Anatomy of a Scene: How NOT to Write an Action Sequence
It's no secret that it's hard to make an action sequence interesting in your screenplay. Once you have a cool idea, you have to keep it cool while also giving everything that happens a larger function in the story. Not every movie pulls this juggling act off. In fact, most of them don't. Some more talented directors can hide the shortcomings of an action sequence through good editing and witty lines — but it's not always enough.
The truth is you can't just have your action sequence be fun, meaningful to the story, and constantly interesting. No, as sad as it is to say, that simply isn't enough. There's one more crucial ingredient you need, and it's the one that's often forgotten the most in today's filmmaking age.
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Everything has to make sense.
You're probably thinking that this is so obvious it's not worth bringing up, but it turns out that most movies today drop logic in favor of getting the other tenets of an action scene right. The problem is, when you do that you risk losing the narrative coherence of your story. If things don't make sense, then people will spend more time asking questions about why and how events are happening instead of focusing on the characters and the drama — and when that happens you're really screwed. Because that's when you start to lose your audience.
A great example of an action scene that should work, but falls apart because it makes no sense, is the first ten minutes of Star Trek Into Darkness.
We're going to go through it beat-by-beat and show you how — despite the sequence being well-paced, well-directed, and well-acted, the fact that it lacks any and all sense leads to a breakdown between the film and the viewer. If you're curious how that happens, we'll simulate it below.
Hi, I'm the Viewer. Hello, we're going to run through the first ten minutes of Star Trek Into Darkness together.
Cool. What's the set up? Kirk and McCoy are on the surface of a primitive planet. They're running from a tribe of aliens who are pissed at Kirk because he just stole their sacred scroll.
Why did Kirk steal the scroll? He's trying to lure them away from a volcano that's about to erupt which will mean, according to Spock, "the planet dies."
If the volcano will kill the planet, why are they wasting time moving a village away from the blast zone when they're going to die anyway? Because they're trying to save them from the initial blast, which seems like small potatoes in comparison — but there it is.
If that's the case, why are they waiting until the last possible moment to deal with this volcano? If they had worked on this problem half an hour ago they wouldn't have had to deal with the natives at all. Unfortunately, we don't know the circumstances leading up to these events so that's not really a flaw per say. But, yes, that's a decent point.
So, what are they doing about the bigger problem? Spock is being dropped into the volcano from a shuttlecraft piloted by Sulu and Uhura where he'll set off a "cold fusion device" that will render the volcano inert.
Why are they calling it a cold fusion device? That's not how cold fusion works. There is no good answer to that.
Also, why is Uhura on the shuttle? She's a communications officer. She's there so she can indulge in some PDA with Spock before he jumps into a lava pit. Basically, they need her there to establish the romantic relationship between them, even if her presence in this scene makes no sense.
Why don't they just beam Spock into the volcano? Or better yet, why not just transport the bomb into the volcano and save a bunch of time while also not risking Spock's life? Because the Enterprise is in the ocean, and the ambient interference makes it impossible to transport anything without a direct line of sight.
If that's the case, why is the Enterprise in the ocean? Why not keep it in orbit so you have a line of sight to everything? There is no good answer for that question. In fact, Scotty even points out how stupid it is with the line, "Do you have any idea how ridiculous it is to hide a starship in the bottom of the ocean?
If they can't use the transporters, how do Kirk and McCoy get to safety? Well, Kirk shoots this big beast he sees in the forest, which makes McCoy pretty angry. He tells Kirk that was their ride.
Why didn't Kirk know that? There is no definite answer to that question. Maybe McCoy improvised something while Kirk was away? Anyway, he and Kirk run to a high cliff, jump off, land in the water, and swim to the drive section of the Enterprise to get on board.
If it's a high cliff, why weren't they at least hurt from the fall? And the Enterprise is a really big ship, so how could they hold their breath long enough to reach the airlock and get on board? All good questions that are not addressed at all.
Anyway, Spock runs into trouble because the shuttlecraft is damaged by the volcano. Uhura and Sulu have to ditch it in the ocean and swim to the Enterprise. So, the choice becomes either they bring the Enterprise out of the ocean to save Spock with the transporter, thus breaking the Prime Directive by exposing it to the natives and altering their culture forever... or let him die.
Why is this even happening? None of this would be a problem if the Enterprise was in orbit like it usually is. Agreed.
What does Kirk do? He brings the Enterprise out of the water in a spectacular special effects sequence and saves Spock. It also means he's created a new God for these aliens in the form of the Enterprise. It's actually a really cute moment.
But I don't care, because everything building up to it didn't make any sense.
... and there you have it. It's well-shot, well-paced, and well-acted, but because the sequence essentially suffers from "idiot plot syndrome" and a lack of internal consistency it crumbles under its own dramatic weight. Having one or two hanging questions is often unavoidable, but when the entire premise of the action doesn't make sense then the drama attached to it has no meaning.
A writer's job first and foremost is to find the drama in the story, not to manufacture it artificially. When you cheat the audience that way, the trust is gone and so is the value of your story.
This article was written by Ashley Scott Meyers who is a screenwriter and podcaster over at SellingYourScreenplay.com. He has sold and optioned dozens of scripts over the last two decades. Through SYS he runs a screenplay analysis service, provides paid job leads to screenwriters, and helps screenwriters connect with producers who are looking for material.