Stakes Vs. Spectacle
I write a lot of action-focused drama and, like everyone else, I've seen a lot of Hollywood franchise action movies where the whole world is blowing up and you just… don't… care. So I was interested to see Chris McQuarrie (who is not as wildly successful as he is by accident) nail it, in the Times:
Without stakes, without an investment in the characters and their dilemmas, action quickly devolves into spectacle which — I’ve learned the hard way — enthralls an audience for roughly one and a half seconds. The best action sequences are free of exposition, with stakes that are established in advance or, better still, self-evident. They keep the audience’s collective subconscious focused entirely on one simple question.
The question is not how will it end? We know [our heroes will] come out on top in the end. The only question that matters is, how can this possibly end well?
The object and the craft of effective action is to create a scenario that must end well yet seemingly cannot. Use luck, so long as it’s all bad. Use coincidence, so long as it complicates. Make your protagonist vulnerable and your villain impervious. Move the goal post whenever possible.
The main point of course is the first one, about emotional stakes for the characters. This very much calls to mind the great William Martell, whose book The Secrets of Action Screenwriting is a cult classic (and which I've long been meaning to excerpt here). He hammers home that stories are about people with problems, action scenes have to be character scenes, and shit blowing up is neither here nor there. The whole point of story is to put characters into situations of extremity and dilemma, thus forcing them to decide and act and it is those decisions and actions which reveal who they really are. (And thus also teach us a little something about how to be properly human.) Action scenes are no different, just a bit more visceral and visual. And shit blows up.