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How to Write Great Action Like Mission: Impossible

Your mission, should you chose to accept it… is to write a great action sequence. One that keeps readers on the edge of their seats. One that’s dynamic, entertaining, and moves the plot forward.

Use every tool at your disposal to make this action sequence the best it can be.

As always, should your story end up a disappointment, the Publisher will disavow all knowledge of your actions. Good luck.

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Writing a fantastic action sequence may not be an impossible mission, but the best are the result of good planning, in-depth understanding of storytelling mechanics, and maybe a bit of skillful improvisation.

Action sequences come in all shapes and sizes, but there are some universal lessons that can be applied, whether you’re writing a massive space battle or an elevator fistfight.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is my favorite action film, and its followup Dead Reckoning Part One is a worthy successor with some of the most thrilling and well-crafted action sequences in recent years. What makes its action great, and how can we apply those principles to our own writing?

As the author of nine novels, four novellas, and counting, I’ve written action in genres including fantasy, mystery, sci-fi, horror, dystopian, and adventure. Every genre has its own unique flavor of action, but well-written action tends to follow certain guidelines and achieve specific effects.

In breaking down what makes Dead Reckoning’s action great, I’m not going to be spoiling any major plot details, but I’ll discuss some specifics of the film’s action set pieces. Not much you wouldn’t have seen in the trailer.

All right. Let’s jump right into it.

1. Layers

Dead Reckoning takes its action to the next level by constantly adding layers and pushing its characters to their limits. Let’s take the airport sequence from early on in the film as an example. It manages to weave together multiple subplots, different antagonists, obstacles, and twists. On one level, we have Ethan trying to intercept a target carrying an important key. This relatively straightforward mission is quickly thrown off by the appearance of Grace, a professional thief who steals the key before Ethan can. On the second level of the sequence, his teammates Benji and Luther unexpectedly have to deal with what appears to be a nuclear bomb. On the third level, a team of U.S. agents scours the airport for Ethan, a difficulty Ethan and his teammates both have to contend with. And to top it off, a mysterious man from Ethan’s past named Gabriel appears at the airport. That’s four obstacles for Ethan and his team to face simultaneously—a professional thief, U.S. agents, Gabriel, and a nuclear explosive. Not to mention the man who was the initial target, or the assassin who kills him. This layering of obstacles and antagonists ups the stakes and allows the film to crosscut between multiple levels of action.

Every action sequence in Dead Reckoning uses a similar layering tactic. Especially when these layers of difficulty are added one after another, they serve to both steadily increase tension and change things up.

One writing technique you can use to set up multiple conflicting opponents is the four-corner opposition square. This pits your protagonist and three opponents against each other, all with different views on a central theme. Or, if you want to make it a little less thematically centered, you can just give them all good reasons to hate each other. In Dead Reckoning, the four-corner opposition square might look like this:

Ethan is opposed to the the aims of Kittridge and the U.S. agents pursuing him, Gabriel and his team and the entity they represent, and the black-market dealer the White Widow and her world of crime. While all these opponents have Ethan Hunt as an enemy, there’s still tension and distrust between all of them, adding further layers and conflict to action sequences. If you can, create opposition between opponents in your story. This can lead to greater conflict, differentiate antagonists, and give more viewpoints on your story’s central theme. Ethan’s opponents have very different goals, particularly related to what they want with the entity at the heart of the plot.

Having multiple antagonists with differing goals makes it easier to add layers to an action sequence, and it makes the situation much worse for your characters, which is always a good thing. Not all of your antagonists have to be trying to kill your protagonist; they could simply be an opposing obstacle, or someone like the White Widow who’s mainly interested in self-preservation and personal gain. But layering different kinds of attacks from antagonists within one action sequence makes it more compelling, and more difficult for your characters to get out of. Throwing multiple antagonists into one action sequence can also tie together different subplots. It could even lead to alliances or reveals that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible, like when a U.S. government official tries to strike a deal with Gabriel. That… doesn’t end very well for the official, but that’s a good example of why it’s interesting to have conflict between your protagonist’s opponents. And the more they come into contact, the more conflict you can mine from their complicated relationships. From Venice onward, all three of Ethan’s main opponents are in close proximity. This allows for interactions between opponents that complicate the action, like U.S. agents interrupting Ethan and Gabriel’s fight atop the Orient Express. Again, the more layers, the worse the situation is for your characters, and the more captivating it is for your readers.

