William C. Martell has written 19 produced films for cable and video, including three HBO World Premieres, a pair of Showtime films, the thriller, Hard Evidence (Warner Bros.), and the family film, Invisible Mom. He is the author of The Secrets of Action Screenwriting. Follow William on Twitter: @wcmartell.
When writing action movies, you need powerful action happening often… but how much juice is enough? William C. Martell gives insights into finding a balance between story and action.
One of the things reviewers always say about my Secrets of Action Screenwriting book is that it’s good for all genres. Ted Elliott (Shrek, those Pirates movies, etc) wrote a massive blurb for the first edition where he listed all the genres the book would help you write, and I think he left out Traditional Nudist Western. I ended up using a different quote from him that actually fit on the cover of the book but since the book came out, I’ve often tested some of my theories with different genres to see if they hold up or not… So far, they’ve held up!
In the book, I note that Producer Joel Silver says that you’ve got to have a whammo every ten minutes… An explosion, a car chase, a fight scene, an exciting scene that keeps the audience interested. Silver believes pacing is one of the most important things in an action film but pacing and timing are critical to all genres. If you have a comedy that goes twenty pages without a funny scene you’re in trouble! Imagine going for twenty minutes without a heartbeat!
To test this theory, I once did an article for the paper version of Script Magazine where I looked at the “heartbeat” of a couple of hit romantic comedies, and I expanded that as a chapter in the Act Two Blue Book using four romantic comedies. It held up! About every ten minutes (pages) in a romantic comedy, there is a scene where the couple is brought together only to be pulled apart in a way that is usually funny.
I’ve since used thrillers and dramas and comedies in other books, and guess what? The idea of a regular heartbeat of exciting genre scenes holds up no matter what the genre is. So let’s take another look at pacing here in ScriptMag.com, shall we?
In my SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING book, I say that our job as screenwriters is to rupture bladders.
Our scripts should be paced so that there is *no* time for the audience to get up and go to the restroom. They’ve just spent $9 on that king-size Coca-Cola which is almost empty about halfway through the film. Now they’re looking for that dead spot so that they can run to the bathroom. Our job is to make sure there are no dead spots… That every showing of the movie has at least one messy bladder explosion.
But how do we do that?
Kurt Johnstad’s Atomic Blonde is based on the graphic novel Coldest City and takes place in 1989… In the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall—which split Germany into West Germany (democratic) and East Germany (communist). Two very different Germanys. This is a story of spies, and every character is duplicitous. They have two sides—the one they are showing (public side) and the one they are hiding (secret side)… And hiding that second side in order to make people believe something that’s not true.
This film has a great 80’s soundtrack and uses all kinds of great film (and screenwriting) techniques as it zips along. Lots of match cuts like a character who gets tossed in a river cutting to our protagonist splashing in the bathtub. One character takes a drink of an alcoholic beverage and we cut to another character sitting their drink down. This film has flow—one scene flows right into the next… All the scenes and characters deal with the idea of two sides to everything and everyone.
British spy, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to Berlin to recover a list of double agents hidden inside a wrist watch that was lost when the previous spy sent to smuggle it to the other side of the wall and out of the country, James Gascoigne (Sam Hargrave) is murdered by KGB Agent Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson). Lorraine doesn’t tell her boss Gascoigne was her lover, and that there is a strong emotional component for her in this mission.
They warn her about unknown double agent, Satchel, who pretends to be working for our side but is really working for the enemy. No one knows who Satchel is. Everyone is suspect, including the head of the UK’s espionage bureau in Berlin, Percival (James McAvoy—who between this film and Wanted seems to be the male half of gonzo action flicks with kick ass female leads).
Percival searches for the wrist watch with the list of double agents but he’s found the source of the list—Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who has memorized the list and wants safe passage to the other side of the wall for himself and his family in exchange for the information.
As Lorraine deals with duplicity on both sides of the wall, and both sides of the conflict, she fights her way through a series of interesting and inventive action scenes and eventually rescues the list and exposes the double agent Satchel.
So how many action scenes are there?
This is from memory when I saw Atomic Blonde in the cinema on opening night folks… So I may be leaving something out.
1) Agent Gascoigne is chased through Berlin, eventually hit by a truck, and shot by Bakhtin, then tossed in the river.
2) When Lorraine arrives in West Berlin, she is picked up by KGB agents pretending to be British agents, and there’s a car chase and fight scene inside the car, which includes some high-heel-fu.
3) Lorraine and Percival have a kind of meet cute fight scene in her hotel room.
4) An awesome fight scene in Gascoigne’s apartment between Lorraine and a bunch of KGB agents, which includes refrigerator-door-fu and using a garden hose as both a weapon and means of escape—a really great action scene, filled with imaginative found weapons. Frying-pan-fu, and some amusing spatula-fu.
5) Percival ambushes Bakthin and steals the wrist watch with the list of double agents… Including the identity of Satchel.
