Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs

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:

Take a moment to list your three favorite action sequences. It’s likely they all have one thing in common:


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.

  film     storytelling     writing  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

You can reach him on .

THE MANUSCRIPT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
PANDORA'S SISTERS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
D-BOYS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
COUNTER-ASSAULT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book One - Fortress Britain, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Two - Mogadishu of the Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Genesis, by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Three - Three Parts Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Four - Maximum Violence, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Five - EXODUS, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Six - The Horizon, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Seven - Death of Empires, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eight - Empire of the Dead by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : NEMESIS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Nine - Cataclysm by Michael Stephen Fuchs

ARISEN, Book Ten - The Flood by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eleven - Deathmatch by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Twelve - Carnage by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Thirteen - The Siege by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Fourteen - Endgame by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Fickisms
ARISEN : Odyssey
ARISEN : Last Stand
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 1 - The Collapse
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 2 - Tribes
Black Squadron
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 3 - Dead Men Walking
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 4 - Duty
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 5 - The Last Raid
ARISEN : Fickisms ][ – This Time, It's Personal
ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple
from email:

to email(s) (separate w/commas):
By subscribing to Dispatch from the Razor’s Edge, you will receive occasional alerts about new dispatches. Your address is totally safe with us. You can unsubscribe at any time. All the cool kids are doing it.