What are the key elements that screenwriters need to include when writing action sequences in their screenplays?
Action movies are a Hollywood staple and have been around since the dawn of the motion picture industry -- and that means, so have action sequences.
Early filmmakers created them with horse chases — and then with the first automobiles. Westerns were the first genre to embrace them. Star Wars married them with science fiction tropes. Ultimate 80s action hero archetypes blasted them all over the big screen during the Action Decade in Hollywood. And today, superheroes and supervillains perform them in intricately choreographed spectacles full of VFX and epic scores.
Well-crafted action sequences have driven all of these action movies throughout the years. They're pure escapism — pure entertainment. And the main draw is the audience wanting to see how these heroes and protagonists survive through these extraordinary situations.
Since action sequences are the glue that holds a good action film together, let's take a look at five must-have elements that you need to include whenever you tackle an action sequence within your script.
5 Must-Haves for Your Script's Action Sequences
Since the action boom of the 1980s — followed by the action lag of the mid-to-late 1990s — audiences are expecting more.
- They want great characterization matched with amazing action.
- They want the action to matter.
- They want the wow and the substance.
With that in mind, your action sequences must have...
Every action sequence you write needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. It's not just about bad guys chasing good guys for a couple of pages. Script readers have read so many lackluster action scripts that rely on random gunfights, hand-to-hand combat, and explosions.
The audience wants to be taken on a ride with every action sequence. And the best thrill rides set up a sequence of events — the beginning, the middle, the end.
Beginning: The ride starts slow, building anticipation for a sudden drop, lift, or scare.
Middle: Anticipation turns into thrills as the ride drops, lifts, and flips — complete with unexpected twists and turns.
End: The ride always ends big, shifting expectations suddenly with some surprises, and then leading you to something memorable — and then you're back into your ordinary world as the ride comes to a halt where you started.
The same thing needs to happen in your action sequences.
High Stakes — Real High Stakes
Action sequences need to be high stakes.
- The characters' lives are in jeopardy.
- There's a true danger within the elements of the action sequence.
- There's a pursuit of something that must be attained, destroyed, or stopped.
These are the types of high stakes that you need to play with in your action sequences. If there are no high stakes, the audience isn't going to be sitting on the edge of their seats like you want them to. And that script reader isn't going to be turning the pages in high anticipation to see what happens next.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is racing against time to chase down the truck holding the Ark of the Covenant.
- He's in pursuit of something that must be attained.
- It's going to be a dangerous attempt to attain it.
- Indy's life is at stake, as are those of the world if the Nazi's get ahold of this relic and unleash it's power for evil domination.
In Star Wars, Luke and the rebels are racing against time and enemies to destroy the Death Star before it destroys the rebel base.
- Luke is trying to destroy something before it's too late.
- They face Death Star cannons and enemy fighters in pursuit of that mission.
- Not only is Luke's life at stake — the lives of the Rebellion are at stake as well.
If the stakes aren't high, the audience won't be invested. If they aren't invested, they won't be engaged. If they aren't engaged, your action sequence has failed to compel them to watch on with interest.
Revealing Character Moments
The best action movies use action sequences to reveal character depth. Sure, it's fun to watch Matrix in Commando kill endless enemies, but we're not learning anything new about his character.
It's fun to watch that type of action at times. But the best action sequences will reveal character moments along the way. We'll see some emotion and depth. We'll see fear, which helps us relate to that character even more — furthering our investment in the action that is unfolding.
We learn so much more about our heroes and protagonist through their reactions to the action around them.
- We will learn if they are cowardly.
- We will learn if they are heroic.
- We will learn if they've done this before.
- We will learn if it's new to them.
Look at this scene from The Road Warrior.
We quickly see that this is just another day on the road for Max. The stakes are there. If he's caught, he's a dead man. And we see his humanity throughout the scene. He's not one of the bad guys because we see the humanity of having a pet. People can relate to that. And at the end of the scene, we see that he's just trying to survive. And a glimpse back to the world before the apocalypse via a music trinket showcases his humanity even more.
The torture scene from Lethal Weapon is an excellent example of action sequences that reveal more character depth.
We see what Riggs is capable of, and it offers more character depth as we witness Murtaugh’s love for his daughter and the horror he feels as these villains torment her.
Action sequences are augmented ways to add to a character’s depth.
Plants and Payoffs
It's not enough to just have bullets flying, explosions exploding, and bad guys in pursuit. To write amazing action sequences, you have to be crafty. You need to play with that beginning, middle, and end by using plants and playoffs.
- In the beginning, set up some items or story points that will come into play later.
- In the middle, have your character failing (see below) amidst evolving stakes and conflict.
- In the end, have those items or story points pay off.
In Jaws, Brody has been put through hell. His friends are gone. The boat is sinking. There's nothing else he can do. The stakes have evolved, and the conflict has risen to its highest of heights. The shark attacks, and all he can do is jam an oxygen tank into its mouth to save him. He gets out and goes to the boat's highest point as it sinks, rifle in hand. The shark is coming for him. He tries to shoot it as it does, to no avail. But wait, what was planted at the beginning of this sequence?
Peppering your action sequences with those craft plants and payoffs will give the script reader and audience the thrills they seek. It showcases your craftiness. It shows that you're not just having people shooting guns, driving cars at high speeds, or having a character luck out and escape the jaws of a shark by happenstance.
In Mission Impossible, we're first given the rules of the room he is trying to infiltrate. We know the heat is an issue, so he has to keep his cool. We also know that the floor has a pressure-triggered alarm so that nothing can hit that floor.
While this action sequence is less kinetic than most, it's still an effective sequence based on the hero's actions.
It's all about the setup, the plants, and the payoffs.
The Protagonist/Hero Fail At Times
Some of the best action sequences also showcase the protagonist/hero failing at their objective. This is usually at the beginning of the story and well into the second act. Failure sets up more conflict and raises the stakes of the next action sequence to follow.
In The Road Warrior, Max has done his deed and fulfilled his contract as an honorable man. He's given the group the vehicle they need to transport their oil across the wasteland. So he gets his fuel, gets his V-8 Interceptor, and heads out — only to be chased down by his adversaries looking for vengeance.
In Avengers: Infinity War, the Avengers team to defeat Thanos and take his Infinity Gaunlet away. But they fail...
This drives the story forward and raises the stakes tenfold.
Let your characters fail within action sequences. It reveals character depth as they react to that failure. It allows them the stakes and conflict to evolve to great heights. And it makes the joy of them succeeding by the end (if they do) all the better for audiences.
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If you want to write amazing action sequences, you:
- Must have a beginning, middle, and end with each action sequence.
- Must have high stakes with each action sequence.
- Must have revealing character moments with each action sequence.
- Must have plants and payoffs within each action sequence.
- Must have your protagonist/hero fail at times within action sequences.
You should have just as much thought go into the process of developing and writing an action sequence than you do with character-building and story arcs. That's how you write an amazing action sequence.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, and the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed starring Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O’Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies