So there you are, all set up and ready to write what you’re sure is the next major action-packed summer blockbuster. You’ve got your screenplay software of choice booted up and scribbled out notes by your side.
Then you come to your first fight sequence… you know, the part where the hero headbutts a guard, saves a hostage and arrives in time for his daughter’s clarinet solo. It’s then that you realize you’re not 100% sure how to describe the action of the scene. How do you make it flow like a ballet yet hit like a sledgehammer? Fret not, because here are some basic screenwriting tips on action sequences!
First and most obviously, it helps to watch a few action movies to get an idea of what kind of scene, and ultimately movie, you want to write. Should it be realistic like the Bourne movies? Maybe you want stylized action like Kill Bill, The Transporter, or Machete. Bearing in mind the changes that a film can go through from the time it’s written to the time it’s shot, edited, and picture-locked, it helps to have a clear idea of what you want the action to look like, making sure it fits with the tone of your film before committing it to the page.
It also helps to go a step further and actually read the scripts of any movies that you particularly enjoy. Fortunately, there are lots of scripts available either for purchase, or free for downloading online. IMSDb can be a great resource (Check it out HERE). Reading scripts is critical to being a good screenwriter in general, but reading action scripts will also clue you in as to what does and doesn’t work on the page.
When it comes to actually writing action, it’s necessary to be judicious. While in the “Cinema of Your Mind” (trademark pending) your action may be clear as day, but translating that to the page and conveying it properly to your readers is another thing entirely.
To achieve clarity, you’ll want to keep things concise and deliberate, as writing down every single detailed step can actually hinder the reader. Remember that writing is only the first step in the production process. The director and producers will have ideas of their own as the project evolves, so as a writer, you should only be including the vital elements of each sequence.
In terms of pacing, if the scenes don’t read like a thrill ride, no one will believe that the movie can could be thrilling. It’s advised to keep your sentences short and your paragraphs no longer than three lines so that the pacing of the paragraphs mirrors the quick pacing of the scene.
So instead of writing “Hero McProtagonist uses a krav maga to punch the terrorist in the chest just above the heart, then does a muay thai leg sweep to knock the other one down”, if there’s no storyline-specific reason to detail the action, something like “he punches one guard and kicks the other, knocking them both out” will do just fine.
If the structure of a scene requires something specific to happen in order to set up something else, such as “McProtagonist inadvertently causes a bomb placed in the room to countdown”, then it’s necessary to specify the events that lead up to that so it’s easier for the reader to follow.
When writing actions scenes, certain sounds and descriptions can be bolded or italicized to designate stylistic elements. These help paint a better mental image for the reader and draw attention to the action you want to emphasize. It’s up to the writer whether or not to employ this, as you can see in the following examples:
The Bourne Identity (2002)
Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
Lastly, as with anything related to film or art, rules are made to be broken. If you’ve studied the more tried and true methods of screenwriting but are still confident in your deviation from them, then by all means, try it! Some writer/directors will write action sequences that are half a page long, or even in different fonts altogether. The important thing is to be consistent.
There’s also nothing wrong with taking risks. For example, don’t be too afraid to throw in some crazy action set piece just because the Mythbusters once said it wasn’t exactly realistic, but never lose sight of what you aim to do with your script. If you’re planning on selling it or producing it yourself, keeping action within the designated budget is a huge factor. Your Game of Thrones-inspired fantasy simply isn’t going to be picked up by 99% of studios, and you’re going to look pretty unprofessional submitting it.
Remember, breaking writing rules like these are advanced maneuvers, (kinda like krav maga!) and with great writing power comes great writing responsibility. It’s entirely possible to write a great action script by staying well within the conventions of action screenwriting.
An action script is a great addition to your screenplay arsenal. They are fun, popular, and rich in comparative material to learn from. So get out there, watch those action films, and above all… keep writing!