Some Brief Pointers For Action Scenes

I’m still neck-deep in this new sci-fi action feature script, so here are a few more action pointers I’ve been thinking about…

Get it written. So you’ve used the world ‘avalanche’ four times in the last two paragraphs? Or you’re not sure how many rounds this model of handgun holds? Doesn’t matter. Correct the details and polish the prose later – just get the basic sweep of the action down first

Don’t over-direct the actors. Giving an actor a clear objective to play is always a good thing, and it’s even more important in an action scene, where they may have minimal dialogue. But, because you’re very much in visual writing mode, it’s easy to get over-descriptive. Don’t tell them how to move or what to feel – remind them what they want, and everything else will flow from that.

Cause or effect?  Some villains, like the Joker, make an entrance, make their presence felt, and then start committing acts of violence. Others, like the Winter Soldier, enter after the explosions and the carnage have begun – they started killing before we even knew they were there. Neither is better than the other, but it suggests a very different attitude to violence, so it’s worth considering which of the two your villain is and sticking to it.

Emotional objectives – everyone in this scene has a personal, emotional objective. Sure they want to stay alive and defeat the bad guy, but they also want to, say, prove that they’re a good pilot, or they can control their temper in a fight, or that they’re worthy to be in command. Find their emotional objective, and you’ll find what they have to achieve in this sequence.

The TARPIS Theory

…and no, that’s not a typo! Stick with me…

So, let’s talk action sequences.

Some people say you shouldn’t put too much effort into your action sequences, because the director and the stunt coordinator will inevitably throw them out and design their own. But that, frankly, is a load of bull poop.

Firstly, the job of every sequence, every scene, every word on the page is to sell your script – and a half-assed version of anything, even an action sequence, isn’t going to sell anything to anyone.

And secondly? If you write the most exciting and original action sequence imaginable, I guarantee you that the producer who buys your script will want to see some version of it in the movie.

Think of the inevitable changes to your action sequences as being, in effect, another rewrite. When you write the second draft, you know there’s going to be a draft three, four, and probably five – but that’s no excuse for slacking off on draft two. You still deliver your best. Write the best damn action sequence you can, and worry later about whether it’s going to change or not.

So how do you write a great action sequence? You remember the magic acronym: TARPIS.

Now, you’ve all heard of the TARDIS, right? And what does that stand for? Time And Relative Dimensions In Space.  Excellent. Ten Doctor Who points to everyone.

Now, what you need to do in order to create a great action sequence is to shift one of those words a bit. Because action scene writing is all about

TIME AND RELATIVE POSITION IN SPACE

Action scenes are all about who’s where, in relation to whom, and how long they have before the next disaster strikes. In that car chase, where is the hero’s car? Where is the villain’s car in relation to him – falling behind, or catching up? What vehicles and other obstacles lie between them? How much distance does he have to cover before the lights go red in order shake his pursuers? And, maybe, what’s waiting round the next corner that we know about and he doesn’t?

It’s knowledge of all these variables that creates tension. If we don’t know precisely what’s happening, how can we be worried for the characters? The instant the audience loses track of any of the variables, you lose them.

So your job when writing an action scene is be absolutely sure what the obstacles and dangers facing your characters are, and then find ways to convey them clearly and effectively to the audience – ways that build tension and convey the characters’ fear, desperation, wants and needs.