The 6 Scenes Every Action Story Needs

obligatory scenes

In today's post, I'm covering the obligatory scenes of the action genre. If you want to write an exciting action story that works -- and that satisfies fans of the genre -- then you need to nail these six key scenes in your novel.

I’m also going to show you how these key scenes manifest in three popular movies—Iron Man, The Hunger Games, and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Why movies? Why not books?

Well, the simple answer is that movies require less time investment than books. I’m hoping that if you haven’t seen these movies, you’ll watch them after reading this post to help cement these key scenes in your mind.

But, before we get into what those six key scenes are, let’s go over some basics.


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 obligatory scenes of the action genre? Let’s take a look at our three case studies (warning–spoilers ahead):

Key Scenes of the Action Genre are:

1.  The Life-Threatening Attack Scene.

The first key scene your action story needs is a scene in which there’s a life-threatening attack by the antagonist (or the antagonistic force). So, this is something that takes away your protagonist’s agency and has a destabilizing effect on their life.

Usually, the protagonist fails to register the need to respond to this attack, or they choose to avoid engagement because they’re focused on a different goal. In other words, they assume that whatever happened in this scene is someone else’s problem, so they make the minimum effort necessary when responding, essentially skirting the responsibility to respond. 

Case Studies:

  • In The Hunger Games, it’s the day of the reaping and Katniss’ sister, Prim, is chosen as the female tribute for District 12. Because Katniss’s main goal in life is to keep her sister safe, Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place as tribute. Her goal is now survival.
  • In Iron Man, during a demonstration of his new Jericho missile in Afghanistan, Tony Stark is captured by a group of terrorists called the Ten Rings. Raza, leader of the Ten Rings, offers Tony his freedom in exchange for building them a Jericho missile, but Tony knows that Raza isn’t likely to keep his word. 
  • In Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill tries to sell the stolen orb to his buyer on Xandar, but the buyer wants nothing to do with it after he hears that Ronan’s cronies are also after the orb. As Peter leaves, he’s attacked by Gamora and she steals the orb from him. 

2. The Protagonist Half-Commits Scene.

The second key scene your action story needs is a scene in which the protagonist half-commits to going against the antagonist. And usually, before this moment happens, the antagonist attacks again or the protagonist receives more information about prior events (that happened earlier in the story, like in the inciting incident), and they begin to recognize and make sense of the chaos unfolding around them.

So, either the antagonist attacks again which leads the protagonist to start engaging in the conflict more, or the protagonist learns or realizes something that pushes them to half-commit to engaging with the conflict. Essentially, in this scene, the protagonist decides to take up the mission to restore some kind of order to their life and to the lives of everyone else around them.

Case Studies:

  • In The Hunger Games, Katniss and crew arrive in the Capital to prepare for the Hunger Games. She’s committed to learning how to survive in the arena because there’s no other option, but surviving is only half the battle. At this point, she’s not even thinking about the “bigger evil,” President Snow and the Capital, because she’s so focused on survival.
  • In Iron Man, after Tony uses version one of the Iron Man suit to escape the terrorists, he calls a press conference and announces that Stark Industries will no longer make weapons. Although it seems like Tony is committed to doing the “right thing,” he’s still not dealing with the real problem -- Obadiah Stane.
  • In Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter learns from Gamora that Ronan wants the orb so that he can trade it to Thanos in exchange for Thanos destroying Xandar. Gamora also shares that she has another buyer for the orb which prompts Peter to team up with her and the rest of the crew -- Groot, Rocket, and Drax. At this point, Peter thinks that once he gets his share of the money from the sale, he can move on with his life.

3. The Protagonist Understands What the Antagonist Wants Scene.

The third key scene is a scene in which the protagonist gains an understanding of the antagonist’s MacGuffin, or what the antagonist wants. This is also where the protagonist learns about the antagonist’s true nature or purpose. So, essentially, they’re learning what the antagonist wants and why they want it.

And usually, this happens because the protagonist has done something that the antagonist didn’t expect -- so, they’ve taken some kind of action that makes the antagonist assert their power, thus revealing their hand.

Because of this, the protagonist realizes that things will never be able to go back to normal and that this half-commitment to going against the antagonist isn’t going to solve the problem. This scene is often the midpoint of the global story.

Case Studies:

  • In The Hunger Games, Katniss and the rest of the tributes finally enter the arena. This is when she gets her first full glimpse at the carnage that occurs within the games -- and when she’s almost killed by another tribute. She sees first hand what President Snow and the gamemakers will do in the name of good television. (Note: this is quite different than the midpoint in the book). 
  • In Iron Man, Tony goes to a benefit hosted by Stark Industries and a reporter confronts him about how their weapons were used by the Ten Rings used to destroy the town of Gulmira. Tony confronts Obadiah and Obadiah admits that he was the one who filed the injunction against Tony and got him locked Tony out of Stark Industries. Here, Tony realizes that he’s essentially lost control of his company and that he’s going to have to take matters into his own hands now. 
  • In Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter and crew take the orb to the Collector and learn that it’s not just any old orb, it’s an Infinity Stone with the ability to destroy whole planets. This forces Peter and the entire crew to reconsider their plan for selling it. Now that they know what Ronan wants and why he wants it, can they still sell it to the highest bidder?