2. Dynamics

Good action is like music. It’s got dynamics. It ebbs and flows. It’s also like a story, on a much smaller scale, with a beginning, middle, and end, obstacles characters have to overcome, and twists and turns. The longer the sequence, the more of a complete arc it should have. When I’m talking about action here, I mean anything from a short beat like the alleyway fight in Venice to a multi-part sequence like the 20-minute car chase in Rome. Some of these tips will be more useful for longer action sequences, so don’t feel like you have to stuff all of them into a three-paragraph fistfight. Some action is short and sweet and should stay that way.

One thing Dead Reckoning is consistently good at is varying the intensity and speed of its action. It’s not rushing along at a breakneck pace the whole time. Characters, and consequently the audience, get a few moments to breathe, even while dramatic tension is maintained. This is done both in brief moments within the action, but more so in scenes between the action.

Unless you’re writing about invincible superheroes, your characters should have to deal with the fallout of the action. Giving them time to recover from an intense action beat also helps with story structure, which should generally follow the pattern of action, reaction, action, reaction. Recovering from wounds, physical or psychological, gives your characters time to process what they’ve experienced.

After an action sequence in Venice, Ethan Hunt and co have a couple scenes to react and reckon with what they’ve just been through, including revelations and twists in the plot. After this reaction beat, which includes some moments of real emotion and connection between the characters, then they can start setting up the next action sequence. But jumping straight to it would squander the emotional potential of these characters’ reactions, and deprive the audience of a moment to process what just happened. Action-packed isn’t always a good thing. Dead Reckoning has fantastic action and spectacle, but it would feel meaningless and rushed without everything in between. It’s the moments of breath, the silence between the beats, that gives the film its definition and dynamic shape. Don’t be afraid to slow your story for a scene or two. Even if you’re writing a fast-paced thriller, it’s unsustainable to relentlessly maintain ever-increasing tension and bombastic action, particularly if it’s a longer book.

3. Characters

Action is an opportunity to demonstrate character. Showing a character’s values and abilities through action is one way of showing instead of telling. Why tell your readers about your protagonist’s skill on a motorcycle when you can show them driving one through an extremely challenging action sequence? When showing your characters’ skills through action, also show what makes them unique. Not everyone should be good at the same things, even—or especially—if they’re part of a team. Luther and Benji aren’t exactly jumping off cliffs alongside Ethan, but they have their own talents that come in handy in the heat of action. The bridge fight in Venice shows the difference in fighting styles between Ilsa, a trained M16 agent, and Grace, a professional thief with little serious combat experience.

Demonstrating character through action isn’t just about showing off abilities. It’s also an opportunity to explore what’s going on inside their heads. How do they handle pressure? How do they cope with traumatic events? Even if you’re writing a comedy, not every character should be throwing out quips during an action scene. Let the differences in your characters shine. If all your characters in an action sequence could be switched around without changing how things go down, you’ve got some character development to do. Your characters should have signature ways of handling action. And I don’t just mean having a unique weapon to fight with.

For instance, Gabriel’s assassin Paris could have been a generic thug sent to kill Ethan. But with distinct characterization, aided by a unique costume and look, she becomes a much more interesting character. We see a sort of manic glee on her face as she plows an armored police truck through a row of parked motorcycles in Rome, and it becomes quite clear that she finds joy in destruction. There’s a surprising amount of characterization there for someone who barely speaks in the film.

Another instance of character displayed through action occurs on top of the Orient Express, when Ethan comes close to killing Gabriel in anger. Though he was clearly told not to kill him, Ethan’s internal struggle is made clear. His rage is palpable and understandable to the audience, knowing what harm Gabriel has caused him. This moment, in the middle of a high-octane action sequence, highlights the emotional stakes and Ethan’s conflicting desires. Internal conflict is one of the richest dimensions of a character, and bringing that into the action elevates the scene.

