Tuesday, March 19, 2013

How to write an "insert action sequence here" scene

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!

 If you’re 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?
Long answer: 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 emotionally?

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.

Then there’s 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 narrative visually?

For example, 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?

The Bourne 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 - very different!].

Short answer: 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.

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