How should we approach writing action sequences in a screenplay? This is a very common question in screenwriting circles and one that I'll try to explore here, if even just on a surface level. The problem with writing action sequences is - well, there are many problems with writing action sequences. I wish I could just single out one. The fact is, what the screenwriter sees in their head, such as location layout, the positioning of characters or vehicles, cuts and pace, and so on, are all very arbitrary and specific only because the writer has seen fit to describe it in that way. As anyone who has ever been on a set will tell you, it all changes from that point onwards. Nothing that is in the script will remain exactly as it was described - not usually anyway. The director, cinematographer, editor and so on will all have a hand in adapting and changing the action sequence as it appears in the script for the screen.
So, how do you approach writing an action scene when so much of it is going to be budget dependent, and dependent on the actors, production designers (how they build the set will play a huge role in adapting your writing to the screen) and so on? Well, the answer to this is simple - you write it in exactly the same way you'd write anything else in a script. You go into just enough detail so that it is clear what is happening, why it is happening and so on - you give the reader a compelling read that doesn't break the flow of the film to come, and you don't overstep your mark as a screenwriter. You don't get so precise that the filmmakers are unable to work with your script.
I started rooting through my collection of screenplays to find an appropriate action film that I could break down and analyse. What better script to use than The Bourne Ultimatum, a thrilling action film with some of the best driving scenes I've ever seen in a film. It is one of these scenes, near the end of the film that I will use as a case study here.
First, read these three pages from the script. After each page, I'll deconstruct the action and comment on how it is written.
We can see from this page of action that it is direct and concise. This is a good description. It's visual in it's tone and tells you only what is important.
It begins with Bourne stealing a car and "peeling out". Vosen is racing across town (again, nothing more needed here) and the next scene shows Bourne getting recognised by a pursuing police officer.
Notice that each beat of action is a scene in its own right. This isn't mandatory in a script, but the writer isn't treating it as a montage of action (as some writers tend to do). It is respectful of script formatting guidelines and it also gives a great sense of pace. In this page, it is clear that one minute is equal to one page.
One technique that I find in well-written action scripts is the use of the double dash (as I call it); two hyphens directly after a beat of action that links to the next line underneath.
The passenger side Officer sees BOURNE, points --
This double hyphen functions like an interruption and suggests a rapid cutting to the next beat of action. This can be seen in some of Aaron Sorkin's scripts as well because of the rapid-fire effect that his dialogue can take sometimes.
Notice how the writer doesn't describe the officer trying to shoot at Bourne, he just describes the difficulty of doing so because of the high speeds they are driving at. The writer isn't specific here, just allowing the filmmakers to get a sense of what is important.
The closing scene of the page shows Bourne approaching Port Authority, but again, is not specific about location.
Let's look at the next page of the sequence:
Like the page before, the sequence continues to be clear and concise, giving only what is needed for the reader to understand the high speed of the chase, the general direction the characters are moving in (towards Port Authority) and providing plenty of inspiration for the filmmakers to come.
One thing of interest here is the use of expository dialogue in the top half of the page. The characters are very blunt about telling us where they are headed. Sometimes people feel like they shouldn't be writing expository dialogue, but action sequences such as this demand it sometimes. It acts as a compass for audiences to reposition themselves in the action if they get confused or lost.
The scene of Bourne in the car park is more detailed than before. It gives specific directions for the cast and gives precise descriptions of the layout of the location. It probably wasn't that important, and may not even be in the final film. Since it isn't so precise (most multi-story car park locations such as this would be appropriate) it's not a problem.
Another thing to note is that the writer uses the term SERIES OF SHOTS as a general scene header for merging a lot of the scenes together. This helps to maintain the pacing of the script and really ramp up the tension for the reader. It might sound like the writer is breaking some of the unspoken rules of screenwriting and should be giving each location change a new scene header, but this isn't really a problem as the writer has already established these scenes effectively already. It's not as though the filmmakers would have a hard time trying to determine what scenes have to be filmed. The setups for the previous scenes and the action within them would cater to these 'series of shots'. Probably not a habit for writer's to get into starting out, but it's not a deal breaker in a scene like this I think. There is a consistency in how it is written as well, and this helps.
The great thing about the way The Bourne Ultimatum is written is that it doesn't box the filmmaker into a specific way of making the film. It is communicative of what the audience will experience and in that respect, it is a well-written script. However, the filmmakers can still bring their ideas to the table as well. So many times, screenwriters get too precise in the action sequences. It creates a script and is unfilmable for those specific reasons. The success of the scenes can hinge on specifics about locations that might not even be achievable in reality.
Okay, let's look at some other examples before we wrap up. Below is an extract from The Dark Knight, where Batman is infiltrating The Joker's hideout at the end of the film.
You will notice that, like The Bourne Ultimatum, this is precisely where it needs to be and vague and 'inspirational' the rest of the time. The writers' emphasise KICKING and PUNCHING in upper case and describes all the tasks that Batman has to do without being overly prescriptive. Some people might write this as a series of bullet points, but, perhaps because he is directing this as well, Nolan is able to give himself more freedom on the day of filming by keeping it vague.
Notice how the second paragraph becomes far more precise and takes up almost as much space in the script as the previous paragraph, despite being a far shorter moment in the film itself.
As a final case study, let's look at Gravity. This sequence shows the space capsule sinking into the lake.
In this sequence, we can see a very clear and direct set of bullet points that show each beat of action as it is likely to unfold on the screen. Key moments, such as WATER POURS IN and IT PUSHES HER BACK IN are emphasised in upper case.
This makes it easy to read as well because it means the reader can skim through the action and get an accurate sense of the scenes as they unfold. It can also be considered equally ineffective when so much of the scenes are in uppercase.
When writing action sequences, make sure that you are giving the necessary information, not describing the layout of each location and how the characters interact with said location. That's not really what's important, and if it is, it may not be a healthy avenue for you to go down with your story. Remember, what is important above all else, is the effect that the action is having or might have on your protagonist and antagonistic characters. An action is a reflection of character. When Bourne outsmarts the cops, or when Batman rescues the hostages, they are showcasing characteristics that define them. Likewise, when Sandra Bullock's character fights back against the incoming water and escapes the pod, this is reflective of her overall rebirth that the story is trying to showcase.
Make sure that your action is meaningful, or at least a showcase of the characters' abilities. But also, make sure that it is something that others can work with to bring the overall sequence to life.
(Image Copyright: Universal Pictures)