August 27, 2009 / 2 Comments

Getting in on the Action

Well, since not one of you voted last week, I got to seize power again and decide what to rant about this week with no input or opinions. Viva Democracy! The system works!

So, speaking of things working, action can mean a bunch of things. It can be Yakko finally getting a backbone and standing up to his abusive boss. It can be Wakko fighting off cyborg ninjas from the future. It can be Dot running from a serial killer deep in the forest one night because she was doing naughty things at summer camp.

We all want to do cool action, because it’s fun and it’s memorable and it makes producers think “this would look great on the big screen– give that writer a quarter-million dollars!” But most of us have probably read a book or three with painful action descriptions, and any script reader can tell you about the dozens they dropped because the action scenes were sleep-inducing at best.

Probably the most common problem I see with action is a desire to put in all the action. Every single instant of it. Every gunshot, every punch, each flail of the legs as someone tries to climb up a cliff, and all the individual roars of an angry dinosaur.

Thing is, too much detail slows action down. It can be the most amazing bit of kung fu fighting ever, but each time the writer pauses to describe the harsh open-palm strike which is blocked with a swift overhand block which rolls over the wrist and into a hold to create an opening for two quick punches, one to the face, one to the… man, that should be half a second of fighting, but it’s two lines here. That is one slooow, overwritten fight.

Putting in all the action also tends to get messy from a vocabulary point of view. Bad enough the writer is putting in all seventy punches, but they also know that seeing “punch” seventy times on the page is going to get dull. So suddenly the combatants are punching, hitting, striking, whamming, banging, thrusting, pounding, blasting… It starts feeling needlessly complex, and yes, you should also notice that it starts sounding vaguely pornographic as well.

Now, compare all that to this…

Their hands were a blur of strikes, blocks, and counterstrikes.

I didn’t give as much information, but I did convey a much faster, intense scene, and with far fewer words. Fewer words means a faster read, which means a faster fight.

In my mind, action is a lot like character descriptions. You want to give broad strokes and only use fine details when absolutely necessary. Let the reader fill in a lot of it– because odds are they will anyway.

Action, by it’s very nature, is usually fast, so use this as a rule of thumb. If something is only taking a few moments to happen in your story, it should only take a few moments to read. If there’s an important detail that will matter later in the story, sure, add it in. But otherwise, keep it clean and simple.

Another key note… it has to be possible for the reader to visualize the action. One screenplay I read a while back had gladiatorial games where one man was pitted against three hundred. It actually said that in the script– “Now he fights 300 men with just his sword.” This was going on in the background, for the record.

Gigantic action scenes involving a hundred thousand people are cool, but they’re hard for someone to keep in their mind. That’s why such huge battles tend to concentrate on smaller, individual conflicts. In Tolkien’s The Two Towers, thousands fight at Helm’s Deep, but we’re mostly concerned with Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. When Dan Abnett writes about the Tanith First and Only on a battlefront, he tends to focus on Gaunt, Mkoll, or Rawne, not on the regiment as a whole. Saving Private Ryan is about World War Two, but it’s mainly about this one small unit of soldiers.

Visualizing can also be a common knowledge problem. It’s cool that the author knows all the Japanese names for every kick, punch, strike, and block from each of fifteen fighting styles… but does the reader know them? Do they need to? From an audience point of view, it there a huge difference between a hail of bullets from an M-16 and the spray of lead from an AK-47? Anything that makes your readers pause to consider what’s going on is slowing down the action and it’s breaking the flow of your writing. Especially watch for this in genre material, where writers can be making up completely unique weapons and fighting styles. It’s great that Nimwadda is a Zonbovac master with his gwerttig, but it’s a lot easier to visualize if I’m told he’s a world champion axe-fighter… even if it’s a special goblin axe.

A special note for screenwriters. A lot of action stuff gets redone on set, for a variety of reasons. Time is one. Money’s another. Plus, let’s face it… most stunt coordinators have a better idea how to set up a cool-looking fight on screen than most writers do. That’s their job, after all. They’re also keenly aware of what’s possible– and what’s safe— for the stunt teams and actors to do. I heard a funny story from the live action Spawn movie, about the petulant writer/ director who was angry a stuntman wouldn’t do one stunt sequence he’d blocked out… because it almost certainly would kill the stuntman.

In a screenplay, worry about setting the mood and tone of an action sequence more than a shot-by-shot description of the sequence itself. The swordfights in The Princess Bride have a very different tone than the ones in Highlander. The slugfests in Rocky are not like the ones in Hellboy. Skim over the action itself, just make it clear what kind of fight it is, which way it’s going, and who wins.

As an example, let’s look at the lobby battle in The Matrix. Neo steps through the metal detector wearing a hundred guns he borrowed from his grandfather’s arsenal and then it’s mass carnage. From the moment we see Neo’s boots coming out of the revolving door to the moment he and Trinity step into the elevator is almost precisely three minutes, fifteen seconds of bullets, karate, acrobatics, and aggressive redecorating.

How long is it in the script?

About half a page. Ten lines.

Neo and Trinity walk in, he guns down the guards. More guards come, they’re gunned down, and our two heroes continue on their way, cool as ice. That’s it.

However, it’s still okay to note key elements of a sequence. In The Princess Bride, we need to know that Inigo and the Man in Black both switch hands during their swordfight, but we don’t need to know which steps their blades clash on as they work their way up the staircase. Watch a couple films with elaborate action sequences, like Equilibrium, Brotherhood of the Wolf, or even (dare I say it) Attack of the Clones. There are long stretches of action, but what stands out? What catches your eye? Remember the “hallway of death” in Equilibrium? We remember the auto-loaders in Cleric’s sleeves, his roll onto the “weeble” clips, and him kicking up the rifle near the end. There’s a lot more to the scene than that, but that’s all you’d need to focus on.

So that’s where the action is, if you’ll pardon the pun. And if you won’t, well… you should’ve voted when you had the chance.

Next week, we bring on the bad guys and talk about why John Saxon never got to play a good screen villain, but Alan Rickman did.

Until then, take action. And go write.

0 replies on “Getting in on the Action”

Two words:

Tony Gilroy

Best writer at describing action in the business. And he does it by breaking all the so-called rules of script mechanics. Check out the Bourne Identity script.

The funny thing is that there ARE action scenes in that script where Gilroy does write the scene out punch for punch. But, due to Gilroy's unique use of script grammar and punctuation (or misuse is a more accurate word) it comes off as blindingly fast-paced – even though a 3-second fight takes up 10 lines. It's a completely nontraditional style that has the surprising result of allowing you to see the film in your head shot for shot.

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