6) Lorraine is tailed by KGB agents, followed through East Berlin, and gets into a big fight with them in an East German cinema showing Tarkovsky’s Stalker (love that she’s being stalked through a cinema showing that particular movie)—and stabs an agent played by Daniel Bernhardt (hey, I almost wrote a film for him!) in the face with her car keys… And the keys stay in his face for the rest of the fight! Great silhouette fight in front of the movie screen!
7) The Parade Escape from East Germany—smuggling Spyglass out past assassins and snipers. You know, that scene from The Fugitive and The 39 Steps and a million other movies? They do it in this one too but with umbrellas! There’s a shootout here, too. Sniper-attack, and a double-cross assassin on the street. The parade scatters.
8) Lorraine and Spyglass are chased into an apartment building, and there’s a giant super-brutal fight scene in the apartment itself… That appears to be all one take! Lamp-fu, using an empty machine gun as a club-fu, hotplate-fu (ouch!) and corkscrew-fu!
9) Seemingly without a cut, the fight and shoot-out spills onto the stairway and just keeps going! I am counting these as two scenes, even though they are edited to look like a single shot, because each has different terrain and has different types of action. If you think that’s a cheat on my part and want to count them both as one action scene, fine with me!
10) The big car chase with Lorraine and Spyglass being chased by an army pf KGB agents and eventually the big crash that sends their car flying into Spree River and sinking like a stone… Which creates an exciting escape and survival scene.
11) Percival fights Delphine in her bedroom. More found-weapons-fu!
12) Lorraine fights Percival. “Truth and lies: people like us don’t know the difference.” Two sides of a spy.
13) Lorraine vs a bunch of KGB agents in a shootout that happens at the end of the movie but is the first thing in the trailer—damned spoilers!
Did I leave something out? I know there are a bunch of small suspense scenes and no shortage of twists that I’ve tried to avoid spoiling, plus some chases… But those are the 13 action scenes I remember (12 if you combine that epic seemingly single-shot fight scene). That’s more than one every ten minutes—the running time for Atomic Blonde is 115 minutes. That gives you a pretty good idea of what a 2017 action flick’s heartbeat is like.
But, what about those good old fashioned action films from the 1990s, like Airforce One (1997—over 20 years old)—which was written by a Nicholl Fellowship Winner (so, you know, it’s good). How many big action scenes did it have? Hey, it all takes place on the plane—so probably not very many, right? No chance for a car chase at 30,000 feet (oh wait, that Fast & Furious movie did that)!
1) Opening—commandos kidnap Rattick.
2) Terrorists hijack Air Force One.
3) Shooting the pilot (a small action scene—but the plane goes out of control).
4) President in fist-fight with terrorist.
5) Airforce fires on Air Force One to knock terrorist off his feet so captured President can punch him out.
6) Big shootout between President and two terrorists.
7) The fuel plane explodes.
8) Ivan and the President fist-fight.
9) After Ivan leaves, the President escapes, beats up two terrorists.
10) President and Ivan fist-fight at cargo door “Get off my plane!”.
11) MIGs attack—Airforce dogfights them.
12) President escapes Air Force One moments before it hits the water and explodes.
Okay, that’s a dozen action scenes—which is either one less than Atomic Blonde or the same number of action scenes. So even a 20 plus year old film from the “good old days” of action movies moves at a pretty fast clip and has a regular heartbeat of genre juice scenes.
If your question is: “What about romantic comedies?”
Just take a look at the chapter in my Act Two Blue Book where we look at pacing in that genre, which also have a genre juice scene within every ten minute segment.
It’s all about pacing—the frequency of scenes where the conflict breaks to the surface of the story.
Genre juice scenes…
- If you’re writing a comedy, those scenes will be the big funny set-pieces.
- If you’re writing a drama, those will be the big meaty dramatic scenes.
- If you’re writing a rom-com, it’s the scenes where the couple comes together only to be pulled apart.
- If you’re writing a horror script, it’s a big scare scene.
- If you’re writing a thriller, it’s a big suspense scene.
Whatever the appropriate genre juice is for your story’s genre. If you don’t have enough meat in your screenplay, it’s going to be fatty and slow-paced… Not much of a meal for your audience.
QUALITY AND QUANTITY
That doesn’t mean you should just throw in a car chase or comedy set piece when things get slow. That might seem exciting, but it’s all surface—empty calories. You can’t sustain a screenplay or novel on empty calories—you need the power of emotion.
Remember, the purpose of external conflict is to expose character. If your external conflict isn’t exposing character—isn’t creating a dramatic situation—it isn’t doing its job. We won’t care about the car chase. That’s just metal chasing metal. Movies are about people. Cars don’t buy tickets, people do!
The place to find organic conflict is to dig deeper into your story—go back to that emotional conflict and create a scene that forces your protagonist to make a decision. That may end up being a car chase scene, but it will be one with a purpose.
The reason why Atomic Blonde works so well is because of its set-up—the murdered agent was her lover—so this is personal. She even has flashbacks of their relationship. The Netflix show, Punisher uses flashbacks of Frank Castle and his murdered wife waking up in the morning several times to keep the emotional component in the story.
