Last night screenwriter F. Scott Frazier (The Numbers Station, Autobahn) did a Twitter tip session on writing action set-pieces. Reprinted here by permission:
OK, so, I’m always getting asked about how I write action sequences / set-pieces, and I’ve always found it tricky.
— F. Scott Frazier (@ScreenWritten) October 7, 2014
So I figured I could share a few of my “things” that I do in both inventing and physically writing set-pieces.
So this is my process, based around stuff that works for me. These aren’t rules, these aren’t the only ways to write an action piece.
I take action set-pieces very seriously because of the genre that I’m in. Nowhere near as important as character and conflict…
…But definitely important. My aim with action is to be as unique and inventive as possible. To bring something new to the table.
That’s not always possible, so my 2nd goal with action is for each piece to be as unique/inventive in comparison to the rest of the script.
By the way, if you’re writing drama/comedy/sports… Literally any other genre than action, writing “They fight” is pretty acceptable.
Dull, but acceptable.
If you’re writing an action movie (or any of its constituent sub genres) “They fight” can ruin your script. Not your story, your script.
My goal with every action scene I write is for it to pop off the page and directors say: “I can’t wait to shoot that.”
Here’s what you don’t want a director to say: “Give to the 2nd Unit.”
I personally am attracted to two things in action scenes: POV and personality.
POV is easier to figure out. POV is the one-shot in CHILDREN OF MEN.
Heroes attacked while in a car. How many times have we seen that before?
Heroes attacked while in a car… While the movie never cuts and our view never leaves the interior. I’ve never seen that before.
POV doesn’t have to be one-shots, it can be any *unique* view of the action other than “Coverage, coverage, wide shot, close up, coverage.”
POV is definitely more the “director’s realm” and calling your shots in a script too often can quickly feel overused.
But once or twice? A guy breaks into an impenetrable building and we only see it from a slow pan of security feeds? That’s kinda fun.
If I have an action scene that’s somewhat generic, but NEED it for the story, I look at the POV, and see if there’s a way to twist it.
The second aspect of action scenes is personality. This one is ENTIRELY the realm of the screenwriter. This is where we earn our keep.
Quick, name this movie based on the action scenes: break out, break in, break in, foot chase, car chase, foot chase, shoot out, fist fight.
That could be a lot of movies. Could be any movie. And you’d be right!
Unlike with character, unlike with conflict, unlike with story there are only so many ways two people can have a physical confrontation.
OK, what if I say: prison break out, Kremlin break in, Burj Khalifa break in, sandstorm foot/car chase, automated parking garage fist fight?
Every action beat in MI:4 is not just one thing. It’s not *just* a foot chase. It’s not *just* a prison escape. Everything has personality.
And no one scene is like any other, even though the main action verbs (chase, fight, shoot) are the same throughout.
It’s totally possible to write *just* a car chase, but please be sure to have John Frankenheimer directing.
Pro-tip: if John Frankenheimer is directing your movie, please call the police. He is either a ghost or a zombie and wants to hurt you.
So how do you find this personality? Where does this personality come from? Mexican Pizza.
When I worked in video games, I had the pleasure of working with a guy who taught me about Mexican Pizza.
Mexican food? Good. Pizza? Good. Mexican Pizza. Two tastes that shouldn’t work, but do.
I once wrote a military movie that was basically action front to back. The rough draft was soooo boring. Everything devolved into shooting.
I wanted to rip my hair out. If I had to write “They SHOOT” or “They OPEN FIRE” or “They KILL so and so” I was gonna scream.
Then I remembered Mexican Pizza.
So what I did was I cleaned off my white board and divided it in two sections:
Section A was ACTION VERBS: run, shoot, chase, jump, fall, etc. Section B was NOUNS: locations, equipment, obstacles, etc.
And for EVERY action beat in the movie, I looked to my list and I picked a verb and a noun. And that’s what the beat became about.
Then I CROSSED THEM OUT. And I kept myself from using that same combination again. (Shooting got used a lot, but never with the same noun)
So if there was a shootout in a hallway, I never did that again. I forced myself to make sure all shooting scenes were different.
But that just makes it so they scenes are unique from one another, the personality comes in finding the combinations that are “weird.”
So for MI:4, it ends with a fist fight. But a fist fight in an automated parking garage. How is that gonna turn out?
So for me the action scenes are *a lot* of brainstorming. A lot of lists, and finding fun combinations within those lists.
By the way, this is Mexican Pizza. This is *not* Mexican Cheesesteak Italian Pizza. I try to stick with two or *maybe* three “things / scene
The best way I find to put together my lists is to figure out location first. (Well, “first.” Before any of this, your scene needs a goal.)
(But to me that’s more of a story concern than an action concern, and fuck if I know how to teach someone how to tell a story.)
So I Google image search my location. And I just kind of look through things. (If I don’t know my location, I go to Wikipedia instead.)
And I look at the location and just note down everything that’s there. Everything physical, everything visual. Anything that moves.
And I list and I list and I list. And then I step back and think: What would be cool? What would I pay $15 bucks to see?
Like, honestly, that’s my secret sauce. What would I pay $15 American to see that I’ve never seen before.
And then sitting down to physically write the scene, I have my guidelines. I have a verb (or two) and a noun (or two).
At that point it’s easy (“easy”) to write the scene because I never leave the verb. And once I do leave the verb… Guess what? Scene over!
Some notes: I tend to overwrite action scenes (and everything) in my first draft. Then when I rewrite I cut judiciously.
You might write short and then add in. Whatever works for you, let it work.
And I also try to make sure that every action verb written into the scene is different…
Reading “he punches, then he punches back” can get boring.
Reading “He punches, then she grapples him and he counters her” can also get boring, but not as quickly.
Don’t worry about length of the scene in the script. Get in, write the cool thing, get out.
Yes, action movies have these huge set-pieces these days that are twenty minutes long. Doesn’t mean you should write a 20 page sequence.
Give us the moments, give us the dialogue, give us the cool beats, then peace out.
Some of my favorite Mexican Pizza movie moments:
Dragons vs. Helicopters – AVATAR
Car in tree – JURASSIC PARK
Dragging bank vault with car – FAST FIVE
Slow speed car chase – WAY OF THE GUN
Also: I had AUTOMATED PARKING GARAGE on my list since 2011 and never got to use it. Thanks, Appelbaum & Nemec!
There are some great tips and techniques in this Twitter rant, but perhaps the biggest lesson becomes visible when you step back and look at Scott’s post from a meta view. What you see is screenwriter as problem solver. How to write unique, entertaining action set-pieces? POV. Personality. Verbs here, nouns there. Mexican pizza. Brainstorm. Lists. Nothing romantic about the process, just a focused approach and hard work combined with creative instincts.
Here’s the problem. Embrace the problem and make it part of the solution.
You should follow Scott on Twitter: @screenwritten.
For my March 2012 interview with Scott, go here.
For all of the Screenwriting Twitter Rants, go here.