I get bored during action scenes. Books, comics, movies, it doesn't matter what it is. But sometimes an action scene actually works for me. The scene somehow manages to be engaging, maybe even tense, and something makes me want to read or watch it. What's the difference between a good action scene and a bad action scene?
In this context, I'm using the term "action" and "fight" interchangeably. They're not necessarily the same. An action scene could be a chase with no physical violence, while a fight scene is violent by nature.
I have 3 problems with action sequences.
Usually, an action sequence is basically a binary choice. By some measure, the hero either gains an advantage, or experiences a setback. You don't have to hate action sequences, but think of your least favourite action sequence. Now imagine that just before the action sequence, the filmmaker cut away, or the author inserted a page break and started a new chapter. The next scene is the hero, bloodied and battered, exhausted and ready to fall over.
The obligatory confidant character takes a look at the hero and says "What happened!?"
And the hero says...
Well, the hero either says, "We've got a problem. They beat us to the MacGuffin."
Or the hero lifts a briefcase and says, "I got it. I got the MacGuffin."
From the hero's appearance, we understand that there was a fight. It was probably very exciting, but it probably lasted for 5 minutes of screen time, and there are more important things to spend screen time on.
About 70% of the time, it's the setup and resolution of a conflict we care about.
The villain punches the hero. Then the hero punches the villain.
Then the villain punches the hero again. Then the hero punches the villain again.
And just repeat that 20 times.
That's 95% of fight scenes.
Authors and filmmakers and illustrators try to fool us by replacing punch #4 with a kick, and punch #14 with a chair broken over the hero's back. But I'm usually not fooled by it. Most action scenes are the same action repeated over and over, in a slightly different location for visual appeal.
In real life, a skirmish is very often over in seconds. Humans are frail. It doesn't take long for them to get damaged enough to realise they're better off getting away from the situation.
Weapons make the decision happen even faster, by hook or by crook.
Those were 3 reasons I tend to dislike action sequences, but there are really good action sequences out there.
A good action sequence isn't about the action in the sequence. Sure, action is happening, but the scene is actually about something else. Here's how that often gets expressed successfully.
A walk-and-talk action sequence happens when there's dialogue inserted between bursts of action. We've all seen this, it's a common trick. It's painfully common in Marvel movies. The team of superheroes fight against impossible odds, but still find time to make plans for where they'll go for lunch later.
It's in the Lord of the Rings when Gimli and Legolas decide to have a competition for who can rack up the most kills. That one's sneaky, though, because the dialogue (such as it is) isn't the point. The thing that actually happens is that they come to respect one another.
It happens all the time, and sometimes it's as silly as the action itself but other times it changes the entire plot of the movie because new information is revealed.
In the Warhammer 40,000 short story The Grey Raven, it's done really well. While Balsar and Nidoz are pursued by Adeptus Custodes, we learn through their frantic evolving plans for escape how much stealth is a part of the Raven Guard. We learn from their actions, too. Nidoz protects Balsar even though Balsar says he doesn't need the man's help. And Nidoz refuses to fight against the Custodes directly because he's honour bound to do no harm to a servant of the Emperor, while Balsar resists the use of his psyker powers because he's honour bound to reject them.
You get all that information in a scene that's most accurately described as "Some mean guys chase some Space Marines through a ship."
As a kid, I had a lot of Star Wars action figures. I would send them on adventures through the backyard, which was exactly like the forest moon of Endor (it was nothing like the forest moon of Endor). I had a pretty good assortment of rebels and Imperial forces, and I knew exactly how each side fought, what their chances of hitting was, which weapons they favoured, and so on, because I watched the movies probably every day for at least a decade of my life.
I had all the data I needed because I saw these heroes at play, I saw them at work, and I saw them in action.
Good action sequences help develop characters, but sometimes the "character" is a particular kind of sword, or a specific kind of laser blaster, or a hoverbike, or a monster. For sci fi and fantasy geeks, I think, this is one of the most significant aspects of action sequences. You don't care whether the hero is better off or worse off after the scene, you just need raw data on how those objects work. What happens when you swing a long sword into an orc shield? Just how heavy is that battle axe or warhammer? What effect does a magic circle have on enemies?
R.A. Salvatore writes some of the best fight scenes I've ever read. The fights in the Drizzt novels are not abbreviated. He does not cut away from them only to tell you the end results. He writes every action out, and it's engrossing. You get to see different character classes go up against familiar monsters you know from the game's bestiary. You get all the data, and it's exciting.
I don't know whether that kind of data harvesting works for all fiction. I guess there's probably somebody interested in all kinds of stuff. For me, though, I don't trust film or books to accurately describe modern warfare, and I'm not interested in all-too-realistic ways of damaging other humans. But for fantasy and sci fi, the lack of realism is exactly why I enjoy the fight scenes. None of this data is real and while I can imagine my own scenarios, it's fun to gather data about what happens in a setting I love.
In roleplaying games, combat is often a divisive mechanic. Some players play almost entirely for combat, others barely endure combat, and a few disengage from the game entirely during combat. Regardless of players, everyone benefits when there are story elements embedded into the combat sequence. Maybe there's a door being guarded by some monsters, or maybe a villainous henchman reveals vital information between swings of his battle axe, or maybe there's a puzzle to be solved by the non-combat types while the party "tank" defends them. It's not always possible, especially when you're running a module strictly as written, or when you just decide that you need a random combat encounter to happen to delay party progress. But it's something to keep in mind.
Wargames are, of course, mostly just the combat parts of an RPG, so it's assumed that its players are happy to engage in a fight scene. That's literally the game. And yet, no wargame I've ever played has been just about the fighting. At the bare minimum, there's a story reason for the two armies to fight. Often, there are victory points for securing an objective or for defending a specific resource. Sometimes there are random tables with artefacts you can discover, or locations you can search or loot. In a campaign, the outcome of one game influences how the next one is set up. So even in a game dedicated to the fight scene, there's very often a conscious effort to give it meaning and to allow it to influence the game world.
It might seem odd for somebody who reads Warhammer and D&D and Pathfinder books to bemoan action sequences. But narratively, there's an important distinction between anticipation and realisation.
The anticipation of an action scene usually means exciting things are happening. That's engaging.
The action itself is "supposed" to last for just a few brief seconds, so why do I have to read 3 pages about every last move? All that anticipation seems wasted when the actual event is long, drawn out, and obligatory.
Good action sequences are possible. And when it's not working out, I think it can be better to cut to the next scene and carry on with the part of the story that's interesting.