WRITING ACTION SEQUENCES (Classic Post)

A question from a viewer:

In writing action sequences as part of scenes, do you really have to break down every camera angle and shot, or can you leave some things up to the reader’s imagination?

Reason I ask is, after reading various books, (Syd Field and others, as well as numerous screenplays), I’ve seen different ways to handle the description of a scene with regard to actual format.

It seems one school of thought advocates cutting to a new shot and mentioning it via format every time there is a camera change:

1. INT. INSIDE CAR – DAY
(SFX) BANG!
JANE DOE and JOHN DOE both run and jump in the car. JOHN drives off quickly.

2. EXT. STREET CORNER-DAY
The victim lays motionless in the street.

The other way seems to say let the action be described in the writing, without all the shot descriptions. Such as:

BANG!

They both jump into the car and drive off quickly, leaving their partner to die in the street.

To me, it seems that describing EVERY camera cut and shot change breaks up the flow of the read and tips off the reader as to what will come next, rather than having them be surprised.

What is the preferred method for first-time writers?

Thanks in advance,

Bill/NJ

Within certain parameters, it’s really up to you. Here are some guidelines:

1. Do not over cut any sequence. Anything that distracts from the narrative is a very bad thing.

2. Do not use scene numbers. You’ve used them above in one example, and it may have simply been to illustrate that you were referring to two scenes or shots. In your actual script, scene numbers are unnecessary, distracting and unprofessional. Numbering scenes is a tool strictly for production drafts to help Assistant Directors and others break down the script for shooting purposes.

3. Shots within a scene usually have a shorter form than a full location slug. For example – the full slug, which is usually conceived of as THE MASTER SHOT, might be: EXT. FREEWAY – DAY

The shots in that scene, also sometimes called MINOR SLUGS, would not be a full slug. Things like:

BILL’S CAR

slams into the guardrail. Sparks fly as it scrapes along.

DEBBIE’S CAR

skids into the opposite embankment, takes to the air, and
lands in a crumpled wreck on the other side.

4. Think more about directing the mind’s eye. You are trying to create a visual experience through writing and you can do whatever you need to in order to create the image and feel you want. Notice that in the example you use above, “BANG!” is not really a shot at all. It is a sound. Yet, it has a visual impact on the page and does the job.

5. Look at the tone of the overall screenplay. Keep the tone of the slugs in the action sequence consistent, even if more demonstrative. Hard action picture specs frequently have somewhat of a comic book feel. If that is what you are going for, you might have lots of MAJOR and MINOR SLUGS throughout your screenplay.

Most importantly, read lots of action scripts. Look at what works for you, what doesn’t and come up with your own way of expressing action sequences. It should be clear, concise, easy to follow, and fully convey the excitement of the sequence. Remember, any studio can hire any professional writer to write a sequence like one already written. Your job is to develop and express your unique voice and vision for the picture. Think about how the scene you are writing will excite you on the page. That’s how you should write it.

Category: The Craft


WAITING…. (Classic Post)

There is a guy you know who knows a guy. You called him and he agreed to give you some feedback on your script. You worked for a year on this script; you know it’s a killer story. And you know it’s ready. So you sent it to him for feedback.

Unfortunately, the dumb S.O.B. isn’t giving you feedback. You’ve been waiting for nine days. Doesn’t he know you are on a schedule? Doesn’t he know you’re going to make whatever few changes are needed and have it ready right away to submit to that other guy you heard might be looking for something just like it? Doesn’t this guy care at all? I mean, he’s had it for nine days!!!! Christ, how long does it take to read a script? He’s screwing up your big opportunity. Right?!?

WRONG!

Try a reality check. First, reading somebody’s screenplay and giving notes as a favor is not on the top of anyone’s list. If it took you a year to write, why should someone feel compelled to give you notes in a few days? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the script stinks and the reader has to figure out how to say something constructive when, if it were a professional read, he or she would just say, “Pass.”

Second, you don’t really need it immediately, anyway. You are going to get notes – you always get them. And the notes will send you into another month or six of revisions.

Third, the guy who is looking for something just like it isn’t really looking for anything like it, nor does he really have the ability to move on anything anyway. If he did, he’d have a thousand things just like it already. (Don’t write to the market. You will always be behind it.)

Fourth, this reader’s opinion is just one opinion. If you rewrite to satisfy the comments for each casual read someone gives your material, your story will be turned to mush quickly.

Here’s a better approach.

(i) Treat each draft as if it were the final draft. Submitting it for notes should be a significant event for which you have put in a fair amount of work to line up your readers.

(ii) Do not rewrite based on one set of notes that were given to you as a favor. Look at the body of notes and make decisions yourself. You will see a pattern to all of them that will reveal a great deal to you. (Of course, the advice is different if you are working on developing the script with a producer. His or her notes count, all by themselves. Even so, don’t be a robot. It’s your script.)

(iii) Take time between each reading draft. Count on your note-givers to take time to get you their comments. Work on another story while you’re waiting for all of the comments to come in. Count on taking time to think about all of these comments before you make changes.

(iv) Accept the fact that some people who promised to read your script will never get around to it. It’s okay. Do not be a jerk about it.

(v) Do not be anxious and make nonsensical changes every time someone gives you comments. Changes should be thoughtful and make a real advancement in the quality of the story. The difference between a serious first draft and a serious second draft should be substantial and dramatic.

Okay. Relax. It’s a process.

Enough. Now go write.

Category: The Craft


MY IDEA GOT STOLEN (Classic Post)

I get asked this a lot and I’m tired of answering it; I have pages to write. So here it is, hopefully for the last time. Some newbie writers worry about their ideas or entire scripts being stolen. In fact, all of us worry about our ideas being stolen to some degree. Here’s my take on the best way to avoid that, both as a writer who, of necessity, circulates a lot of ideas in the community and as an entertainment attorney. This is not legal advice – just thoughts on a weblog.

1. Similar ideas always exist and always come from multiple sources. If your so-called idea is just a vague general concept, there’s not much that can or, in my opinion, should be done to protect it. If you believe in your idea, flesh it out, write something down, maybe even put in the real work it takes to write the script.

2. Written ideas can be copyrighted. Copyright your screenplays and, if written down in sufficient detail, your ideas, too. Do not bother to send them into the WGA script vault or any of the others around town. It is just as easy to fill out a proper copyright form and send it to the Copyright Office. A real copyright sometimes gives you additional legal rights. The link you just passed takes you to a page where you can get the right form and simple directions to register your copyright.

3. Keep a written record of who you share your ideas with. If you talk to someone about your idea, put it down on your log, including the date, time, and substance of what you shared.

4. If you are not represented by an agent or manager or if you present ideas on your own even as a represented writer, write a confirming letter immediately following your presentation of the idea – just a short note that confirms in a nice way that you presented such and such an idea and appreciate it being considered. If you are represented by an agent or manager, talk to him or her about the best way to confirm an idea presentation. The agent or manager may prefer to do the follow up.

Finally, expect similar ideas to surface and, often, beat your idea out. It’s part of doing business. If you are really worried, write a good script. Those are much harder to steal.

Category: Legal


THAT OLD DEVIL THEME (Classic Post)

As most of you know, at The Thinking Writer, I think a lot about theme. In a review of Alex Epstein’s excellent book, “Crafty Screenwriting”, The Artful Writer has dredged up a debate over that all important element: theme. It is worth paying attention to. A-level writer Craig Mazin shares his insight.

Here’s a sampling of past entries from The Thinking Writer on theme:

Why Bother With Theme?
April 4, 2005

But I Have A Theme?
April 7, 2005

Theme:Again
February 25, 2005

Category: Theme