealing with asocial violence requires a much different skillset: evasion if possible, even more overwhelming violence if not.
In social violence, the goal is to show a willingness to use violence, not to destroy the opponent. In asocial violence, the goal is to take something—which may include the other party’s life. Social violence has rules to minimize harm to either party. For instance, in the West, duels were usually fought to first blood, while in medieval Japan, rival swordsmen may agree to throw only one cut and stop short of contact in a bout.
Asocial violence has no rules.
Who are the people involved in the scene?
Their background, skills and experience influence what they want, how they will see their opponents, what they will arm themselves with, and how they will act.
Go back to the bank heist from Heat. In the opening we see the robbers neutralize the guards and coerce the civilians into compliance. When the police arrive, they kick off a firefight. They use fire and movement, communicate to each other, and employ various tactics to escape with the stolen cash. Every scene reinforces the fact that they are highly-trained and high-experienced. Most importantly, they can afford to be more violent and reckless than the police.
The job of the police is to protect lives. Unlike the robbers, they can’t spray down an area for fear of hitting civilians. They have pick their shots, and may be forced to hold their fire. This being the pre-2000s, the concept of patrol rifles is in its infancy, and so the police are limited to pistols and shotguns, which are less accurate at long range. Only the detectives of the Robbery-Homicide Special squad are equipped with long guns, giving them a chance to put up effective resistance.
Professionals will do everything in their power to stack the deck in their favour. They will employ deception, use weapons (or jury-rig their own), maneuver to advantageous positions, and force the opponent into disadvantageous positions. Less-professional actors will miss one or more of these steps. The background of the parties involved in a fight scene determines how they will act when the pressure is on.
The presence of tools complicates matters. Their presence automatically increases the risks and the stakes. Tools dictate a party’s tactics and strategies in a scene.
‘Tools’ don’t just mean weapons. A tool is anything that grants someone an advantage. A sword or a loaded gun is a tool. So is a radio and a desperate call for backup. Anything that might present someone an advantage before, during or after a fight will change the dynamics of the scene, and with it, how the characters act.
Presenting a tool before a fight signals a willingness to use violence. On the street it could scare off a criminal. In the moments before a duel, choosing weapons heightens the risks and changes everyone’s tactics and perceptions. Presenting a tool during a fight changes the dynamics of the fight. One side desperately needs an advantage. The other party, if he sees it, must do everything he can to prevent this or risk being defeated (or worse). Presenting a tool after a fight is a way for a defeated (but not disabled) party to get revenge. A professional will seek to prevent this—or create an opening to do it.
Whenever a tool is in play, the tool dictates the scene. The aggressor seeks to use it to gain a decisive advantage, while the defender must find a way to defend against it while bringing his own tools into play.
Time and Place
Violence occurs in time and space. This drives how the parties act, and what kind of violence is likely to break out.
Social violence is going to take place around witnesses. The goal here is to gain or preserve face, or avoid losing face. Face only matters if there are other people around you. This means it is likely to take place in bars, on the streets, on the proverbial field of honour, and anywhere else people make questionable decisions in front of an audience.
In asocial violence, every edge matters. Japanese sword masters teach their students to fight with their backs to the sun, so that the sun will blind the opponent. A sandy field allows a crafty fighter to pick up a handful of sand to throw at the enemy. Throwing someone on a soft mat may knock the wind out of him; throwing him head-first onto asphalt could kill him. In a gunfight, the presence of cover and angles of fire will dictate tactics and movement.
The location of an action scene shows where characters can go and what they can do—and what they can’t and shouldn’t do. A pro will maneuver to position himself in the best position ahead of the intended victim, maximising his advantage.
An action scene requires a minimum of four elements: the initiator, the defender, the time and the place. You need to bring all four elements together before you can kick things off. Positioning everyone in place is the art of the build-up.
Why is everywhere where they are? What are they are doing there? What do they want, and what do they think the other side wants? What will they do to get what they want and prevent the other side from getting what they think they want?
Answering these questions position their characters on the field and primes them for action. You may judiciously reveal details to the audience to build up tension, but you must know all the details whether you show them or not. This lets you quickly and efficiently build up to the action scene.
Tying It All Together
To demonstrate this, let’s carry out a simple thought experiment. The scenario is a robbery. A man armed with a knife wants to mug a person as the latter enters his apartment. Ask yourself how the following robbers will act:
- A desperately poor homeless man who is driven into a corner
- A violent crackhead who needs money now to fuel his addiction
- A hitman who wants to make the hit look like a robbery
The first robber may not want to hurt anyone. Once he sees the first victim of opportunity, he makes his approach. He may display a knife and demand money, but he may also emphasise how desperate he is, apologize to the victim, and possibly create an opening to escape.
The second doesn’t care about what happens to the victim, so long as he gets money. He doesn’t care what kind of victim he targets either, so long as he’s confident he won’t fight back. He may hide in a corner, wait for a victim who he is confident of overpowering, and as soon as the victim’s back is turned, he jumps in, stabs the victim a dozen times, then makes off with the victim’s wallet. The humanity of the victim doesn’t matter to the robber, only the money.
The last is looking for a specific target. He, too, will lie in wait, but he will only act when he sees his intended target. He is dressed in a raincoat and is armed with a cheap everyday knife. When he sees the target, he jumps in and stabs away, mimicking the wild attack of the crackhead robber, but takes care to target the vital organs to ensure a kill. He takes the victim’s wallet and leaves. As he escapes, he dumps his coat and knife, and changes into a suit, becoming a whole new person.
How the defender responds to the attack will change depending on the threat. For the first guy, compliance is an option. A hero may even talk the guy down and convince him to seek help. Against the violent crackhead, the hero may have to inflict significant damage, or he may make distance, draw his own weapon, and convince the aggressor to surrender or run away. But if pitted against a committed hitman, he has to kill or be killed.
The audience may only see the exciting parts: the bad guy moving into place, good guy entering range, the battle that follows. However, to make it exciting, you, the creator, must set up the scene. Done masterfully, the hand of the creator disappears, and the characters drive the show. For this to occur, the action scene must be the last scene.