Doug Richardson’s first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder. Visit Doug’s site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.
I’ve just returned from my umpteenth screenwriting conference and, once again, I was asked this question:
“How do you write compelling action?”
To which I usually reply:
“Make your action scenes f***ing compelling.”
Glib? Guilty as charged. But think about it. Anyone can write characters trying to escape a building that’s about to blow up. Or a car chase. Or a fight on a suspension bridge ending in a high fall. Action for action’s sake is just that. Boring. Dull. Be it a sequence on a shoestring budget or one pulled together out of a CGI program’s terabyte ass.
All writing is about being compelling. Thus the same rules apply when penning action. It must make the reader want to turn the page. Or it must make the studio-producer-marketingteam-director-actor-readernerd-developmentflunkie—aka the quantifiers with the keys to green-lighting a picture or TV show—take notice, get excited, worry at the cost of it, or get a virtual boner at the thought of filming it.
In other words. Be compelling.
Still not clear enough for you? Fine. I’ll elucidate a few tricks of my trade—or tirade—whichever you choose to apply.
Let’s start with the characters. Am I invested in them? Is the audience? If not, who cares what the scene is? It could be the most teeth-kicking sequence of all time but without characters and primal stakes—not just in the movie—but within the action scenes themselves—it’s a throwaway. Worthless. Better left in the bin or on the cutting room floor.
Assuming I’ve accomplished all the above, I build my action scenes the way I would if I were writing a suspense film. In truth, great action films are just that. Suspense films. The only difference is that when agendas collide, they explode, so to speak, into some kind of mortal physicality. And within those adrenalized moments, a goal. Something to be gained. An accomplishment which in turn solves a problem for the protagonist/antagonist, yet should often create an entirely different set of problems at resolution.
You with me? Okay, so there’s more.
Next? How about tone? Does the action fit the style of the movie? The characters? If my drama is in the vein of a TV show like The Wire or a movie like Marathon Man, the action shouldn’t be something hyperactive or gravity-defying or comic a la Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys. This may sound like the ultimate like duh tip. But writers will often throw in the kitchen sink to put a scene over the top, often getting wrapped up on some note or screenwriting advice book that pounds questions like “where’s your action set piece?” into a wannabe’s mushy skull.
Simple enough, right. You got it now. Thumbs up, yeah? No? Really?
Okay then. Let’s take the thrill ride approach, otherwise known as Doug’s Rollercoaster Theorem. If you break down what a rollercoaster ride is—or the processes contained within—it might go something like this. There’s the decision to ride. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Will it be too scary? Dangerous? This is anticipation. A foreplay of sorts. There’s the waiting in line, asking yourself, if it’s going to be worth the wait. That’s the expectation part. Next, there’s the buckling-in followed by the slow click-click-click climb to the apex. This is where anticipation turns into something closer to suspense. There is no turning back. You are committed to the ride. White knuckles are applied. Sweat trickles. Then at last, the brakes are released and over the top you go, careening every which way without much sense of control. But that’s not all of it. There is gravity and inertia. You can’t get that feeling of speed without tight corners, the shifting of G-forces, the whoop-de-dos and the unexpected loops and rolls, all coming at you without a chance to prepare. All you can do is hang on tight and let the experience happen.
If the ride goes on too long, you’re exhausted. Too short? Dissatisfied. And oh, by the way, was that ride better than the last? A let-down compared to the previous experience? All these questions and issues are the governors to composing a great action scene, sequence, movie.
My last tip is asking yourself if your scenes are organic? Now, this can be confused with tone, style, genre. Yet that’s not close to being true. Organic is about from whence the drama comes. Does the action feel like it grew from the seed of your narrative? As if it was always part of the story’s embryonic DNA. Or here’s a better example. Because action centers on some measure of danger involving the characters, it can be looked on as a cancer. Something malignant. Awful as it may seem, it is something that grows within the host, feeds off it, and even with or without intervention, may kill. Yet the danger and damage springs from the organism itself. Thus, the action in the story needs to feel as equally congruous and bio-formed as the cells in the body.
Lastly, if the former fails to induce an understanding to the question of compelling action, I strongly suggest you break out your favorite action film and study. Not the action sequences themselves per se. But the spaces in-between. What do the silences teach about what is to come?
An example might come from the cinematic build up to one of the greatest action sequences of all time. The car chase under the elevated train in The French Connection. Brilliant as it was—and still is—the scene plays primarily on Popeye Doyle’s (Gene Hackman’s) face. How would that five-plus-minute sequence play had we not at first been exposed and invested into Hackman’s unleashed character? It’s not an action scene so much as a man’s bottled desperation uncorked via a Pontiac LeMans on the speeding subway train on the streets of Brooklyn.
These thoughts and rules by which I live don’t only apply to film and TV. They also land squarely on the pages of my novels. The newest being Reaper. Buy it. Read it. And tell me if I delivered the goods.
Get Doug’s volume of Hollywood war stories in his new book
The Smoking Gun: True Tales from Hollywood’s Screenwriting Trenches