Action is, of course, an opportunity to explore your characters’ moral values when it comes to violence. Are they willing to kill if the situation demands it? Are they ruthless killers who don’t bat an eye at murder? Or will they go to extreme lengths to avoid killing people, even their enemies? Throughout the Mission: Impossible franchise, including in Dead Reckoning, we’re shown Ethan Hunt’s dedication to protecting life, and his unwillingness to kill. He spares the lives of some of his opponents, even when they’ve repeatedly tried to murder him. Not everyone on his team operates the same way. It’s an essential element of Ethan’s character, and another point of difference between him and his enemies.

Beyond showing character within an action sequence, you can show character through how they handle what comes after. Like I talked about earlier, your characters need to deal with the aftermath of the action they experience, both physically and psychologically. How you handle this depends on the tone of the story. If you’re going for a darker tone, try to explore how going through intense action affects your characters’ emotions. Some might be more affected by the trauma of nearly dying, while others might be hardened from experience in a field where that’s typical. The Mission: Impossible films, though they sometimes do take a darker tone, tend to focus more on the fun and entertainment of the action, while still keeping a sense of danger and stakes. Dead Reckoning explores, to a limited extent, the toll of being part of the IMF. The characters are forced to grapple with the prospect of death, both of themselves and others. Those reaction beats I mentioned earlier are a prime opportunity to explore not just individual characters, but also their relationships with each other. Maybe characters who’ve just been through intense action form a closer connection, or their different ways of handling the situation drive them apart. Even the most action-packed, “plot-centric” stories are still about characters, so make sure you put in the effort to develop them through and around the action.

4. Locations

Location should be a fundamental part of structuring an action sequence. The best action sequences take place in locations with unique qualities that are used to enhance the action. What’s more interesting—a shootout in a nondescript warehouse, or a shootout in the ruins of abandoned buildings in the middle of a vast desert during a sandstorm? The Mission: Impossible films set much of their action in iconic locations around the world, not just because it looks cool, but also because of the unique challenges and cinematic moments each place provides. Ethan Hunt climbing the side of the world’s tallest skyscraper in Dubai is a lot more memorable than Ethan Hunt climbing a random office building in the middle of nowhere.

Location doesn’t just include the geography of a scene’s setting—it includes vehicles and environmental factors, too. The Orient Express in Dead Reckoning is a location in and of itself, a very fast-moving location, and one used to great effect. The train action sequence wouldn’t work if it were set in a stationary building, or a truck, or even a subway. That’s a sign that the location is deeply woven into the action, which is what you should seek to accomplish. Action should take full advantage of the unique characteristics of its location. That means characters using objects around them and confronting location-specific obstacles.

Choice of location can also help create dynamic action like I discussed earlier. Momentum is inherent in action, so move between locations when you can. Dead Reckoning sets up distinct locations within its larger set pieces. In the Venice sequence, there’s the palace, the alleyway, and the bridge. In the train sequence, there’s the mountainous terrain Ethan has to navigate by motorcycle, the train’s roof, and distinct cars within the train. Each of these locations poses unique challenges and has its own visual look. Characters have to adapt how they fight to their surroundings. Similar to how your characters shouldn’t be interchangeable, your action sequences should be specific to their locations and impossible to easily transpose to a different setting. When selecting the setting of your action sequences, make sure it fits the premise, sets up new kinds of difficulties for your characters to overcome, and has a distinct look and feel in the larger story.

5. Memorable Images

This probably goes without saying, but the Mission: Impossible films are great at setting up cinematic moments. The kind of memorable images you might see on a movie poster or in a trailer. I aim to include at least one of those in a major action sequence, a moment that will wow readers and stick in their minds visually. Of course, that’s easier to do with a visual medium, and even easier when you’ve got a star who’s more than willing to risk his life doing whatever crazy stunts you can think up. But these are words on a page. No limits.

