What do I mean by emotional context? I’m reminded of a scene from the Bruce Lee film, ‘Enter the Dragon’, where Bruce tells a young student to execute a martial arts move with ‘emotional content’. Though that phrase has been interpreted in various ways, in regards to fiction, it’s pretty simple:
Why are your characters engaging in violent acts? Can the story be told without the action scene? Is it possible to resolve the conflict in this scene without resorting to violence? And most importantly, why should the reader care?
This isn’t about morality in fiction. It’s whether or not your characters are emotionally invested in the acts they perpetrate. This can be as simple as the hero saving a friend from a villain; the battle had to take place to save another’s life. But the action shouldn’t be random; it should have a purpose, just like any other part of the story. Stories are about emotions—that’s how readers connect with them. It’s why they care what happens to their favorite hero or heroine. So if your reader is emotionally invested, so should your character.
How can this be shown? Not during a battle, or at least not much, because you don’t want to interrupt the flow of action with navel-gazing. It should be foreshadowed before, and reflected on after, the action has been resolved. Is the character nervous beforehand? Frightened? Excited, even? And afterward, is he or she triumphant? Regretful? Guilty? Or simply indifferent? These things, if done with subtlety, can say volumes about that character.
What’s at stake if the character loses this violent encounter? It should be something of value to justify the action. Some writers begin a novel with an action scene, but that rarely works. Without context, there’s no reason why the reader should care who wins. Even if presented in a cheap, easy manner (the hero rescues a defenseless person from the clutches of a gruesome villain), the action still won’t resonate as much because there’s no backstory yet. And I call that example cheap, because most people will root for the defenseless person. A character’s morals can be better shown than with this simple trick.
In real life, combat and death take a heavy psychological toll. For a story to be more believable and engrossing, a battle should affect characters the same way. Too often, especially in fantasy fiction, the bad guys are wiped out, and the heroes never give that violence and the resulting carnage a second thought. I realize epic fantasy usually doesn’t concern itself with such psychological musings, but I’m talking about a hero’s conscious. How it affects them, and the story later on. Because unless such grand scenes further the plot and character growth, then it doesn’t need to be in the story at all. When I read a novel where action is to be expected—space opera, epic fantasy, thrillers—I’m also expecting it to have a real effect on the story’s outcome, and especially the characters. Such a thing could be built up over a series of action scenes, each more tense and riskier than the last, culminating into what the author is trying to say.
Some examples of what I mean:
In Arthurian legend, regardless of which version you read, there is always a last, catastrophic battle between Arthur and whatever evil forces threaten his once-great kingdom. The conflict alone is but the culmination of many betrayals, failures, desperate hopes, and a refusal to die on one’s knees. The valor and virtue of Arthur’s knights, and of Camelot, receives one last gasp of glory at Camlann. It is about far more than the clash of blades and charging horses.
When Aragorn leads a desperate force against Sauron at the Black Gate, its real purpose is giving Frodo a chance to destroy the ring, not about having any real hope of defeating all those orcs. This works because of the heroic stands that Aragorn has been a part of throughout Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It’s far more than an over-the-top spectacle—everything Aragon has done has brought him to that moment.
In the Empire Strikes Back, when Luke Skywalker duels Darth Vader on Cloud City, it’s about Vader beating down Luke’s resolve and confidence, as much as it is defeating Luke in battle. This affects what Luke does before and during his next confrontation with Darth Vader.
When Achilles faces Hector outside Troy’s walls, all the previous combats, feuds, and strife influence that duel. It illustrates the tragedy of the Iliad, which asks why do men have to slay each other for petty, ephemeral concepts or the whim of the gods. Just telling a story about two warriors fighting to the death means nothing; it is the background, the emotional context, that makes the reader care.
That doesn’t mean every single action scene should be weighed down by The Plot. It does mean that each piece contributes to the whole. I love a thrilling scene, where the heroes are in danger, as much as anyone. I love to write them. I expect fiction to excite as well as reveal something about ourselves, and I do my best to achieve that in my own work.
That is what stories are about, after all. They should not be cheap rides through an amusement park of car chases, gunfights, and explosions. They are intimate journeys of self-discovery.