The 10 Things Every Action Story Needs
In today's post, I'm going to walk you through the ten action genre conventions. So, these are the character roles, settings, and events that need to be present in an action story in order for it to work and to satisfy fans of the genre.
I’m also going to show you how these action genre conventions show up in the movie The Hunger Games.
Why movies? Why not books?
Well, the simple answer is that movies require less time investment than books. And I'm hoping that if you haven't seen The Hunger Games movie, then you'll at least watch it after reading this post to help cement these conventions in your mind.
But before we dive in, let’s quickly talk about what makes an action story or what makes the action genre unique.
What Makes an Action Story?
Action stories are about life and death and good versus evil. They’re about a character who has to rise up, overcome great obstacles, defeat forces of evil, and maybe even save the world.
But that being said, these stories aren’t always about superheroes. In fact, the protagonist in an action story is usually someone who is like us, but different.
They’re special or unique in some way–and because of that, they’re often misunderstood by the rest of society. And that is what makes this genre so relatable.
Because even if we don't have magical powers, special abilities, or an unwavering faith in a certain mission or destiny, we’ve all experienced the curse of feeling different or being misunderstood. And this is where action stories come in.
They show us how we can not only embrace the things that make us different but how we can use those things to fight against the evil forces in our lives. They show us how we have the power to be the hero of our own story and make a difference in the world, too.
Beyond that, action stories can have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have various levels of romance, mystery, adventure, or magic. They can include different subplots as long as the protagonist’s fight for survival (against the antagonist) remains the focus of the story.
Why do people read action stories?
People choose to read action stories to experience the excitement of the life and death stakes and situations that the protagonist is presented with.
But it’s not just about that -- like I said earlier, we choose these stories because they inspire us to become the best versions of ourselves, too.
These stories show us that even a character destined for greatness has problems -- and that their problems aren’t too different from our own. I mean, how many of us have had fantasies about being special or about rising up and proving that we’re better than our peers or better than those who try to keep us down? I know I have -- and I’m sure you have, too.
So, it’s that plus the good versus evil dichotomy that reassures us that if we keep at it, if we embrace our unique gifts or talents, we know that good will eventually prevail.
And like all genre fiction, you have to deliver the emotional experience readers are looking for in order for your story to work. To deliver this emotional experience, you need to include the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre in your novel.
What are obligatory scenes and conventions?
Conventions are a reasonably well-defined set of roles, settings, events, and values that are specific to a genre. They're the things that readers intuitively expect to be present in a work of genre fiction whether they consciously realize it or not.
Obligatory scenes are the key events, decisions, and discoveries that move the protagonist along on his or her journey. They’re what help us write a story that works and when coupled with your genre’s conventions, help us evoke emotional reactions in our readers.
Long story short, if you don’t deliver the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre, your story just won’t work. So, what are the action genre conventions? Let’s take a look (warning–spoilers ahead):
Action Genre Conventions:
#1. The protagonist has a special talent or gift and the potential for heroism.
This gift can be something like the ability to wield magic, a mission to do good, a strong resolve, an impenetrable faith, loyalty to friends, etc. This special talent or gift is how the reader gets to feel special by proxy because your protagonist will essentially become your readers' avatar for experiencing the story.
And although this gift or talent or gift seems fun at first, there’s a flip side that the antagonist might try to exploit. It's also how writers can create conflict and make our protagonists more relatable.
For example, the antagonist might capture or harm the protagonist’s love interest or best friend. Or the antagonist might somehow use their magic against them or find a way to dampen their magic. Superman has Kryptonite, Tony Stark has a battery-powered chest.
Either way, all action protagonists have something in common—the potential for heroism and the courage to sacrifice for others.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss is an excellent shot with a bow and arrows. She also has a strong desire to protect other people who aren’t as strong or skilled. Both of these things help her in the arena, but they also work to her disadvantage sometimes. If she loses the bow and arrows, what other skills would compensate? And when the game makers blast sounds of Prim screaming for Katniss or when Rue dies, we see Katniss’s resolve and ability to focus slip. All that being said, Katniss definitely has the potential for heroism (she volunteers to be a tribute in Prim’s place!) and has been sacrificing for others ever since her father died.
#2. The protagonist’s goal is to stop the antagonist and save victims.
Although the protagonist will face danger, be put in extreme situations, and be forced to take risks, they cannot stand by and let the antagonist get away with harming others.
The antagonist has created conflict by endangering the victim/s, which causes a new goal to arise within the protagonist. Their new goal is to stop the antagonist and save the victim/s.
In most cases, the protagonist’s journey to stop the antagonist and save the victim/s will take them from their familiar, everyday surroundings to a new, unfamiliar environment—whether your story takes place in real-life or in a made-up world.
Being in a strange land or a new and unknown environment will create more significant risks and challenges for the protagonist to face, increasing the tension and helping them grow.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss leaves the impoverished District 12 and ventures into the affluent and colorful Capital. Katniss not only has to navigate a new environment (the Capital) but a new set of politics and an arena where eleven other people are trying to kill her, too.
#3. There are multiple lives at stake (including the protagonist’s).
There must be more than one life at stake in an action story, including your protagonist’s life. Whatever they’re trying to do or accomplish forces them to make decisions that put their lives or the lives of others at risk. As the protagonist gets closer to confronting the antagonist, the threat to their life must escalate in severity.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s life and safety are threatened when she volunteers as tribute. This escalates in severity once she gets into the arena and as more and more tributes are picked off. She also knows that to survive, she’s going to have to kill other tributes.
