Why Story and Character Matter in Action Sequences
Art and Experience: Sometimes, there’s nothing better than an impressive action scene.
But to direct action sequences of your own, you’ll need to understand the immense amount of work a scene like this requires. As it should be with all movies, it starts with story. You need to consider elements like the timing and storytelling of the scene, and how characters behave within it.
Film Riot has put together a really great video full of tips on how to approach action scenes. Watch it below.
The video examines one recent movie sequence in particular, the bathroom brawl scene from Mission: Impossible – Fallout. The film, of course, stars Tom Cruise and is directed by Christopher McQuarrie.
This scene is a gritty and raw fight featuring Cruise, Henry Cavill, and a scary bad guy.
So enjoy that, then we can dig into the advice.
What are the scene beats?
Film Riot points out that within the Fallout example, the scene lasts about two minutes, but isn’t just all-out fighting the entire time. Otherwise, the scene would become overwhelming and would have no “hills and valleys,” or emotional ups-and-downs, which are what keep the action engaging.
We covered this idea in another article about the 3-minute rule, which is a guideline for how to direct for the viewer’s brain. The audience can only take a certain level of action and intensity for a few minutes at a time. Otherwise, the eye will wander.
So don’t keep your action at level 11 the entire time, because you’ll exhaust the audience.
Let your characters get knocked down. Give them an emotional beat to recover, and say something about the character as they do. Are they struggling or injured? Are they furious? Are they crying? Are they worried about someone else in the scene? How they react in that moment will tell the audience something about their personality.
Slow things down
You can also slow the pace down. In this Fallout example, one moment like this is when the villain grabs a sharpened pipe and holds it inches from Ethan’s neck.
Action scenes often use this tactic to switch from all-out fighting to a more suspenseful beat. It gives the audience a chance to breathe from all the fast-paced moments before.
Another of my favorite examples is the home invasion sequence from John Wick. The whole fight is great, but just look at how the sharp object is handled here.
The viewer gets that amazing, slower tension with the introduction of a knife, along with the raw brutality of two men fighting for control over it. It’s a great climactic moment for the whole sequence.
Remember to think about characters
As you’re giving everyone in the scene all these emotional beats and showing how they react differently, remember that their fighting styles can vary too.
Cavill’s character, Walker, is a brute with lots of raw strength. He’s throwing people around with those huge arms. Their enemy is almost a superhuman monster who fights tirelessly with precise moves.
Even in your cool, flashy action scenes, don’t forget you’re telling a story about people. Don’t miss out on opportunities to develop characters just because they’re throwing punches.
Remember the story, too
Your action sequence is only going to be as strong as the narrative leading up to it. If the audience doesn’t care about the characters, or if you haven’t spent any time establishing their goals and what’s at stake for them, this is just going to be a cool but emotionless moment in your movie.
Action will always have more impact if characters are relatable on some level, and their conflicts and desires are easy to grasp. You want the audience to be rooting for the hero and feeling the danger of the moment with them. It doesn’t matter if the risk is to their own safety, or a loved one’s, or the world’s.
Also remember the value of narrative tension. In an action scene, you can tease the audience with the threat of danger or violence before all hell breaks loose.
Take this scene from 2017’s Logan. The audience, like Logan, doesn’t know what Laura is exactly capable of, but the tension builds as the villains try to cajole her, and she slowly comes closer. It’s a great moment with the amazing payoff of her being revealed as a mutant, then two minutes of fast-paced fighting.
In every fight scene, you can also give your characters a low point, just as you will in the larger story itself. You can make the audience think all is lost, which will give the hero’s triumphant victory all the more impact.
Film Riot suggests even breaking an action scene into the traditional three-act structure, so it has the framework of a story within the story.
Action scenes and editing
The editing of the Fallout scene uses a subtle trick, showing the audience certain moments of the fight twice.
Sometimes a punch or block is happening so quickly, it’s a good idea to actually show it from two different angles so the audience is sure to see it. This is done with only one sound effect, however.
You can also remove frames from your shots to make your fight look more brutal. Film Riot points out one example, where a few frames were snipped from a moment where Ethan gets kicked. It’s subtle enough, and the sound covers up any missed action, so it just looks like a really violent hit.
This is an easy, no-budget trick. Don’t go overboard with it, though.
The value of stunt performers
Obviously, if you have a lot of hard action and known talent, chances are the bigger or more dangerous moments of action are going to go to their stunt doubles.
But Film Riot points out that even low-budget filmmakers can use stunt performers in projects. Consider casting them as the actual actors in your roles, then you’re essentially getting two for one. They will be more affordable talent, and they’ll be able to play the character and do all those action sequences, bringing lots of experience to the table.
What’s next? We have more action-packed resources.
What are some of your favorite action sequences? Have you tried breaking them down into three-act structure? Let us know in the comments!