4. The Protagonist's Initial Strategy Fails Scene.

The fourth key scene you’ll want to include in your action story is a scene in which the protagonist reaches an “all is lost” moment and realizes they must change their approach if they want to survive. Whatever strategy they had at the beginning of the story has officially failed, and it seems like death is an absolute certainty. The protagonist now has to decide how they want to live their final moments now that death feels imminent.

Case Studies:

  • In The Hunger Games, Katniss returns from blowing up the career tribute’s food only to find Rue stuck in a trap. Shortly after, Rue is shot down by a spear and she dies. Katniss mourns Rue’s death by decorating her body with flowers and then turns to the sky and lifts three fingers -- an act that shows she’s ready to go against President Snow and the Capital. She’s gone from a survival-obsessed girl who will do anything to win to someone who’s ready to rebel against the Capital and make her final moments mean something.
  • In Iron Man, Tony learns that Obadiah is the one who called in the hit on him in the first place. Obadiah also reveals that he’s building a suit of his own and then steals the arc reactor from Tony and leaves him to die. Luckily, Tony manages to recover the old arc reactor that Pepper saved for him in the lab. 
  • In Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter and crew are confronted by Ronan and Nebula -- in his desire for revenge, Drax has summoned them. Unfortunately, Drax meets his match in Ronan and is bested by him. Meanwhile, Gamora is expelled from her ship (along with the Infinity Stone), and Nebula obtains the orb for Ronan. Peter makes a last-minute decision to call Yondu for help, even though it means certain death for him. 

5. The Protagonist is at the Mercy of the Antagonist Scene

The fifth key scene your action story needs is a scene in which the protagonist is at the mercy of the antagonist. So, this is a moment where the protagonist finally faces off with the antagonist, and in order to win, he or she has to use their special gift, talent, or skill to save themselves and others.

In most cases, this scene will contain at least one element of sacrifice -- either on the protagonist’s part or on the part of other characters. And because of that, the protagonist is not only fighting to five their final moments meaning, they’re also fighting for their allies’ lives, and the lives of innocent people, too. This is the big moment the story has been leading up to -- it’s that climactic moment readers have been waiting for since page one.

Case Studies:

  • In The Hunger Games, the gamemakers announce another rule change saying there can only be one victor now, not two. Katniss hatches a plan that involves her and Peeta eating poisonous berries so that the Capital won’t have their winner -- she is literally willing to give up her life to revolt against the Capital. It’s no longer about winning, or just surviving for Katniss -- it’s about righting an epic wrong. And because of Katniss’ decision here, the gamemakers announce that both Katniss and Peeta have won -- and that for the first time in history, there are two winners of this year’s Hunger Games.
  • In Iron Man, Tony flies in for a final confrontation with Obadiah, who is now in his Iron Monger suit. Not only is the Iron Monger suit much bigger than the Iron Man suit, but Tony is working with an older arc reactor, making him less powerful than Obadiah. In the peak of the conflict, Obadiah has Tony at his mercy, but luckily Tony and Pepper work together to blow up the big arc reactor in the factory and Obadiah (along with his Iron Monger suit) is destroyed. 
  • In Guardians of the Galaxy, after crash landing on Xandar, Peter and crew face off against the power of the Infinity Stone (which Ronan decided to keep for himself instead of giving to Thanos). When Peter grabs the Infinity Stone, it seems that he’s about to die, but luckily, he joins hands with the rest of the crew and they share the burden of it’s awful power. They dispatch Ronan shortly after.

6. The Hero’s Sacrifice is Rewarded Scene

The sixth and final key scene you need to include in your action story is a scene in which the protagonist is rewarded for their sacrifice. So, sometimes this is when the protagonist wins a medal, or they finally get the girl, or they finally just feel happy or fulfilled for the first time in their lives. Essentially, this is just bringing the story to a close and giving readers a sense that the protagonist’s sacrifice was worth it and that their actions did have meaning. So, what is their life like now? How have things changed?

Case Studies:

  • In The Hunger Games, Peeta and Katniss leave the arena and are crowned victors. They return home to District 12 together and move into a special area of town designated for tributes who have survived. 
  • In Iron Man, Tony survives and gets control of his company back. Obadiah is dead and Stark Industries will no longer be supplying weapons to terrorists. During a press conference, Tony announces that he’s Iron Man. 
  • In Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter and crew survive the confrontation with Ronan. They’re now friends. Peter’s ship gets fixed, his records are expunged, and they’re all granted a pardon by the Xandrian government. 

Final Thoughts

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 key moments.

These are the scenes that readers come to action stories for.

Everyone wants to see the moment where the protagonist faces off with the antagonist and they use that special talent or skill to defeat them, right? Can you imagine an action story without that scene? It just wouldn't be the same. 

So, don't leave these key scenes 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 key scenes in an innovative way. You can do this, too!

The 6 Key Scenes Every Action Story Needs | Savannah Gilbo - Want to learn how to write an action novel? In this post, I'll walk you through the six key scenes every action novel needs to satisfy readers. Other writing tips included, too! #amwriting #writingtips #writingcommunity #amwritingfantasy

👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Are you writing an action novel? How do you come up with innovative ways to deliver the obligatory scenes of the genre?

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →