Writing the Action Script

Posted by John Truby on

With a good Action script you can write your own ticket. But Action is the most deceptively challenging genre in Hollywood. What may seem simple and straightforward on the movie screen actually requires careful planning and extremely creative solutions from the screenwriter.

Action films are deceptive in a number of ways. Many people think Action movies lack character, plot and theme, but they're mistaken. The best Action films have deep stories, complex characters and a profound effect on the audience.

The challenge for the writer is to create compelling characters, surprising plots, and important themes within the limiting structure of an Action piece. Speed is the enemy of the Action writer, despite the ongoing trend to increase the pacing of Hollywood films. Ironically, pure speed is not what thrills an audience. Which is why good Action writers actually try to slow the film down to make it appear faster.

I know what you're thinking -- what does that mean?

The faster the pace of a story, the less chance you have for surprise. And surprise is the fundamental requirement of plot. As a writer, you take on the role of a magician. The audience looks to you for events they can't predict, but thinking back, realize they should have seen coming. When you move characters down a single path at top speed, turns literally become difficult. The audience can see everything down the path all the way to the obvious conclusion. If you slow the pacing, you give yourself the luxury of putting a few more twists and turns, so the audience can still be surprised, and will continue to pay attention.

Tip #1: Give your hero a personal problem

You can start your script with a big action scene if you want (some hit Action films do, some don't), then back off. Give the character a personal problem that he must solve simultaneously with overcoming the big action problem. You don't need to take a lot of time with it. But do it. You have now set up the all-important double-track line, contrasting the personal with the action problem. The key then becomes making those two lines appear to the audience to be one.

Tip #2: Make them believe first

Action stories, by their nature, push the envelope of believability, so you have to convince the audience early that your hero is quite capable. After all, you're showing someone whose ability to act is almost super-human. You almost never see a successful Action script where the hero learns to be good at physical action over the course of the story. Your hero has to have a background of exceptional physical ability from page one. And you will need a scene early on to hint to the audience just how good your hero really is. It doesn't have to be the first scene and you don't want to show all your hero's talents. Just tease them. You not only give the audience a kick early, you allow yourself to push the envelope later without losing the audience.

Tip #3: Plot comes from moving from one surprise to another

By surprise, I mean surprise to the hero as well as to the audience. And that means you have to hide as much about your opposition as you can. The best Action scripts deal with deception and hidden information, especially about the true nature and identity of the opponent. Great Action scripts are really a battle of wits - it's about who can deceive best and who can think the best.

Tip #4: Make the Hero strong, but the Opponent stronger

A heavyweight fight where one guy is a stiff is boring. Take a lot of time to figure out some special talents and tricks that your opponent has that will give your hero fits. But don't show them right away. Hold them back. When you do bring them on, bring them fast and furious. You want the hero reeling so he has to dip into all his skills and he has to fight back on feel.

These are four of my favorite tips for writing great Action Scripts. As you can see, Action writing is more complex than it seems at first look. If you're serious about nailing that big Action spec, try out our ACTION Audio Course and Software.

Good Luck and keep writing!

John Truby

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