Watch a bad movie and it will focus on action at the expense of emotional character development. That’s because watching cars blow up or guns blasting away is easy to create compared to defining someone’s emotional turmoil.
When you focus on action alone, you wind up with bad movies like “The 355,” which is about a bunch of women spies who team up from other countries. Despite major stars appearing in the movie, “The 355” is nothing more than action that makes little sense because we don’t care about any of the characters.
What always makes action more interesting isn’t the action itself with more explosions or mayhem, but understanding why the hero may be acting that way. “Die Hard” is full of explosions and gunfire, but it’s because we understand the reason. John McClane wants to get back with his wife and he needs to wipe out an army of terrorists to get back to her.
Yet what many people overlook is that John McClane didn’t get his wife back by blowing things up or shooting people. He got her back by finally admitting his own arrogance broke him up from his wife in the first place.
Just being arrogant alone may not make a difference by itself, but when you realize that the hero’s biggest flaw is usually the villain’s greatest strength, and suddenly John McClane’s arrogance is far deadlier. Not only did his arrogance break him up from his wife, but that arrogance is reflect in the villain’s attitude as he ruthlessly guns down anyone in his way.
When John McClane fights against the terrorists, he’s really fighting against versions of himself. It may not appear that way, but that’s what makes “Die Hard” so appealing compared to all the diluted “Die Hard” sequels that steadily stripped away the hero’s flaw until there’s nothing emotional left.
Compare the action and violence in “Terminator 2” with “Terminator 3.” In “Terminator 2,” the internal dilemma is always the hero (the good Terminator) torn between thinking killing is right and being told that killing is wrong. Now all the action in “Terminator 2” subtly supports the idea that you always have a choice between killing or not killing. Meanwhile, all the action in “Terminator 3” is just about adding as much action as possible with no underlying emotional foundation whatsoever.
When creating your own stories, make sure you have a strong emotional conflict within your hero first. Then start writing action that reflects this dilemma. Action by itself is meaningless, but action combined with emotional internal struggle is what makes stories worth watching.