Expert screenwriting tips by working screenwriters
Action scenes are actually very difficult to write well.
There's an art to writing nail-biting action: Shane Black, Tony Gilroy (writer of the Bourne screenplays), David Guggenheim (Safe House) and the Wachowski brothers (Matrix trilogy) are some of the masters of that art.
Most non-pro screenwriters miss the mark by a considerable margin.
Action needs to be EXCITING as hell, thrill the reader - keep them on the edge of their seats.
The biggest mistakes non-pros make are writing action in past tense and/or passive voice.
Action scenes need to be written in present tense with active voice (see: Stay in Present Tense and Active Voice).
To use active voice you need to:
Limit the use of the words 'is', 'are' and words ending in 'ing'
It will make your script and action scenes sharper and more exciting to read.
Some writers use slug headings to make action a faster and usually more thrilling read - I'll include an example of their use near the end, from Michael Mann's Heat.
Keep your action writing tight - not verbose. Some prodco readers find action a turnoff so be careful dragging it out too long. If you're writing the next Bourne or Transformers, that's probably not an option.
Some writers don't go into much detail at all, leave the fight choreography up to the stunt people or fight choreographers.
Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon simply writes:
Tony Gilroy et al in The Bourne trilogies writes thrilling action scenes without going into much detail regarding the action itself. He sets everything up perfectly but leaves the fight choreography details to others. He also has a very tight writing style, which is great for action.
Some samples from The Bourne Ultimatum:
BOURNE steps out from behind the store room door. The dull snap of bones as second AGENT falls to the floor.
INT. STAIRWELL - DAY
SURVEY ONE moving up the steps, only to meet-
BOURNE coming down. Three quick moves and he's down- slumped against a wall- just another drunk to step over in the rush hour.
Pulls the feed. Takes the earbud. Then back up and falls into step behind ROSS.
Listening in to the chaos he has caused -- an ocean away.
Some pro screenwriters go into a lot of detail - Michael Mann's bank heist scene in Heat being a great example. Note his use of slug headings to great effect (also see: Slug Lines: Advanced Usage).
EXT. BANK AND STATION WAGON - CERRITO - DAY
awaiting bag number two. Breedan - calm and alert - IDLES THE ENGINE in Drive while braking with his left foot.
coming out with the second bag. Chris follows - backwards covering the interior. Neil avoids a lady pushing a supermarket shopping cart, looks up and SEES:
NEIL'S POV: HANNA + SCHWARTZ
entering rapidly but surreptitiously 50 yards down the sidewalk. Bosko's moving 90 degrees to the right, crossing the street. There would be no, there was no, and there never is any, warning. Neil Hanna and Schwartz with 12- gauges OPEN FIRE. World War III ERUPTS. Now we hear distant POLICE SIRENS.
is hit in the neck.
FIRING 3-SHOT BURSTS that blow up Schwartz and a lamppost and hit a woman who falls over her shopping cart, shrieking. Hanna’s behind the lamppost.
across the street with his AR-180, opens up on the station wagon which takes HITS. A BLACK AND WHITE slides sideways and COP #1 with a shotgun runs across the street hollering at kids who stop and stare and drop school books.
COP # 1
Drop! Drop down!
over the station wagon roof FIRES a BURST at Bosko, then swings onto Cop #1 and fires, killing him. Cerrito jumps into the wagon.
THE STREET – WIDE: A BUS
The driver panics and slams on his brakes and his bus full of people stalls in the combat zone between Bosko and the wagon.
Get the bus out of here...
shielded by the green bag of money which has taken hits, FIRES at Hanna and backs to Chris.
pulls Schwartz to cover.
dazed – holding his bleeding neck while Neil FIRES into the parking lot...
...hitting Casals getting out of his car. Casals sits down as if stunned.
pulling his car out of the lot ducks behind the wheel and crashes it into a parked car.
EXT. BANK – CERRITO
C’mon! C’mon! C’mon!
Neil can’t rake it through the incoming FIRE from Hanna and Cop #2 to the station wagon and Cerrito and knows it.
(to Breedan and Cerrito)
ON STATION WAGON
Breedan floors it.
re-emerges, kneels and PUMPS SHOTS into the station wagon.
rounds the bus with the AR-180 and OPENS UP
draws everyone’s FIRE. Breedan ducks and pilots it through the gauntlet.
has taken off down the sidewalk, supporting Chris. TIGHTEN. He runs in among crowds of civilians. He knocks over a man, breaks through. People are screaming, staring, shocked.
INT. STATION WAGON – BREEDAN
getting BLOWN APART by Hanna, Bosko, and Cop #2 falls over the wheel and then is thrown back.
EXT. STREET – STATION WAGON
tires are BLOWN OUT.
It spins across the street on steel rims and crashes sideways into a parked car on the east side of Hawthorne.
INT. STATION WAGON – CERRITO
shot three times, holds his abdomen and bails, returning FIRE. Breedan, like a rag doll is half over into the rear seat and still being hit by more rounds. We HOLD on David Breedan. He’s dead.
EXT. SIDE STREET – CERRITO
east up a side street past people who stand on their lawns and stare – traumatized.
Bosko and Cop #3 chase Cerrito. Cerrito FIRES a long BURST. They can’t fire back because of the people.
EXT. SAFEWAY – TRACKING NEIL + CHRIS – DAY
and the money – running, skipping and dodging past all manner of pedestrians, newspaper coin boxes, fruit vendors and parking meters. People dodge, scream and fall down. It’s chaos.
a half block behind, chasing Neil – pushing through the same people.
(shouts at pedestrians)
Get down! Get down!
EXT. SAFEWAY PARKING LOT – NEIL + CHRIS
Neil – supporting Chris – throws a lady, who was getting out, back into her Olds Cutlass. He dumps Chris and the money in the back seat and turns on Hanna.
extends the collapsible stock braces on the roof for accuracy and FIRES over the roof of other cars and through people at Hanna closing in 5o yards away.
EXT. SAFEWAY – HANNA + CIVILIANS
who panic. SHOOTING. Windows EXPLODE. A lady holds her ears and shrieks. A newspaper coin box SHATTERS. A man’s bag of groceries explode milk and eggs everywhere. He goes down.
doesn’t have a clear shot and drops, dragging people down with him.
behind the wheel – burns rubber pulling out of the lot over curbstones and through a fence into the alley.
Writing great screen action takes effort, practice and skill. If you need advice, send us your screenplay - we'll allocate it to someone who loves the genre and understands it intimately.
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