A few months back I responded to a question on The Black Board, the online writing community of the Black List and Go Into The Story. Someone linked to it on Twitter today, so I guess this qualifies as useful advice. There's an outside chance I might be writing an action-heavy project soon, so this will serve as a useful reminder for me at least! Below is the original question and my answer. Onwards!
writing something with clearly defined action sequences, at what point do you
start pinning down the details of what actually happens in them? I tend to
leave a gap marked “action sequence here”, but I’m finding that just encourages
me to keep skipping over that section until I actually start the draft, and
then I discover all kinds of problems I should have solved earlier. Anyone have
any thoughts on this?
I’ve written a lot of action-adventure comics, where the audience expects big
action set pieces every few pages, so the methodology I stumbled across there
is the basis for what I do in screenwriting. First step: identify where you
need action scenes – I try to avoid them running back to back, that quickly
becomes both breathless and repetitive. Next, what’s the plot point that needs
to be advanced, and how does the scene or sequence affect the characters
Most comics I
write have a single protagonist, so my focus is on their emotional journey.
They need to have something at stake, emotionally as well as in terms of their
story arc. Can they infiltrate the enemy’s HQ and extract the MacGuffin? What
happens when their plan goes awry, etc. Nailing down the stakes helps me judge
how long a sequence should last.
the choreography of the action scene itself – how characters and objects move
in time and space during it. I direct amateur dramatics and even musicals
sometimes. While I leave the choreography of dance sequences to people with
expertise, there are similarities between dance and action sequences [or they
can be both at the same time, as in West Side Story].
I remember a
podcast interview with John Logan, talking about how the killings in Tim
Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd were the film’s dance sequences. There’s a lot
of people getting their throats cut, so the filmmakers were conscious of the
need to make each killing different. They did that by focusing on stakes – plot
and emotion – but also by choreographing sequences with movement and visuals.
Which leads on
to visuals. Is there an overall visual aesthetic for the project? Should each
action sequence adhere to that, or should they have individual looks? How can
they be made individually unique yet still be part of a greater, unifying
you might have three sequences of characters running/being chased through the
woods – how to differentiate these? Night or day? Fast or slow? Unseen pursuer
or both apparent? What’s the tone of each sequence? If they’re all similar, do
you need all the scenes?
films and first Transporter movie are great at making each action sequence
visually distinct [check out the fight sequence below where Statham covers himself in
oil to fight off a bunch of guys, and compare it to all those car chases in the same film -
have “action sequence here” in initial synopsis. Flesh out stakes, identify
visual choreography in treatment. Nail down locations, pacing in step outline.
Write and polish while scripting.