Because we know Lorraine mourns the loss of her lover as she comes into contact with people who may be responsible for his murder, gives the scenes something extra. But that sustained action scene and shot that goes up the stairs, into an apartment where they try to hide and are discovered, and then back down the stairs to the car so that we can have a car chase is infused with emotion because Lorraine is trying to protect Spyglass—and Spyglass is a meek little accountant type… With a wife and family who we have met in an earlier scene. We care about Spyglass, and that creates stakes for the action scenes he’s in.
Finding the emotional conflict within the physical conflict transforms the cliche car-chase into something exciting and imaginative instead of just metal chasing metal. This is what creates quality in an action scene. Let’s say our hero’s emotional conflict is that he puts his own well-being before others… And let’s create a car chase that illustrates that.
Our hero and the sidekick are chased by the villains. The hero and sidekick run across the parking lot to their car, villains right behind them! The sidekick is a few paces behind the hero, yelling “Wait up! Wait up!” but the hero doesn’t slow down. He climbs into the car, starts it up… The villains get into their car and start it up. Sidekick throws open the passenger door. Villain’s car roars to give chase… Before sidekick can climb in! Hero throws the car into gear, speeds away, with sidekick running next to the open door! “Jump in!” “Slow down!” But the chase is on. Sidekick can’t find the right moment to jump through the open car door. The villains speed up—hero speeds up… Passenger door closes. Now sidekick runs beside a car with no way inside. The villain’s car closes in. The hero has no choice but to floor it but sidekick jumps on the trunk of the car as the hero speeds off.
Begin standard car chase… With sidekick hanging onto the back of the car, feet dangling off the edge. If the hero drives too fast, sidekick will fall off. If he fishtails around corners, sidekick will fall off… If the hero drives too slow? You know that cliche of villain’s car ramming hero’s car? It’s different now that the sidekick’s legs are in the way. Now the sidekick’s life is tied to the car chase and whatever the hero does is now tied to his emotional conflict—putting his well being before others. Plus, we’ve given the audience what they don’t expect—a car chase they haven’t seen before. A car chase with built-in human emotion. A car chase we care about. A darned exciting scene that helps illustrate the theme and emotional conflict of the story.
Though the Atomic Blonde fight scene, shootout, and car chase with Spyglass are different than the one I’ve just come up with, both share the idea that the hero must protect the “sidekick” in the middle of an exciting action scene. Here, since the list of double-agents is in Spyglass’s head, if Lorraine fails to save him—they’ve lost all of that information… And will never discover the identity of Satchel (who may have been involved in the murder of Lorraine’s lover).
There are emotional stakes on top of emotional stakes in these action scenes.
Also, from my brief descriptions, you may have noticed all the action scenes are interesting, imaginative, and different. Nothing generic about any of these scenes—they all have some unusual location or odd weapons—or something else that makes them more amazing than the usual fight scene you find in movies. That’s another important element,—no matter what the genre—no scenes we have seen before! If you’ve seen a similar comedy scene in some other movie, you need to come up with an original comedy scene for your comedy. An original screenplay is filled with original characters and original scenes.
Physical and emotional conflict are co-conspirators in story. Both must be present for a story to grow, regardless of genre.
Your Story Checklist:
- How many “genre juice” scenes do you have in your story?
- Is there a steady, regular heartbeat of exciting scenes? In screenplays it tends to be a “genre juice” scene within about every 10 pages.
- Are your “genre juice” scenes emotional? Do we care about the characters?
- Are your “genre juice” scenes original and exciting?
- Do the characters have to make a difficult decision in the scenes?
- Is every “genre juice” scene required by the story?
The best way to check the pacing on your script regardless of genre is to grab three films in the same genre and time them. Write down every exciting scene and note the running time in the movie. That gives you an idea of the heartbeat requirements for the genre.
Now compare your script to the three films in the same genre. Do you have enough stuff happening? One thing you’ll notice when you start doing this is how fast stories move in films. A great drama like Ordinary People or The Godfather Part II moves at break-neck speed. Every few minutes something dramatic happens. Both films were made in a pre-MTV world but still move quickly from one exciting event to the next.
Check out the pacing for North By Northwest—made almost 45 years ago! No matter the genre, movies move. Make sure you have enough exciting events happening in your script… You don’t want to put the audience to sleep. You want enough action, or enough comedy, or enough big dramatic scenes to keep your story moving… And new interesting scenes. It’s not a Quantity or Quality situation, as I’ve said before:
In screenwriting, there are no ors—it’s all ands—you need Quality and Quantity. Both.
- More articles by William Martell
- The Magic Bullet: Action Lines
- This is Your Brain on the Action Thriller
William Martell Shares Action Movie Advice in His New Webinar, Furious Writing: Car Chases, Shoot Outs & Action Scene!
At a Glance:
- Writing an action film or even a comedy or mystery with action scenes?
- In this live webinar you will learn techniques to make your action scenes more exciting and character oriented.
- Discover how to make your scenes as exciting to read as the film will be.