#4. The antagonist is stronger and/or more powerful than the protagonist.
The action antagonist is very smart, strong, and/or powerful. Much more so than the protagonist. And whatever ordinary measures the protagonist would take to solve their problems will not work against the antagonist. They have to learn, grow, or change to become someone capable of surviving a confrontation with the antagonist.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss comes from the weakest, most impoverished district possible. Not only that, but she’s just an average civilian, and President Snow is… the President. Once she gets to the Capital, she learns that some of the tributes have been training their whole lives to fight in the arena, so she’s at a disadvantage there, too. And finally, when she gets in the actual arena, the odds are definitely not in her favor.
#5. The protagonist has a moral compass that the antagonist does not.
The action antagonist can usually embrace evil, and therefore feels no shame and has no boundaries when it comes to pursuing their goals. They go about their business without noticing the harm they’re inflicting on others. Sometimes, the antagonist is so corrupt that they believe they’re doing the right thing or that the ends justify the means.
In contrast, the action protagonist is willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of others. This conflict and the protagonist’s willingness to sacrifice for others help readers relate to what’s happening in the story. They, too, want to stand up to evil and see “good” win.
Leaning into this moral code is also how the protagonist transforms from an ordinary person into a hero (and the only one who will stand up to the antagonist).
In The Hunger Games, it’s pretty obvious that Katniss disagrees with what President Snow and the game makers are doing—making kids fight in an arena and televising it as prime entertainment. And as readers, we can’t help but empathize with Katniss and root for her because we understand how terrible President Snow and the game makers actually are! It’s so unfair, and it’s so evil, that she cannot just stand by and watch it happen.
#6. There’s a speech in praise of the antagonist.
This is when a character talks about how brilliant, strong, and powerful the antagonist is. Sometimes this is shown via a conversation between two characters, through letters or a newspaper article, or on TV during a news broadcast. Something like that.
This could also happen in the form of a revelation where the protagonist pieces together bits of information that show just how smart, strong, or powerful this antagonist is.
In The Hunger Games, before the District 12 tributes are picked, we see the Capital’s “hype real” that talks about how wonderful everything is now that there is order amongst the districts and how thankful everyone should be to President Snow. Later, we hear President Snow tell Seneca Crane about why they allow a winner in the Hunger Games at all–he uses hope as a tool to help him control the people throughout each of the districts. We also hear Haymitch (and Katniss’s other mentors) talk about the other tributes and their unique talents and abilities too.
#7. There’s a MacGuffin (or a very specific thing the antagonist wants).
A MacGuffin is the specific thing that the antagonist is trying to get, accomplish, or achieve throughout the story. And there needs to be a plausible reason for why they want this specific thing, too. Whatever happens during the story’s inciting incident usually contains a clue about the antagonist’s MacGuffin.
In The Hunger Games, President Snow wants power and control. He wants to keep the people throughout the districts submissive. And part of the way he maintains this is through the Hunger Games each year. This year, for the 74th annual Hunger Games, his specific goal is to put on a good show! In doing so, he’ll also keep the districts in check too.
#8. There are sidekicks who help the protagonist save the victim/s.
The action protagonist can have one or multiple sidekicks—and they're usually part of a friendship or romantic subplot.
They often act as confidants and can sometimes create conflict by opposing the protagonist's decisions or by becoming victims themselves. They can be heralds who remind the protagonist what's at stake and how dangerous everything is.
Sidekicks can also provide interpersonal conflict when the protagonist is not actively engaged in opposing the antagonist as well.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s two main sidekicks are Peeta and Rue. Peeta also serves as Katniss’s maybe-love interest. And Rue also serves as an almost-younger sister/friend.
#9. There’s at least one mentor figure who gives the protagonist guidance.
A mentor is someone who gives the protagonist advice, help, guidance, tools, weapons, insight, or all of the above. They help motivate the protagonist and encourage them to take the next steps forward (for better or for worse).
Sometimes, the mentor has gone through something similar to the protagonist, or they may have a history with the antagonist. Multiple characters can act as mentors, too.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss has Haymitch, Effie, and Seneca Crane to help her prepare for and survive the Hunger Games.
#10. There’s a ticking clock that puts pressure on the protagonist.
There’s a ticking clock or deadline by which the protagonist must stop the antagonist so that they can save the victim/s. The deadline (and the stakes) must be crystal clear to the protagonist and to readers. Ticking clocks usually kick into gear at the Midpoint.
In The Hunger Games, the ticking clock starts when Katniss enters the arena. Technically, there’s no time limit on the actual games, but it’s only a matter of time before she has to kill or be killed. Every other tribute is trying to be the last one standing.
You're probably thinking, "This is so obvious! Tell me something I don't know!" But seriously, you'd be surprised how many first drafts I see that are missing these conventions.
These are the character roles, settings, and micro-events that readers come to action stories for—they love them!
Everyone wants to see the protagonist learn to embrace their special skill or talent (or even the thing they previously perceived as a flaw!) in order to overcome the antagonist at the end, right? Can you imagine an action story without that element?
So, long story short, don't leave these conventions out. Find a way to give the reader what they want, in new and unexpected ways, and you'll gain fans for life.
Many great action stories stick with us because they include these conventions in a new or innovative way. And you can do this, too!
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Are you writing an action novel? How do you come up with innovative ways to deliver the conventions of the genre?