In the 1980s, action films began to take on a bigger role in the Hollywood ecosystem, driving big box-office returns that pleased a new generation of executives and studio owners. They've only grown in import since then, and over the last 30 years action blockbusters have become the centerpiece of a global movie marketplace.
The stakes haven't just grown exponentially off-screen, but on-screen as well. Compare the plot of the first Die Hard — John McClane had to save a single building — to the regularly scheduled threats of global and even galactic extinction playing out nearly every week. The trajectory of the Fast and Furious franchise is another great example, as it drifted from grifting DVD players to ginormous set pieces pitting terrorists and genetically enhanced humans against Herculean, indestructible heroes.
But bigger doesn't automatically mean better — just look at all the pyrotechnics-heavy, blow-'em-up action flicks that flop at the box office every year. Even today — or even especially today — the action needs to be smart, innovative, and advance the story. Not only that, it needs to tell its own story. And, crucially, it needs to be fun to read on paper, too.
"In film school, I realized that this is a written document that somebody's going to have to read," says Pacific Rim screenwriter and Carnival Row creator Travis Beacham. "It's going to have to communicate to all the different departments, going to have to communicate to the cinematographer, the director, and all the actors. But before it does any of that, it's got to get somebody interested enough to buy it. If it doesn't do that, it doesn't matter what else it says. It should be as beautiful and as riveting as I can make it."
A good action scene serves many different functions, from exposition and character revelation to advancing the story and providing thrills for audiences (and the reader, as Beacham points out). To get insight on how to write a kick-ass action sequence, SYFY WIRE spoke with some of Hollywood's best and most prolific screenwriters.
People have to care about the characters involved:
This is probably obvious, because no one's going to care about any movie if they don't feel invested in the protagonists. But too often action is used as a substitute for interesting, compelling characters, which actually only serves to magnify what the movie is missing.
"Every set piece is designed with an arc to it and with real personal stakes for the characters in it, and that's the only way that an audience will engage with what's going on," says Chris Morgan, the screenwriter behind much of the Fast and Furious franchise. "The action sequence is only half the equation. If 100 percent of your sequence is spectacle, and the audience is not engaged and they just lean back and watch it ... We've all seen movies like that where you just don't care. What we do is big personal stakes. There are reversals and there are victories and losses."
Building a compelling protagonist is its own challenge, worthy of its own Geek School article (and you can learn about building antiheroes here). It takes a long, long time to do right, and even longer to do well. Once you've got a character worth following, it's time to put them into some insane situations, tailored to their circumstances and reflective of their personalities.
David Leitch, a longtime fight designer and now director, has made some of the most intense and well-received action flicks over the last decade. His credits include John Wick, Deadpool, and the new Fast and Furious movie, Hobbs & Shaw, which explores the backstories of two supporting characters in further detail and takes the franchise to new, legitimately bonkers heights. Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) go one on one throughout, in sequences designed to take advantage of their particular skills and stories.
"The best way to design a fight is to start with the character and what do I want to tell the audience about the man or woman?" Leitch explains. "These guys are pretty distinct in their styles. Dwayne is the smash-them-up guy, and Jason's more a scalpel, the technician. The second part about designing a fight is, what are you trying to tell about these characters? What are they going to learn? What problems are you putting in place so you can actually learn something about these characters in the action sequence?"
Leitch highlights a fight in Hobbs & Shaw between Johnson and several gangsters at a tattoo parlor. It frequently draws a lot of laughs from the audience, and he admits it's very heightened, but it also stands as a good example of character-driven fisticuffs.
"You want to show how powerful he is, because the audience loves those moments, and it is in the canon of who Hobbs is. He's a guy with incredible strength and incredible power, and his attitude is like, 'I'll just walk through the wall. You're never going to stop me,'" Leitch says. "So you want to be true to the character, and then you find those opportunities to do it. In the tattoo parlor scene, we have real fun where he kicks the guy in the balls and then uppercuts him through a door, and literally launches him into another room."
Shape the fight like a movie
One of the most frequent pieces of action advice offered by filmmakers is to shape set pieces like stories themselves, with their own three-act structures that also work within the larger narrative.
"I always approach a set piece from a standpoint of looking at it as a mini-movie," says Ryan Engle, a screenwriter on Rampage and several Liam Neeson flicks, such as The Commuter and Non-Stop.
Engle broke down the basic act planning process for SYFY WIRE:
"When I approach a set piece, what I basically do is I go, 'OK, what's the setup? What's at stake? What are our characters trying to do? What are they trying to accomplish?' That would be your first act of your set piece," he says. "And then I would go, 'OK, what is the major obstacle? What's in front of them? What do they have to overcome?' And that would be the end of the act break."
