It's the height of summer movie season, which means that action movies are blowing up all over. And that makes this the perfect time to revisit some advice from John Rogers, creator of Leverage and writer of the new webcomic Arcanum. Here, he explains why you should never write an action scene. Ever.
All images from The Wolverine.
Recently, Josh Friedman penned another one of his mini-masterpieces on writing sex scenes. Specifically, how he find writing sex scenes interesting, but he's not all that sussed on writing action scenes. I cite the relevant passage mined from the good stuff about Angeline Jolie and Mickey Rourke's toilet:
The people who are fucking lazy are the writers. Honestly, what does an action scene do to move a story ahead? Nothing. What does it do for a characters' journey? Nothing. What does it do for the movie itself? Take up a chunk of time that now doesn't need to be filled with character and story.
And you know why? Because character and story are hard things to write. And it's easy to write an action scene. I know. I've written hundreds of them. They bore the crap out of me. But at least I know they're gonna take up some pages in my screenplay without me having to figure out the hard stuff. Action sequences are the junk food in any writer's kitchen. That's not to say there aren't good action sequences—ones that literally take your breath away—but those are few and far between. For me, when the tripod in WOTW comes out of the ground and starts blowing shit up with no mercy—my jaw dropped open and my heart actually raced. And I bring that up exactly BECAUSE I was involved in the movie. I knew it was coming and yet it still got me excited.
And shouldn't the point of action sequences be excitement? No one wants to admit that—but violence in film is supposed to be EXCITING. It rarely is. But that doesn't stop people from jamming a movie full of it for no reason other than lazy writing.
And thus boring the shit out of us.
Now, what's interesting here is that in looking back on my entire career, I realized that I have never written a sex scene, while I find writing spiffy action sequences just buckets of goddam fun. We are two sides of the same coin, Josh and I — soon we will meet in mortal combat, pitting our avataric powers against each other in the skies above Alamagordo, settling once and for all the eternal struggle between light and dark ...
Ahem. No, this is probably because, personally, I find the situation of two people who want to sleep together but don't or can't far more interesting a story dynamic than consumation. This is an odd admission, but for me almost all film sex scenes are boring as dirt. The conflict is (at least for this scene) closed, so we're going to muck around in soft-focus denoument for five minutes? If the the entire thrust of storytelling is conflict, and both characters want the same thing (to have ze sex) ... you get my point. The only interest in a film sex scene is when chemistry trumps structure.
Also, I don't really get my jollies unless the woman is dressed like a pirate. But I don't think that invalidates my point. Not completely, anyway.
Josh points out a great weakness in action scenes as written in American film — they're pauses in the job of developing story and character. Where this came from, well, I'm not going to lay everything on the feet of directors, but ... suck it, camera boys. This is a distinctly American issue — action sequence as end-point. Writers have fallen into this habit because that's just how action sequences have come to be defined in American films. I run smack-dab into this all the time:
Executive: But I don't get it. When did we find out about that subplot?
Me: It was the reveal at the center of the action sequence.
Executive: Oh, as soon as I see the action start, I just skip over that writing. Nothing ever happens in an action sequence, and I hate them anyway.
Executive: ... pardon me, but you seem to have driven your pen into my left temple.
Don't do it, Spec-Monkeys. Don't treat your action sequences like dirty little obligations.
You don't do an action sequence for the sake of doing a damn action sequence — you do an action sequence because it's a new or more effective way to advance your character or story.
Would you ever intentionally write a scene in which your protagonist was completely reactive, and the outcome of the scene was a foregone conclusion? Of course not. Screenwriting 101, and your drum-circle of a writing group would pillory you for it. But that is precisely how 99.999999999 % of action sequences are currently written.
If you are not a fan of action sequences — and I am a fan, a junkie, I can parse them out in ninety different flavors — then you may approach the basic dynamic of an action scene thusly:
Objective: Character wants to escape bad guys.
Dramatic Question: Will character escape bad guys?
The problem, here, of course is that the character objective is — as stated — completely reactive, and the dramatic question is answered "Well, duh, we're only halfway through the movie." All the sturm and drang and "hey that's the exact same car-bounces-just-over-our-head shot as in your previous movie and you know who you are, Sparky" business is just noise. Big, good-for-the-reel but shit-for-the-audience noise. You have to really notch up the visual tricks to overcome this, and to some degree I think we may have topped out. I hold, for example, that the car chase is now dead as a filmic device. Dead.
Tossing aside all the bigger philosophy, here's my attack: make sure every action sequence has a separate goal within the sequence which might legitimately suceed or fail with derailing the movie. Slap a little suspense beat down as your seed, then let your action sequence arrive from the a.) circumstances surrounding the goal or b.) choices of the character.
You can stop reading now, if you just take this away: Don't write action sequences. Write suspense sequences that require action to resolve.
