Action movies focus on explosions, car crashes, and gunfire. However, all that action is meaningless if there’s nothing behind the hero. Nobody really watches action for the action alone. Audiences watch action for how it affects the hero.
People still enjoy watching “Die Hard” because the story was more than just action. It was really about a hero, John McClane, trying to get back with his wife and realizing that his own arrogance had been keeping them apart. Take away this meaning and you get all those bad “Die Hard” clones that focus on action and ignore any story or revelation in the hero’s view of the world.
Before thinking about action, think first of how your hero will change and what’s the biggest challenge facing your hero. In “Die Hard,” the hero needs to change by understanding how his own arrogance drove him apart from his wife. The action is a means to help him realize how much he truly does love his wife when faced with the threat of losing her forever.
Action is actually secondary to any story. In “The Post,” there’s little physical action. Instead, it’s a historical drama that focuses on how The Washington Post defied the Nixon administration and printed stories dubbed the Pentagon Papers, which detailed how the US government lied to the American public about the Vietnam War.
Such a story could still be deadly dull if it wasn’t for the hero, the owner of The Washington Post, Katherine Graham, a woman who runs the newspaper. Her biggest challenge isn’t just running the newspaper, but that she has never done anything else worthwhile in her life because her father and then her husband ran the newspaper. When he father and husband died, she was left running it, and she doubts her own ability to run it while being surrounded by advisers who want her to make decisions for financial reasons instead of moral ones.
So Katherine Graham’s biggest challenge is proving to herself that she has what it takes to run a major newspaper. The action in “The Post” has little to do with physical fighting but more with the historical intrigue that actually occurred between The Washington Post and the Nixon administration that tried to shut down the media.
Even in big action films, there’s always a hidden challenge that the hero must face. In the special effects ladened film, “Independence Day,” the real challenge isn’t fighting aliens trying to exterminate mankind from the face of the Earth. The real challenge is that the President is a former fighter pilot and the world (and himself) thinks he’s not qualified to be President. To prove himself, he has to literally save the world and thereby prove he’s capable of being President.
Strip away this meaning and you get the awful sequel, “Independence Day: Resurgence” that lacks any meaning or challenge to the hero whatsoever and solely focuses on action that means nothing to anyone.
So whether your story contains lots of action like “Die Hard” or relatively little physical action like “The Post,” you always need your hero to face his or her greatest challenge in life. The action exists solely to force the hero to confront this challenge.