And don’t think that memorable, cinematic moments are restricted to epic globe-spanning adventures or speculative fiction. Even a grounded, toned down action sequence can be an opportunity to create those kind of movie poster moments. I think color, atmosphere, and framing are the most important elements of crafting a memorable image. And I know those sound like purely film-based terms, but powerful imagery on the page creates a sort of cinematic experience in the mind of the reader. When I’m writing action, I even think of the kind of camera movement that would be best suited to capture what’s going on. That’s my inner filmmaker, it won’t leave me alone. While you don’t have a camera to work with, you can create perspective and framing through words alone, letting your reader see the action through your protagonist’s eyes.

I like to have a clear idea of at least one cinematic image for an action sequence before I start writing it. That way, I can build toward it organically. Coming up with a memorable, visually compelling moment is easier said than done, but I like to imagine a movie trailer for what I’m writing. What sort of image, even if you just saw it for a moment, would make you think, ‘I have to see that movie’? For example, in my upcoming sci-fi novel Catalyst of Control, I knew I wanted to create an image of two people fighting in hand-to-hand combat atop a massive sea wall at the edge of a neon city at night in the middle of a hurricane. Then it was a matter of building up an action sequence to get to that point, which would serve as the climactic finale.

In Dead Reckoning, one of the many movie poster moments is the film’s biggest stunt, when Ethan Hunt drives a motorcycle off a cliff. The film is full of other images and scenarios that could only happen in a Mission: Impossible movie, which makes them memorable. The worst action is generic and forgettable, with interchangeable characters, obstacles, and locations. Especially if your story’s premise calls for a unique kind of action, exploit that uniqueness for all it’s worth.

5. Realism

The Mission: Impossible movies feel far more real than most other action films nowadays because so much is done practically. When Ethan Hunt drives a motorcycle off a cliff, that’s actually Tom Cruise driving a motorcycle off a cliff. Now, I’m not suggesting you as a writer drive a motorcycle off a cliff or hang off the side of a skyscraper or a plane, although such a viral stunt could be good for book sales. No, the point of that is that it’s real. Which means it feels real to the audience.

If you’re writing a book, you don’t have to worry about bad-looking CGI, but you do still have to worry about realism. How does it feel to get hit in the head? Again, I’m not suggesting you try that yourself. But use your head. Not literally. Do research. Could your protagonist really walk off a bullet wound in the leg? Would your impetuous side character’s plan to disarm a bomb by shooting it work in the real world, or blow up your entire cast of characters?

Some genres have higher standards for realism than others, but assuming you’re writing about humans, you’ll at least want to understand the basics of the kinds of injuries your characters could sustain in action. Because if you don’t catch a realism oversight in your writing, there’s a good chance one of your readers will. And that’s no fun.

Writing realistic action doesn’t just insulate you from the scathing corrections of pedantic readers—it also complicates things for your characters, which, as we’ve established, is always a good thing. Don’t you just love tormenting them? An unrealistic action sequence might end with all your characters striding heroically away from fiery explosions, but adding some realism will likely mean your characters won’t escape serious action unscathed. Because, surprise, getting hit repeatedly or sprinting a long distance or getting shot… hurts. The characters in Dead Reckoning show this, Ethan in particular, who gets winded and struggles at times. He may be the living manifestation of destiny and a mind-reading, shapeshifting incarnation of chaos, but he’s still human. Your characters, even if they’re not human, should be grounded in a similar way. Let them get tired and hurt and frustrated. It’s not just realistic; it’s relatable.

Mission Debrief

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is a masterclass in action sequences. If you can learn the lessons it has to teach in creating action that’s layered, dynamic, character-driven, location-specific, and realistic, you’ll be well on your way to crafting truly great action in your writing.

If you’ve seen Dead Reckoning Part One, I’d love to hear what you think of it in the comments.

Your next mission, should you choose to accept it, is to learn about a powerful force that could change the writing world as we know it. This film may or may not have had to do with a villainous AI, so if you want to get a better look at how our future artificially intelligent overlords work, particularly in the context of writing fiction, read this next. Or this.

If you want to watch the video versions of these blog posts, head over to my YouTube channel here, and subscribe for more videos on writing and publishing.

– Grayson Taylor

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