Specs & The City: Action Scenes and ‘Die Hard’

As regular readers know, my goal with this column is to help give concrete examples from films you know (or should know) that help illustrate screenwriting advice. If you can see it in action in a film you know, then it will be easier for you to apply it to your own writing. That’s the theory any way. Along the way, more for the sake of variety than anything else, I’ve always picked a new film every week, but this week that changes.

Some films are just too big for one topic.

So, you lucky readers are going to get a bi-fecta. With both this and next week’s columns we’re going to double dip into the world of everyman hero, John McClane as we explore how one of the best action movies of all time tackles a couple of tricky screenwriting issues.

This week we’re looking at…

Action Scenes and ‘Die Hard’

Bruce Willis in Die Hard

Bruce Willis in Die Hard

Like most aspects of screenwriting, writing a good action scene is significantly more difficult than it first appears. Too often, screenwriters see them as filler; they think it’s an easy way out of focusing on the “real writing.” Throw in a car chase, a handful of explosions, maybe some gun play, and you can give yourself a nice little break from developing character and plot, right?

Wrong.

Writing action scenes is hard. Damn hard. Not only do you need to craft a scene that gets the audience’s adrenaline flowing – capturing that burst of excitement for a reader with your words is one of the most challenging tasks a writer can face – you have to do so in a way that also serves the story. That’s right, actions scenes need to have a point. With a well-constructed scene you can reveal character, build suspense, or move the plot forward; take a look at this scene from Die Hard:

McClane curses himself, then retreats into a:

BANK OF COMPUTERS
Where he ducks and dodges as BULLETS PING AND RICOCHET all around him. Ducking, rolling, he FIRES at:

FRANCO
McClane’s bullets rake his middle, throw him over a desk, his weapon flying:

CLOSER
He slides right into a glass door. It smashes around his head. Bright arterial blood fountains up:

MCCLANE
hope rising at the prospect of an equal battle, his face suddenly falls as BULLETS fly in from an unexpected direction. He turns:

HANS
has reappeared and snatched up Franco’s weapon.

MCCLANE
FIRES, moving, trying to keep from bring flanked. One of his shots SHATTERS a glass panel, raining down shards near Hans, who escapes with only superficial scratches.

HANS
looks at the glass around him, gets an idea. He shouts to Karl in German:

HANS
The glass! Shoot the glass!

And, saying this, he demonstrates. Karl follows suit.

MCCLANE
as GLASS FLIES EVERYWHERE, McClane sees one option, takes it. BLASTING a burst to keep their heads down, he whirls, jumps on top of a long counter and runs across the room. Their BULLETS follow him, six inches behind his moving form! Big GRAY units GROAN with electronic SQUEALS and SPARKS as a million Gigabytes goes to RAM heaven. McClane reaches the end of the counter, dives and rolls to the floor:

HIS FOOT
goes right down on a jagged shard. He groans, keeps going:

STAIRWELL DOOR
He’s out, gone, safe!

Hans Gruber...best villain ever?

Hans Gruber…best villain ever?

Is your pulse pounding yet? The first thing that jumps out is how well the pacing of the scene is. When you move into an action scene in your script, does the pace of your writing pick up? Notice how the action blocks come at you in short, emphatic bursts. One of the most important skills you can develop as a screenwriter is how to modify the pacing of your writing to reflect the type of scene you’re in (while still maintaining your voice).

And check out the word choices that Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza make. It might sound like Screenwriting 101, but the right verb choice can make or break your action scene. At various points above, McClane ducks, dodges, whirls, jumps, and dives (if he had dipped, he would have covered the 5 “D’s” of Dodgeball). When he shoots one of the terrorists bullets “rake his middle” and the blood “fountains up.”

Finally, that last line. “He’s out, gone, safe!” I love that line because it sounds as exhausted as McClane (and your reader) should feel after everything that just happened.

So, it’s a well-written action scene. That’s great, but remember what we said; to be GREAT it has to do more than just be great action, and this scene does. By the end of this scene…

  • The plot has been moved forward: We’re down a few more terrorists
  • The stakes have been raised: Our hero’s hurt now (stepping on the glass)
  • We’ve set up future events in the film: Hans and McClane have met face-to-face now. So when the news report comes on later showing Holly and John, Hans now knows that Holly is the wife of his nemesis, and sets up the final showdown in the third act.

That’s quite a lot of punch for one little scene to pack, but it’s what you need to keep in mind if you want to elevate your actions scenes to the next level.

Next week, I’m going to talk about sub-plots and how, once again, Die Hard is a perfect example of how to do it right.

Until then, stay away from L.A. Christmas parties, have fun, and keep writing.

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