Moving on, and this was beaten into me by the nice Hong Kong humans I've worked with: every action sequence has its own internal three act structure. Objective, complication, resolution. And not only that, but the complication needs to be something which forces a choice on the character, not just a complication in physical circumstances.
It is valid for the complication to be "the odds suddenly become impossible" if a.) the odds are indeed im-goddam-possible in the context of the movie so far and b.) the way the protagonist overcomes these odds is illustrative of the character.
If I may have the arrogance to discuss movies by some very amazing film-makers — for me, this is one of the reasons The Matrix still holds up, and the sequels are two of the most boring movies I have ever, ever, ever seen.
In The Matrix, the Wachowskis spend the entire movie setting the stakes: do not fight an Agent. When you see an Agent, run. The movie opens with Trinity doing one of the most AMAZINGLY BADASS things we've seen on film, and then she spends five minutes running in a blind panic from the Agents.
So, in the first big action sequence*: the Agents are coming. Oh shit. We need to outwit them, outrun them, but in no way, shape, or form do we stand a chance against them. When Morpheus has to stay and fight, there is no guarantee he's going to get out of this (suspense) and we're hooked because they've spent a lot of time making sure Morpheus is a sympathetic and emotionally involved character.
The second big action sequence: rescuing Morpheus. The choices Neo makes and abilites he shows actually evolve the story and his character. He's learning about the nature of the world. Learning to sacrifice. Going from a watcher to a participant. The action is simply the lens through which we see this growth — the visually arresting, badass lens. This sequence is particularly noteworthy, as you can actually track its internal three-act progression of Neo quite clearly.
"I may not be the One, but I'm going to help my guy."
"You moved like they do."
"Holy shit, he is the One."
This leads into the third sequence: Neo fights Agent Smith. Now, we're pretty close to the end of the movie here, so we may well assume that "duh, of course Neo's going to win." But the Wachowski's have done something masterful. First, even in the previous sequence, the heroes only beat an Agent when they cheat. Two on one, and they still need Neo to pull a trick he's never exhibited before, changing the rules in mid-fight. This Smith fight is the first mano-a-mano fight. The threat and obstacle are escalated way, WAY over what they've been before. Second, it's a payoff — Smith is one of the best screen antagonists of the last ten years. We wannnnnt to see the throwdown we've been waiting for, the one the film's been quite consciously avoiding all the way up to this point. Third — the exterior complication of the squids arriving. Fourth — this fight is a character moment. This fight is Neo saying: "No. I'm not going to run anymore. I stand and fight and die here." This is the moment in the film where Neo-we leave our cubicles and beat up our bosses, or stand up and fight all the bastards in suits who shove us around and make us feel unimportant. This is "Take this job and shove it" with gun-fu, and that's a powerful gut-check moment. All those factors combined are necessary to overcome the "well, of course he'll survive" instinct.
If you've seen the sequels, all I have to say is "Burly Brawl", and you get my point.
Leaving aside the flame wars that analysis will spark in the Comments, I'll pull something possibly illustrative out of something I worked on: Lee Childs' Killing Floor. The rights are tied up in a rights kerfuffle over at Paramount now, so I feel free to discuss it.
There's a moment in the book where the protagonist, ex-military cop Jack Reacher, goes up against two Bad Men sent to kill him. Jack doesn't go mano-a-mano with them. He uses a particularly nice bit of strategy and makes a particularly brutal choice, which illustrate both his training and his personal morality. We learn Jack Reacher is someone With Whom You Do Not Fuck, and look forward to seeing him unleash unpleasantness on the main bad guys.
But still ... it's in the Second Act, and in our heart of hearts we know Jack's going to get out of it. It's a nice action sequence, and it serves to illustrate Jack in a way that the pleasant conversations he's had with people up to this point do not — cannot — but still it can only break two ways: Jack lives or Jack dies. And we kind of know Jack's going to live.
So I tried to find a story beat that could break either way. In the book, a Young Woman arrives who is a source of Information. She's killed before our people can talk to her. She's also intimately, emotionally tied to Jack.
So I blended the two together. The Young Woman arrives, she brings the Information, but is snatched by the Bad Men. Jack now has to go up against the Bad Men. But now, on top of the nice bit of action choreography and the character moment, we get suspense stakes. The bit can break multiple ways: Jack can survive, but fail to rescue the Young Woman and the Information. Jack can save the Young Woman and the Information. The Young Woman dies, but Jack gets the Information. Jack survives but the Young Woman and/or the Information are somehow removed from his grasp. None of these results will break the movie, so we as viewers can't dismiss them as possible scene endings.
Which leads us to our last trick: Pipe. So boring. So horrible. But if you make pipe the objective of an action sequence, or a by-product, it all goes down much more smoothly.
All this to reinforce what I mentioned earlier (Christ I am chatty):
Don't write action scenes. Write suspense scenes that require action to resolve.
Good luck, and take from it what you will.