WRITING ACTION SEQUENCES
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
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:
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,
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:
slams into the guardrail. Sparks fly as it scrapes along.
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.