The second act of the sequence is all about raising the stakes. In short, what the protagonists were expecting to find can't be the sum total of what comes next.
"Say the obstacle is that we have to break into this building, but there are 10 security guards. So then you raise the stakes: Once they get into the building, that's when you realize, 'Oh s**t, there's not just 10 security guards, but there are f**king robots!'"
That leads to "the moment that unleashes the chaos," as Engle puts it, followed by the action component. Ask the question "What am I going to do here that we haven't seen before?" and try to raise the stakes in a unique way — a tip most screenwriters offer about this part of the sequence. In a perfect world, that twist is overpowering, which powers you to the third act of the sequence.
"Then you get to the natural point in your storytelling where everything goes f**king wrong, where it feels like our heroes are not going to win, or not going to accomplish their goal," Engle explains. "And then a new element is introduced, whether it's a new idea or a character that saves the day, or whatever it is. And then the set piece is completed with them escaping with whatever it is they were trying to get, but at the same time failing."
There's obviously a lot of room to play within that three-act structure and endless opportunity to exhibit both character traits and backstory. In some cases, pulse-quickening action sequences can take the place of long, drawn-out exposition. The "show, don't tell" mantra applies as much in action films, if not more.
Leitch and Morgan did exactly that with an early car chase in Hobbs & Shaw, pitting Statham's Shaw against Idris Elba's tech-enhanced superhuman Brixton. It was a given that their pursuit through London would be high-velocity and defy gravity, but the filmmakers also used the sequence to hint at the backstory between the two characters.
"Where Shaw makes a move and Brixton makes a countermove, and you can tell that they have a history," Leitch says. "It's like they know each other's moves, so the only way that he's going to escape is to slide under this truck, and then Brixton's even got a counter for that. So you're telling a story about the backstory of Brixton and Shaw within the middle of the chase."
One on one, Shaw is no match for Brixton, which is no accident (and a fact we will revisit later). The most compelling protagonists in these movies are often overmatched, and action sequences are frequently meant as tests, with consequences on the other side.
"If you look at like Indiana Jones, he is a prime example," Engle says. "Indiana Jones literally never wins until the end. Dude is losing constantly, and he's constantly getting his ass kicked. But that's why we love him, because he just perseveres and he keeps going."
The Big Teams
Quite frequently, you won't be writing a one-on-one action sequence, and as crossovers and supersized blockbusters become the norm, these scenes will only get busier and more crowded. There are a few ways to approach writing these scenes, based in part on the structure of your overall story.
Lindsey Beer, who has written on big flicks such as Pacific Rim: Uprising and a number of upcoming blockbusters like Magic Order and a new Fast and the Furious spin-off, says that she likes to stay zeroed in on one character and build out from there.
"These are the most fun scenes to write, as it's like choreographing a dance," she says. "There's no easy answer here other than you should write it as you would want it to be seen, making sure you follow the drama from every angle, that any breakaway from the protagonist is done for a good reason, and that you give every supporting character (and villain) their moment to shine, before bringing them all together in a satisfying way."
On the other hand, in oversized, all-out battles like the universe-rattling final act of Avengers: Endgame, it requires more sequential management. Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, the screenwriters on six Marvel films, including Endgame, took that approach with the final showdown against Thanos.
"It is practically trying to work your way through, five-minute chunks at a time," McFeely says.
"We were able to break it down into smaller chunks and then find the overarching quest in there when we remembered we had a van," Markus adds, pointing to Ant-Man's busted van as the key to uniting the whole super squad.
They also broke it down by acts. The first act features the original Avengers taking on Thanos, giving the spotlight to the tight-knit team that started it all. In a way, the discovery of the van amid the rubble of their wrecked complex acts as the moment that unleashes chaos, as Engle puts it.
"The idea was that Thanos would destroy the time machine and then they'd realize, 'Oh, wait a sec, we got this ridiculous van time machine, but it's way over there,'" McFeely explains. "And then we'd have to go through the biggest army in the galaxy to get there. We called it the flea flicker. How are we going to do that? We're going to do it as a team, and that means some people are going to block and some people are going to carry it. It's a little football-like, right?"
Having such a deep roster of heroes suddenly at their disposal was a challenge, but also an opportunity.
"It was a chance to get some of the characters who just got back some screen time," McFeely adds. "You don't see Hulk running with it for a minute because he's been in the movie the whole time like that."
Make Characters Learn Something
As Engle mentioned, a protagonist needs to lose something in these battles. But especially in big finales, they need to learn something — preferably a lesson that synthesizes the entire message of the film.
Leitch points to the two-on-one finale of Hobbs & Shaw, with the titular heroes taking on Brixton in an all-out brawl. Brixton still seems indestructible, but things have changed between the two leading men.
