What is Action?
Also called “action-adventure,” action is a genre of film, TV, literature, etc., in which the primary feature is the constant slam-bang of fights, chases, explosions, and clever one-liners. Action stories typically do not explore complex relationships between human beings or the subtleties of psychology and philosophy. Instead, they are high-octane thrillers that simply aim to give the reader an exciting ride. (The word “thriller” is synonymous with “action” in this context.)
The Importance of Action:
Action stories work because they’re fun. People enjoy watching/reading them, even if they are not mentally stimulated by the genre. As for what makes action stories so popular, that’s tough to answer. On one level, the sheer simplicity of action stories may account for their popularity. Action stories are very easy to understand, and they work with themes that every human being can easily understand.
On another level, action stories get a lot of their power from archetypes, mythical figures that are common to all cultures and seem to be hard-wired into the human psyche. Every culture produces stories about heroes, monster-slayers, demons, mentors, temptresses, etc., and action stories frequently draw on this deep well of cultural ideas.
Examples of Action in Literature:
Beowulf is a great work of literature and extremely important in the history of Old English, but it definitely has elements of an action story. The main archetype is Beowulf himself – the heroic monster-slayer who swims all the way to Denmark to try his hand at killing the monster Grendel. Over the course of the story, Beowulf fights tougher and tougher enemies until he finally has to face the great fire dragon.
If you want to learn how to write effective fight scenes, The Golden Compass is a great book to start with. The final duel between the Panserbjorne is an extended fight that has a beginning-middle-end structure, along with changes in pace and repeated use of a wide variety of literary devices.