If you watch this video, you can learn why action scenes suck in most movies. The most common mistake is that action occurs without an emotional arc behind the action. Every scene needs to change a character’s emotional state even if it’s just a little bit. In the opening scene of “Die Hard,” the hero grips his arm rests because he’s afraid of flying. Then his fellow passenger gives him tips for relaxing and by the end of this scene, the hero is less stressed out now that he’s made it to Los Angeles and the plane has landed. The emotional arc is simple.
In the beginning the hero is stressed out. By the end of the scene, the hero is less stressed out. A small change but a change and that emotional change is all that\’s necessary to make a scene work. If a movie contains a scene where nothing changes for any of the characters, that scene is necessary.
Action scenes need an emotional change to occur. In “Die Hard” when the hero pulls the fire alarm to get help, the terrorists come up to hunt him down. That’s when the hero guns down the terrorists. That scene takes the hero from being passive to being active in fighting the terrorists.
Action without emotion is just a pointless scene. In the end of “Terminator 2” the hero (the good Terminator) has just defeated the villain (the evil Terminator). That battle scene takes the hero from nearly being defeated to finally defeating the villain. That’s a huge emotional change. Eliminate emotion from any action scene and you just have action without meaning.
The only reason why action scenes should exist is to make us care. Imagine two strangers fighting in an airport terminal. It may be interesting, but we don’t care. Now imagine that your best friend is fighting with a stranger. Suddenly because you care about your best friend, the fight scene means something to you. So not only do action scenes need to matter to a character, they also need to matter to the audience.
Before any action scenes can take place, we must first care about the characters involved in the action. In the opening scene to “The Phantom Menace,” the queen gets blown up by a bomb. That’s boring because we don’t even know what’s going on so seeing a bomb blast means nothing to us. We don’t know who’s in danger so we don’t care.
Action scenes can only occur after we’ve gotten to know and like a character. Then we care for that character. Until we care for a character, all the action in the world won’t matter.
So make sure a character changes emotionally in an action scene and make sure the audience cares about the characters in the action scene. When there’s an emotional change and the audience feels an emotional stake in the outcome, then the action scene can actually work in ways that more explosions, gunfire, and special effects can never do.