Several days ago I completed a critique on an action script. While the story itself wasn’t too bad, the overall execution of the action sequences read more like a story written by Jane Austen. Nothing wrong with Jane Austen, but I’m not so sure you’d want her writing the next big action flick. I mean, if she were alive. Whatever.
Anyway, the action scenes in the script just didn’t do anything for me. The words were just laying there on the page. They didn’t pop out in a visually exciting manner. That’s a big problem if you’re trying to write anything that’s to be considered thrilling. Oddly enough, a couple days later, I received an e-mail from another writer asking: “How involved should my action sequences be? If I’m writing a fight scene, should I describe every time someone gets hit?”
So, I'll take this as a sign to address this aspect of screenwriting.
But instead of me trying to explain how an action scene should be written, I’m gonna take the lazy way out and simply post a segment of Shane Black’s excellent screenplay The Long Kiss Goodnight. After all, one of the best ways to learn how to write a screenplay is by actually reading professional screenplays. Besides, nobody does it quite like Shane. So, without further ado...
EXT. THE FRONT PORCH – JUST OUTSIDE THE DOOR – NIGHT
THE CAROLERS continue their interesting rendition. Snowflakes fall. All is quiet. All is bright.
Especially bright is the SHOTGUN BARREL pressed to the throat of the lead soprano.
The weapon’s an HE-109. Over and under combo. Shotgun on top. High explosive cannon on bottom.
You’d sing shitty too.
INT. HOUSE – SAME
Samantha walks to the door. Carrying a bowl of festive M&M’s. Just as she gets to the door –
The singing stops.
The sound of FOOTFALLS. Running off into the night.
Samantha frowns, puzzled. OPENS THE DOOR.
The carolers are gone.
MR. BARNES remains. Gun in hand.
Escaped convict. Trained killer.
BARNES: Evening, Charly. Long time.
He swings the gun. SLAMS the barrel into her.
Glass shatters. M&M’s everywhere.
She gapes at him. Dumbstruck, unable to THINK.
Hurry it up, lady, we need a decision, live or die –
SHE GRABS THE GUN BARREL
Snaps out of it, just like that. Wrenches the gun –
They reel and rock.
ON THE STAIRS
Appears seven-year-old CAITLIN, eyes like saucers:
SAMANTHA: GET OUUTTTT!!!!
Sam’s cry is a veritable shriek, as
Appears, snarling. POUNCES on Barnes –
Succeeds in annoying him.
For his trouble, Hal gets three broken ribs and a trip to the fireplace. Airborne. Comes down, bam!
He catches fire. SCREAMS. Rolls over and over on his broken ribs, as
Kicks Samantha in the gut. She collapses onto the stairs. Splinters the banister.
The he sees CAITLIN. Top of the stairs, she’s paralyzed.
Barnes is already moving forward. SPIN-COCKS the shotgun, draws a bead –
Promptly slips on the festive M&M’s. Goes down.
Gun goes off, WHAM--! A flat concussion.
The banister EXPLODES. A storm of wood chips, as
Surges up the stairs, toward her daughter –
BARNES. On the ground. Fires, WHAM!
The wall disappears THREE INCHES FROM CAITLIN’S HEAD.
Blown to shreds, you can SEE OUTDOORS.
Samantha doesn’t miss a beat. GRABS her daughter –
FLINGS HER OUTSIDE.
Through the hole in the wall. Takes her by the belt and fucking HURLS her out into space!
EXT. SIDE OF HOUSE – SAME TIME
Two stories up. The kid is ejected, flailing.
Floats in SLOW MOTION. Across a ten foot gap –
INTO THE TREEHOUSE.
Sails head over heels into the place. Hits with a CRASH. Alive and unhurt.
BACK INSIDE THE HOUSE
Samantha didn’t even look. Didn’t need to.
Here comes BARNES. Up the staircase. Reloading.
Samantha launches herself down the stairs.
COLLIDES, head on. Down they go.
Barnes, rolls to his feet. Propels her into the KITCHEN.
INT. KITCHEN - SAME TIME
She hits, WHAM, spray of cat food –
SKIDDING. Across the linoleum.
Slams to a stop. Hard. Cupboard pops open, out comes the IRONING BOARD. Falls into place, SNAP--!
A GUN BLAST disintegrates it. Reveals Sam, cowering behind.
BARNES: I want my eye back, bitch.
Samantha struggles to her feet. Dazed. Barnes abandons the shotgun. Takes the IRON down from its spot on the shelf –
Begins to beat her with it.
Samantha takes hit after hit. Head snapping to and fro. Reeling backward...
Still he comes. No mercy. SLAM. To the head.
Bleeding now. Stumbles...Raises her arms pitifully –
Still he hits her. DENTS the iron.
BARNES: Goddamn you. Fight me. What’s wrong with you, fight me!
There's more to the scene, but I think you get the point. Pretty exciting stuff, eh? You bet!
No, I don't expect you to write like Shane Black, but there's no reason why you can't spiff up those action scenes. Just make it interesting, make it visual...give us more than just:
Joe punches Jack and Jack falls on the floor.
Sorry, but that's not how you write a script.
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