The Action Genre

Book cover for The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, #amwriting, #amediting, book review, how to write, how to editAction stories tend to have big stakes and often (but not always) include explosions. That the protagonist’s life is on the line is a given. Generally so are the lives of other people and monuments. The mind-hack, as Howard Taylor would say, that you are trying to achieve in an action story is an adrenaline rush. A sense of breathlessness that keeps you turning the page. There are tons of great YA action stories. James Dashner, James Patterson, and Scott Westerfeld in particular have done very, very well in YA action.

The most pivotal moment in an action story according to Coyne is the “hero at the mercy of the villain scene.” But more on that later.

These days, very few stories are just one genre, but a carefully crafted blend. You can have a pure action story pretending to be another genre, or you can have elements of action in another genre. So as you read the following list of sub-genres of action, keep in mind you could have easily seen these elements before in a romance or a mystery or a horror novel.

Subgenres

  • Man VS Nature – The natural (or unnatural) world is working against your protagonist. This is often a one-sided struggle. The volcano neither knows nor cares about the people getting roasted to the bone.
    •  Straight Environment. This is your natural disaster movies featuring volcanoes going off or earthquakes or asteroids hitting the earth, or couples getting abandoned on a ski-slope or left out in the middle of the ocean scuba diving.
    • Monsters. As long as the monsters aren’t consciously thinking and plotting against the protagonist, monsters count as a Man Vs. Nature. Zombies and Pod People are great examples of this. They just exist. Yes, they want to eat your protagonist, but it’s not personal. There’s no reasoning with them. Monsters also include non-supernatural animals, like sharks, bears, or birds.
    • Mazes. If your protagonist is stuck somewhere/must retrieve something from a place, then the place itself can loom as an antagonist for a time. There’s generally a bigger bad (whoever put the item/protagonist in the maze). Think Saw 2. Saw 2 is Man Vs. Man without question. But the house of horrors he set up was a labyrinth the characters had to work their way through. That was a very tense blend of the two types of conflict.
    • Time. Coyne puts this in a separate category all by itself, but I disagree. Time is absolutely nature, even if it’s imposed by another man. (Then it’s just cross-genre). Time is often used to raise the stakes in pretty much every other conflict story. Want to ratchet up the tension in your Man V. Man story, introduce a ticking time bomb or a random deadline. Or put time on your side, if your characters can just stall long enough, reinforcements will arrive. You can make time an actual antagonist, like in 11.22.63, or Back to the Future erasing people if anything changes.
    • Doomsday. Coyne adds another sub-genre he calls the doomsday plot, where the victim is the environment. He references Independence Day as “the hero must save the environment from disaster.” I disagree with this sub-genre. By my definitions (which do not have to meet yours),  the environment as a victim is a stake, not a point of conflict. The conflict in Independence Day was with the Aliens, not the bits of Earth they blew up. And even then, the character’s concerns weren’t really with the monuments that got blasted, but the people who were left buried in the rubble.
  • Man VS. Society – These are stories in which the protagonist fights against a social structure, not just an individual person. Most dystopian fiction falls into this category.
    • Rebellion. In this plot the hero or group of heroes openly rebel against their society, but most often they rebel against a specific figurehead in that society. The Hunger Games was against the entire system, but it got personal between Katniss and President Snow.
    • Conspiracy. In this plot, the hero or group of heroes fights an enemy that other’s don’t see, but are absolutely a product (and most of the time the price) of the society. There’s generally a sense that if they had just never found out the dirty secret, if they could just forget, they could go back to a perfect life. And unlike in a  rebellion plot, where most often the heroes are driven to rebellion by an evil force, it is arguably a perfect life in conspiracy plots. Uglies is a great example of this.
    • Vigilante. One person is, for one reason or another, the only bastion of goodness left in a society that is so corrupt it cannot fight crime through normal measures. There’s often a hefty bit of Man V. Man in this as well, but society is also to blame for allowing this to brew. Batman and Daredevil are both good examples of this.
    • Savior. Again, I disagree with this definition. “The hero is against someone who wants to destroy society.” That’s a stake, not a conflict. And if the thing that wants to destroy society is society, then it probably fits better into one of these other genres.
  • Man VS Man. Your character VS. Another character. Most stories eventually personify the villain in the shape of a person (think President Snow in an arguably Man V. Society plot arch). But they tend to stand in as a symbol for all that’s wrong. In straight Man V. Man, they aren’t the symbol of what’s wrong, they are the thing wrong.
    • Rivalry. This is your Man V. Man played straight. One can be good, one can be evil, or they can both be ambivalent. Man V. Man applies just as much to Batman and the Joker as it does to Suitor A Vs. Suitor B in a love story. Suitor B doesn’t have to be evil, just working against you.
    • Revenge. The hero chases the villain to right some wrong. “You killed my father, prepare to die.”
    • Hunted. The villain chases the hero to right some perceived wrong. “You were somehow inadvertently and sympathetically responsible for killing my father. Prepare to die.”
    • Machiavellian. Two villains duke it out while all the little people run for cover (Freddy V. Jason).
    • Collision Plot. Two sympathetic, heroic characters duke it out while all the little people run for cover. (Batman V. Superman).

Enjoy action stories? Action is definitely a subplot in the Aphrodite Trilogy. Now that Venus Rising is live and Aphrodite is on sale for .99 cents, you can get the whole trilogy for under $10! So if you haven’t caught up on Aphrodite’s trilogy, now is the time to do so.

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