Imagine you want to put a nice juicy action sequence into your film. Think about your favourite action sequence that you might want to replicate or make homage to. Now remove the music score that’s running through your head, the noisy sound effects rattling in the background, the beautiful camera angles which give the scene its zip, and the facial expressions of every actor. What you have left over from all that is all you have to work with when writing an action sequence in a screenplay.
Writing action is hard, Charlie’s Angels and Big Fish writer John August calls it “the most difficult and least rewarding things a screenwriter writes, but they’re essential to many movies.” Just how do you capture the essence of an explosion-filled chase sequence, being able to generate the same thrills gained in the cinema on an A4 sheet of white paper? Using the film Die Hard, a fantastic celebration of everything that can be great about the action film, we will try to find out.
The first thing that action scenes do is that they build suspense. The most awkward thing to watch is an action sequence in which there is no stakes, the worst example being 300 in which an army of Spartans win every single action sequence they take part in until suddenly losing in the final battle. At no point is there a feeling that those Spartans are actually going to lose. It’s important that in any action sequence, that we build suspense.
Building an action scene requires two important factors: what you tell your protagonist and what you tell your audience. When the audience knows what is about to happen and can see the solution to the conflict dangling in front of them, they will get bored. When there is a gap between the predicament that the characters find themselves in and the solution that will lead them to safety, only then are we interested.
OUTSIDE THE BUILDING – SAME TIME
Signs of activity along the edges and shadows of the area. Men and vehicles. The SNAP of weapons and breeches. Footsteps running in unison. Powell picks up on this, turns to Robinson, who is standing with the SWAT Captain, MITCHELL.
What's going on?
What's it look like? We're going in.
Every action scene needs a beginning, a set-up. Having finally realised that there are terrorists in the Nakatomi Plaza, the SWAT team strap up ready to attack. Because the penny has dropped halfway through the movie, and that we know exactly what the terrorists planned but the good guys don’t, we have a feeling that this is going to end in disaster…
Al, what's wrong? Did something — (realizing) — Oh, God. You're coming in! That's it, isn't it? Christ, Powell, I told you what you're dealing with here –
…which is reinforced by the frantic shouting of McClane.
THE VAULT DOOR
Kristoff DRILLS AWAY, is rewarded with the message FIFTH LOCK DEACTIVATED. DO YOU WISH TO CONTINUE? Nearby, Theo sits at a bank of monitors. Screen after screen pinpoints all the police activity outside, down to the last detail. Theo smiles. Suddenly we recognize that tune he's been whistling. It's "Singin' In The Rain."
(into a throat mike)
It was the night before Xmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, expect for the four assholes coming in the rear in standard 2 X 2 cover formation.
INT. LOBBY – NIGHT
Eddie and another terrorist, ULI, take up prone firing positions, using the gaps in the steel partition like gunpoints.
ANGLE ON TWO SWAT OFFICERS
Mitchell and Robinson watch from behind the cover of a police car as the SWAT officers remove a portable welding torch and begin cutting their way through the locks.
INT. 33RD FLOOR – MCCLANE
He moves painfully to the window and looks out. He can't see a thing because of the lights.
Notice the cuts between McClane, the terrorists and the SWAT team? This is giving us the viewer some vital information. We now know that the terrorists are watching the SWAT on a TV screen, not even panicking, Theo indulging himself in song. They know something we don’t, and that makes us fear that the four SWAT guys are about to become toast.
More shots ring out from the building going over the SWAT officers' heads and suddenly the huge dome of one of the spotlights shatters behind Mitchell and Robinson's head. The glow fades. A moment later the next light twenty feet away dies.
They're going after the lights! The two SWAT officers cutting the garage ate suddenly look up as their cover starts to disappear.
Call them back.
No, they're almost in.
Suddenly the third and fourth lights are shot out and the SWAT men become sitting ducks.
IN HOLLY'S OFFICE – HANS
He calmly speaks into his CB.
Don't get impatient. Just wound them.
Eddie and Uli fire. They hit one of the officers in the leg, the second one in the arm.
The payoff of all this is that our worst fears are confirmed – the SWAT team are on the rack. Note that there is a sense of weakness and vulnerability that is reinforced in almost every paragraph. Their cover starts to disappear, and then they become sitting ducks entirely. Also notice the incompetence of the arrogant SWAT guy who demands they keep going; nothing gets us more wound up than someone doing something monumentally stupid. The guy in charge of the SWAT panics and decides to send in the cavalry in the form of the armoured car.
INT. 3RD FLOOR – SAME
The service elevator arrives on the 3rd floor and James and Alexander move across the room toward the windows with the anti-tank weapon. At the window, they prepare the weapon for use. Outside the window the armored car has stopped in front of the wounded man and paramedics quickly load them in from the sheltered side of the vehicle. Alexander quickly sights on the armored car.
