Four More Thoughts on Writing Action …

I wanted to write a follow-up to my previous post about the importance of specificity in action scenes.  Namely, four things:

1. You do not have to be super to be a hero

Many writers make the mistake of thinking that action sequences are about showcasing a hero’s strengths … but for my money, the drama is found in exposing their weaknesses.  A while back, a good friend of mine wrote a NY Magazine piece on this very subject entitled Are Martial Arts Ruining Action?  The article traces the origins of the martial arts explosion in Hollywood action movies and laments how every actor now goes through months of training in order to make the wire-Fu look authentic in their cop movie.  Why is this bad?  Because no matter how well executed and thoughtful the fights may be, no character in a cop movie has any business doing backflips.1

2. Superhuman action is low-stakes action

So what about stories where the superpowers are already built into the plot?  Shouldn’t the X-Men be able to do backflips?  Perhaps, but it’s still important to make the super-punches mean something.  If characters can take an unlimited (or even undefined) amount of damage, it’s hard for audiences to care about the outcome.  Screenwriter and friend Matt Bird has a great piece about this subject over at his blog, The Cockeyed Caravan.  Check it out!

3. Above all, action should make sense

Last week, movie critic Jim Emerson launched a great series examining how action sequences can go wrong simply by ignoring the 101 of filmmaking.  His first example?  The Dark Knight Returns.  Emerson goes shot-by-shot through an epic car chase, revealing how careless editing can lead to a needlessly disorienting experience.  This reinforces my longstanding belief that James Cameron is the greatest living director of chases for the simple fact that he makes sure that at all times the audience knows the following three things:

1) where the good guys are

2) where the bad guys are

3) where the exits are

Don’t believe me?  I invite you to watch for yourself.

4. Sometimes no action is the action

While I generally think it’s bad for writers to summarize action scenes, there are some stories that deliberately do so because its essential to their overall message.  A good example of this is Tolkien.  Despite having written an epic trilogy about the battle between good and evil, Tolkien keeps his action scenes infuriatingly short — usually under a page.  Roger Ebert observed as much when he reviewed The Fellowship of the Ring, in which he points out that the central action set piece of the movie (the fight with the Balrog) takes up less than 500 words in the original book.  So was Tolkien being lazy with his action writing?  I’d say in this case, sidestepping the action was the action — the author was signaling to readers that the meaningful events of this particular story were found in the journey itself, not the skirmishes.

  1. The Rush Hour franchise, of course, gets a pass on this particular gripe.

5 Comments Leave a Comment

  • Great post! Number three is especially helpful. I’ve never heard it explained so simply. And ‘no action is the action’? Awesome. Again, thank you for putting these tips out there.

  • Craig Chapman says:

    I really liked these last two posts, and I thought your example of the Terminator chase was perfect. But then I got confused, because I tried to imagine how you would go about WRITING that chase scene.

    And then, because I have no idea how to be a writer, I tried to imagine how I would have liked to READ that chase scene. I became even more confused.

    Any tips? It seems easy to track good-guy, bad-guy, exits with film cuts, but how do you accomplish the same thing in text?

  • Jonathan, you’re starting to rival the great Matt Bird himself in the insightful tips-and-tricks-for-writers department. The Scop as a kind of Cockeyed Caravan for novelists instead of screenwriters! I welcome this development.

    Aaaaaand hey, I see a quote from “Odd-Fish” made it into your marginalia box! I’m honored!!

  • kbryna says:

    I feel like the “sometimes doing nothing is doing something” wisdom is an echo from something in some children’s/YA book I read somewhere along the way. Damn. Wish I had a truly eidetic memory.

  • Good stuff, Jonathan.

    You make a lot of excellent points.

    Action for the sake of action is usually not very compelling. There must be something on the line, a key point in the character’s arc.

    There must also be genuine peril. If we know the Good Guy(s) or Gal(s) are going to win, where’s the jeopardy? Where’s the tension?

    But when there is doubt, ahh, things get far more interesting.

    In KARATE KID, Daniel gets his butt kicked by Johnny on the beach in the beginning of the film. This sets into motion the call to action for Daniel to learn karate and return with the elixir that is the All Valley Karate Tournament trophy. (Or is it that whole balance thing Mr. Miyagi mentioned?) We suspect Daniel shall be victorious this time around, and this is the experience we hope for, and it is the experience we get, thus we exit the theater feeling good and ready to plunk down our money at the nearest dojo.

    Two of my favorite moments in KARATE KID involve exactly the inaction between the action you mentioned.

    First, when Daniel is in the dressing room putting on his gi for the first time and some of the Kobra Kai douchebags accost him and attempt to get the action going prematurely in a somewhat unsanctioned manner. This is a moment of quiet in which we feel the full measure of the lion’s den (cobra’s den?) Daniel is walking into.

    Later, after Bobby has removed Daniel from the tournament with the illegal kick to the leg/knee, we again visit the locker room and are treated to a quiet moment with Daniel and his mentor Mr. Miyagi. After the student educates the teacher, Miyagi does his magical hands-rubbing-together-thing and we know that now, this time, it’s ON. The tension is thus heightened. Daniel reemerges to compete in the final match, bearing a disadvantageous limp. His victory is thus all the sweeter as he goes from learning to walk to learning to fly.

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