Tips for Planning the Action
I’m not particularly good at doing action scenes so a while back I did a bit of research and thinking in order to improve what I do. Here are some general principles for designing action scenes that I arrived at. They help me to be a bit more deliberate about what I want to achieve when I write one – but they shouldn’t be seen as a prescription (more suggestions to think about).
1. Find a story to tell within the story.
Action scenes must serve the plot. They are wasted text if they do not advance the plot in any meaningful way. If an action scene can be deleted without affecting the story at all, it is unnecessary and shouldn’t be there.
A good action scene is a movement from intention to outcome, but like all scenes, must be one that would diminish the story if it was absent.
2. Make it subjective and personalize it.
The scene should focus on the experience of the combatants. It should be a dialog between them that reveals character in some way. It should also include stakes that are genuinely high; that is the participants should have something genuinely important to lose as a result of the outcome… and the outcome must be genuinely uncertain.
3. Decide on a mood.
Is the action short and brutal (like in Unforgiven)? Is it extended, civil, and swashbuckling (like in The Princess Bride)? Is it realistic? Is it stylized? Is it desperate etc.?
4. Have a broad outline of the action.
Plan the scene (goal, obstacle, disaster, reaction/choice, outcome) in broad terms. Because the pace is intentionally quick, don’t worry about rehearsal of options and anticipation of outcomes – they belong to more leisurely scenes. Don’t choreograph every move… that isn’t going to work. Let the audience choreograph the fight by harnessing the listener’s own ability to supply the detail. Give the audience enough detail (via sound cues and dialog) that it is easy for them to imagine the detail without confusion.
5. If possible, heighten the emotion.
Use the protagonist’s point of view, sound and dialog to provide reactions to being in the midst of the action. Confusion, pain, surprise, fear, anger etc.
6. Keep the action fast paced.
Use short sentences of dialog. Make sound cues short and evocative. Resolve the action quickly – don’t let the audience start to wonder if/when its all going to end. It’s better to leave the audience wanting more than bored by too much.
7. Surprise the listener.
A fight or action scene is a story telling opportunity and cliches and predictability should be avoided.
8. Don’t fill the scene with uninterpreted or uninterpretable sound.
Incomprehensible soundscapes create confusion in the mind of the audience and destroy any sense of immersion that the audience might have.
9. Don’t over narrate.
Use supporting characters and your protagonists to keep the action clear. Have them speak to each other about what they are seeing etc. But don’t overdo it. You don’t want your action scene to sound like a prize fight commentary (unless it happens to be a prize fight commentary).
Here’s a quick example scene…
SCENE 1: INT – CAPTAIN’S CABIN ON THE PIRATE SHIP THE FLOATING SAVAGE – NIGHT (FIRST MATE, PIRATE KING, PIRATE 1, PIRATE 2, PIRATE 3)
1. SOUND: BOAT RIGGING, WAVES, ETC. – ESTABLISH AND UNDER.
2. SOUND: A KNOCK, DOOR OPENS – LET IT FINISH.
3. FIRST MATE: ‘Evening Captain. There’s four of us as would like a word if it’s all the same to you.
4. PIRATE KING: Well, lads, come in and gather round. I’ve word of a fat ship heading to the West Indies with a payroll for the plantations. What do you say? A worthy target?
5. SOUND: DOOR CLOSES, PIRATES SHUFFLE IN – LET IT FINISH.
6. FIRST MATE: Well, Captain, it’s like this. We’re feeling a little concerned… Ye’ve led us into one disaster after another recently and we were wondering why we should keep on following you?
7. PIRATE CAPTAIN: Are ye thinking I’ve led ye wrong then?
8. FIRST MATE: Aye Captain, we are. Begging your pardon, but we’ve seen no decent plunder these past months… and come close to capture more’n a few times.
9. PIRATE KING: So what would you have me do? The pickings have been meagre, true, and the King’s navy has dogged our every step. But I defy you to show me anyone who could have done any better.
10. FIRST MATE: I reckon “some of us” think perhaps we could do a better job.
11. PIRATE KING: Then call a vote. Let’s see how many this “some of us” amounts to.
12. FIRST MATE: Well, Captain, that would be the way to do it, right enough, but I think a quicker and more straight forward solution be presenting itself.
13. PIRATE KING: Ah, it’s like that is it?
14. FIRST MATE: Aye, ‘tis.
15. PIRATE KING: And that’d be why you brought these three lads with you. You never were one to face a man squarely.
16. FIRST MATE: Oh they ain’t going to interfere. They’re just here to make sure no-one else does either. (BEAT) What say you to my challenge, Captain? How will ye answer?
17. PIRATE KING: Like this…
18. SOUND: SMACK OF FIST ON FACE – LET IT FINISH.
19. FIRST MATE: Ugh. Your sneaky reputation is well earned, Captain. But it will take more’n that to fell me.
20. PIRATE KING: Something more like this then?
21. SOUND: SMACK (BEAT) SMACK, SMACK – LET IT FINISH.
22. FIRST MATE: (DISCONCERTED AND WORRIED) Aye. Something very much like that.
23. PIRATE KING: So why are you smiling?
24. FIRST MATE: Because of this…
25. SOUND: KNIFE UNSHEATHES – LET IT FINISH.
26. PIRATE KING: A knife? Really?
27. FIRST MATE: It’s the least I could… do!
28. SOUND: SWISH OF KNIFE – LET IT FINISH.
29. PIRATE KING: … and I didn’t bring anything for you. (BEAT) I guess it will have to just be this…
30. SOUND: SMACK – LET IT FINISH.
31. PIRATE KING: And this…
32. SOUND: SMACK – LET IT FINISH.
33. PIRATE KING: And this, and this, and this…
34. SOUND: SMACK, SMACK, SMACK – UNDER
35. PIRATE KING: And this!
36. SOUND: SMACK – LET IT FINISH.
37. FIRST MATE: (GROANS) Ugh!
38. SOUND: BODY DROP!
39. PIRATE KING: (SLIGHTLY OUT OF BREATH) Now… are any of you other wretches inclined to add your weight to this cur’s challenge?
40. PIRATE 1: (SCARED) No!
41. PIRATE 2&3: No, no!
42. PIRATE KING: Good. Then I suggest you get this maggot ridden carcass off my floor and over the side of my ship.
43. PIRATE 1: Er, yes Captain. Right away Captain!
44. PIRATE KING: … and then get something to clean the blood out of my carpet. His nose appears to have bled all over it.
45. PIRATES 2&3: Yes, yes, Captain!
46. PIRATE KING: Well, get going!
47. SOUND: HURRIED ACTIVITY, JOSTLING, DOOR OPENS AND CLOSES – LET IT FINISH.
48. PIRATE KING: Damnit! I’ll need a new first mate after this.
49. MUSIC: SCENE ENDER – LET IT FINISH
In the above scene I’ve tried to keep the action simple and easy to follow (a few short sharp blows and the swish of a knife). From a story point of view this brawl is an exercise in dominance, the Captain is being challenged for his ship and meets it decisively, reasserting control over his crew by beating the challenger down. His skill is demonstrated in the dialog and his courage is demonstrated by facing down his First Mate with just his fists when the coward produces a knife. The fearful reaction of the crew and the reference to blood on the carpet are intended to help sell the violence of the moment. Structurally, the scene establishes the captain’s goal (to assert his right to be Captain), the obstacle (a challenge from the First Mate), the disaster (the First Mate pulls a knife), the captain’s reaction (bravado), and the captains choice (to defeat the First Mate with only his fists).
What techniques do you employ to write action scenes? Tell us your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.
This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.