(to Hans, CB)
I have them.
(o.s., over CB)
EXT. THE ARMORED CAR
A blast ROARS from the third floor window and the shell hits the armored car. The car pitches forward like a beast whose front legs have been shot out from under it — its front axle destroyed, unable to move. Alexander looks back at James and grins.
EXT. POLICE BARRICADE – ON ROBINSON AND MITCHELL
They look on in horror as the armored car sits helplessly on fire. On the police radio channel we hear the SCREAMS OF MEN inside.
The scene is continuing to build its suspense to a crescendo. The screams of good cops just doing their job is a powerful one, especially in contrast to a cold villain who matter of factly tells his henchman to “just wound them.” John McClane has been largely silent up until now, and it figures that this particular action scene will end with McClane coming up with an ingenious way of stopping the terrorists.
This is most common structure of an action scene, in which the hero or the protagonist of the scene makes an action which puts him into danger. Since the antagonist has to be smarter than the hero, often they find themselves in trouble quite quickly. Our perception of an action scene depends on what information we have that the hero doesn’t, and when we know there is a bad guy lurking round the corner, we start to become anxious for the safety of the good guy.
However, this previous scene had one thing most action scenes don’t have: dialogue. Most action scenes don’t have that crutch to hold onto. The biggest difficulty with writing an action scene is to strike a balance between brevity and depth. Going for the most concise description of the action scene will make it take up only a few lines, and could make what you envisage as a two minute scene last only a handful of seconds on paper. However, go into too much depth, too much description, and you are potentially telling both the director and the choreographer exactly what to do.
Returning to John August for a second, he makes the key point you have to consider when writing any kind of scene: “Always remember that you’re writing a movie, not a screenplay. Even though you only have words at your disposal, you’re trying to create the experience of watching a movie”
In other words, you have to paint a picture of the scene. In the previous scene, look at the description of the rocket hitting an armoured car. There are no specific camera angles mentioned and the description is fairly brief, but it still works to great effect: “A blast ROARS from the third floor window” The use of capital letters makes the word stick out on the page and catch the reader’s attention. “The car pitches forward like a beast whose front legs have been shot out from under it — its front axle destroyed, unable to move.” A clear and emphatic picture of the action has been created to us, full of detail.
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:
McClane's bullets rake his middle, throw him over a desk, his weapon flying:
He slides right into a glass door. It smashes around his head. Bright arterial blood fountains up:
hope rising at the prospect of an equal battle, his face suddenly falls as BULLETS fly in from an unexpected direction. He turns:
has reappeared and snatched up Franco's weapon.
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.
looks at the glass around him, gets an idea. He shouts to Karl in German:
The glass! Shoot the glass!
And, saying this, he demonstrates. Karl follows suit.
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:
goes right down on a jagged shard. He groans, keeps going:
He's out, gone, safe!
Note that although there are no sound, music or camera angles to work with, the use of words can create a compelling picture of the action. McClane is “raked” by bullets; glass is “raining down” on him as the firefight continues. Screenwriter Jeb Stuart then gives the climax of the scene a long paragraph to give it some bite. Instead of simply stating that lots of computers are shot to pieces, Stuart gets inventive with his “RAM heaven” analogy. To give the scene the time it needs, it pays to be inventive.
Finally, the most important factor to consider when placing an action scene into your screenplay is to make it relevant and key to the plot. An action scene is where the stakes are highest in any film, so make sure the hero has moved closer or further away from his goal. If an action scene doesn’t move the film in any direction, then you are making action for action sake and trying to shoe horn action sequences into the plot to give the script a leg up. These kinds of shenanigans are not going to fool any disconcerting screenplay reader. In Die Hard, however, the action does move the plot, creating both successes and failures, on the road to the main character’s objective. When McClane encounters a terrorist for the first time, his resources are limited:
Then down the concrete steps into the wall on the landing below. For a moment, both men lie still. McClane, still holding onto Tony's neck, releases it and the man's head flops sickeningly to the side.
For a moment McClane just looks at the dead man. Then, slowly, methodically, he begins to search him. He turns all his pockets inside out, looks at his clothing labels, stares long and very hard at a California driver's license with Tony's picture on it
He expertly examines the machine gun when a HISSING SOUND coming from somewhere attracts his attention.
He rises, moves cautiously to the source.
It's Tony's CB, which has fallen from the dead man's waist during the struggle. McClane stares at it, formulating a plan.
Previous to this scene, McClane was an outsider with just a handgun to take down an unknown number of machine gun wielding terrorists. Now, he is one terrorist down, with a machine gun and more importantly, the CB radio he uses to discover more about the terrorists and to get messages to the outside. Every action scene in Die Hard moves the plot forward either in favour of its protagonist or against it, and it is the same principle that you must apply to your movie if you’re going to craft well-executed action scenes.