"Brixton lays out the stakes for these characters, and they charge, and Brixton begins to beat them down," Leitch says. "Our heroes find a moment to connect. The bigger moral message of the movie is if these two polar opposites can connect and work together to save the world, maybe we all could at some point. It's because of teamwork and putting aside their bulls**t. That's the story you want to tell outside of having these great combo moves and watching the terminator take his lumps, and seeing Dwayne do a suplex. All that stuff is cool, but there's a narrative inside of it."
Beer offers what she calls a reductive example to map out how fight scenes, when strung together over the course of a movie, can deliver the moral of the story.
"If the hero's flaw is that she is a loner who doesn't connect to others, an early action scene might show her kicking ass solo and not cooperating with teammates," she says. "But a later action scene would force her to work with someone else, for instance, if she or another character got injured and she had to double back to make sure they were OK, and help get them through the sequence.
"An even later action sequence might then show her working in concert with her team to kick ass, and would be choreographed completely differently than the opening action sequence," Beer continues. "In this way, you can not only show character growth but force character growth through the action."
The Actual Writing Part
So you know what your character should be doing — now, how do you describe it?
Action sequences in particular are about seeing the scene on the page, feeling the adrenaline you'd feel if you were watching it on screen.
"I write in a way that's like I'm telling you a story. And the staccato versus the long sentences is all about the rhythm of that story that I'm telling you," Engle says. "I will use a lot of staccato, incomplete sentences. I think a lot of writers do, a lot of screenwriters. Because what it does is it tells the director the pacing of the scene. It's almost like you're writing in shots."
There are two very distinct schools of thought on this: Write it all or offer broad strokes, focused on narrative.
Morgan is a producer on the Fast and the Furious movies he writes, which means that he gets to help implement the plans he lays out. With that in mind, he creates a detailed map from the start.
"I'm very detailed," he says. "I write down every turn of the car, every punch, every line, every everything. And that's my initial imagining of what the set piece can be in. A lot of times it's a direct translation and ends up on the screen."
But it's not only people with that sort of sway who get that granular; sometimes it's about putting in as many particulars as you can as a way of visualizing the story for yourself. Plus, it makes it more likely that whoever makes the movie will leave some of them in.
"I write knowing that sort of stuff will change, but it's really important to me to just not pull any of those shortcuts, because you also just don't know what's going to change and what's not going to change," Beacham says. "The whole sword moment that's in [Pacific Rim] is pretty much right out of the screenplay, down to the description of the sword as being the segmented thing that's sort of pulled taut into a sword. It's literally exactly what I described with the screenplay. You don't know what's going to stick is one thing. Something might stick and end up being just like that."
Of course, Beacham has made a point of making his screenplays as entertaining as possible and has the ability to make the little things titillating. For some writers — and producers — there are some details that are more important than others.
"We focus in on specifics when they are very important, such as something that injures a character, a cool stunt, or a character choice within the action," says Matthew Federman, the writer and executive producer of a number of action-adventure TV series, including Blood & Treasure, Limitless, and Charlie's Angels. "And specifics that you need for production, like how many people are fighting, etc. But you don't want to overwhelm the reader with specificity. Ironically, the more detail you put in can sometimes obscure the intention of the action."
"What I care about is watching characters I love navigating their way through it, so my favorite action scripts are less about reading which specific gun is used in the fight and which specific car is used for the big crash," his creative partner, Stephen Scaia, says. "It's about enjoying great characters navigate through moments like that."
In terms of describing action, instead of focusing on those little details, you might instead think about big shots that will stick in an audience's memory.
"I grew up reading comics, and they — as much as any great action movie — have taught me a lot about the flow and balance for when to use dialogue and when to use action," he explains. "I also think a lot about the 'splash page,' which is when a single image takes up an entire page of a comic. In TV, I think of big moments that need to make an impact as splash pages.
"When I construct action it in my head, I think of it like a comic — small panels that lead to a big splash page," Scaia continues. "If it's a chase I might break it down in my head like: panel of someone running, panel of a close-up of a gun firing, panel of a person nervously looking ahead, then splash page of them jumping from one building to another."
And as with comics, unless you're writing a comedy, dialogue can be sparing.
"The only real rule is to keep the action as grounded and believable as possible, which means that dialogue happening within the action can't take away from the stakes," Federman says. "If a character is making jokes in the middle of gunfire then the bullets aren't dangerous. That doesn't mean funny things can't happen or be said, but the joke is the audience finding the organic reactions or escalations in the action funny. Like Indiana Jones punching that giant Nazi guy and the dude just smiles back at him — the look on Indy's face there is hilarious, but he's taking it very seriously."
"Good action is visual. Done right, you shouldn't even need dialogue," adds Scaia. Written with character in mind, a good action scene is a silent film (with explosion SFX) that tells an entire story."