John August on How to Write Better Action

What does Hollywood Screenwriter John August suggest for screenwriters that want to write better action?

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John August is the screenwriter behind such films as The Nines, Big Fish, Go, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Corpse Bride.

Download the script for Big Fish here for free.

Here we feature John August‘s Writing Better Action video as he teaches screenwriters how to write better action beats within their screenplays — followed by some of our own elaborations.

August uses this following action beat sample as an example to work from.

“There’s nothing technically wrong here…everything that is capitalized is supposed to be capitalized. But it doesn’t read very well. It doesn’t actually feel very much like an action beat.” 

August takes us through some reasoning and tips to make this action writing better.

1. Make the Action Read Like It Is Going to Feel Like in the Movie

“As screenwriting has evolved, the goal on the page is to make it feel like what the movie is going to feel like. You want your action beats to feel like action.”

The read of your script is important. It has to read in cinematic fashion, allowing the script reader to be able to experience the read as if they are watching the movie unfold before their eyes.

Download the script for GO here for free.

2. Delete Unnecessary Words

The first key to offering a cinematic read is deleting unnecessary words. He points out that the words “there are” before two gunshots are unnecessary.

When he applies this to the original script sample, we get a more simplified version of the first moments within the scene.

Download the script for THE NINES here for free.

3. Make the Visuals and Action Exciting

The next two lines of action display what is going on. But the action isn’t written in an exciting way. With some adjustments, August offers a much more engaging version of those first two lines of action beats.

He has injected the specific action visual of Smith ducking behind a car, as well as a more exciting visual of the windows being blown out from the car he’s behind. This is more how we would see the action sequence within a movie unfold.

But the scene still needs more.

4. Establish the Setting and Background

To write cinematically, you have to offer a setting and showcase some of the background to give us a visual context.

You never have to go into any major detail. You shouldn’t. Sometimes it’s just one additional line of scene description that establish the context of the setting and background.

August injected some pedestrians reacting to the chaos.

5. Utilize Parallel Action

August wants to address some logic. The hero doesn’t seem to know who he is shooting at. He just takes out his gun and shoots back. There’s a better version.

So he introduces some parallel action, followed by an action he takes to see who is shooting at him. And because this is explained, the script reader understands that as well.

The parallel action is applied through introducing the fragments of draws his gun and risks a peak. This imagery is all part of one action beat. In screenplays, especially in action writing, fragments are welcome.

He then alters the action beat of Smith shooting, giving it some more cinematic flare.

And finally, this is the rewritten action sequence.

Watch August’s full breakdown as he rewrites the action beats…


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