Thursday, 28 May 2009

Rules of action

Here's a very interesting article about the rules of an action movie by Shane Black, writer of classic films such as LETHAL WEAPON, LAST ACTION HERO and THE LAST BOY SCOUT. Needless to say, the guy knows his action and every single point he makes it valid.
The action should always go hand in hand with the story so it's all invisibly interconnected.
Basically, the action needs to be justified. You can't just have violence for the sake of violence. The best sort of action has an impact on the character (and as a result; the audience). If it directly affects the life of the characters, it's more powerful.
That's how moments of drama unfold in real life. Quickly, spontaneously and with no warning. That's how they should be in action films, too. Violence and action should suddenly punctuate perfectly normal circumstances.
Great moments like having a guy walk down the street, then get hit by a car out of nowhere. But as Black says, too much of that can be a bad thing - it gets boring.
I always have humour in my action movies. I think characters that make jokes under fire are more real. It somehow helps put you in their shoes.
I don't think he's talking about Arnie one-liners here, but more about using humour to show how the characters react. In tense situation, a lot of people use humour to break the ice and such. So it makes sense they'll do the same in a tense situation like a gun fight.
Action sequences need this constant reversal of fortune. Like where the hero kills a snake but in the process opens a cupboard that's filled with a hundred more snakes.
Deus ex machina (Latin for "god from the machine") is a famous screenwriting term. It's where the hero is saved by an unfair source. Back in Ancient Greek comedies, the gods would appear at the end and fix everyones' problems. If that happens in a film, the audience feels cheated - the hero hasn't earned their happy ending. Do the opposite - have luck (or that higher power) mess with the hero. If luck, chance and the gods themselves are against him, there's more tension.
If someone fires a gun in a movie, it should always be a big deal [...] You need shock and impact and a genuine sense of peril whenever violence takes place. It can't just be a crazy circus with no jeopardy.
If you show the impact a gunshot has on a character early on, when your hero is shot, the audience knows it's serious. It's always fun to see a few shots being fired right next to someone's face too. So close that the heat from the bullet scares the shit out of them! They crap themselves, panic and....huzzah! You have tension!

Read the article in full here - it's a must for anyone even considering writing an action film.


Désirée said...

Thank you for the tip. A very interesting article.

Personally I often find a scene in a script loaded with action hard to follow. There are often much written with CAPITAL LETTERS and very dense paragraphs due to tempo.

I don't know if there is a better way to write it, or if I'm simply a lazy reader.

Neil said...

I see what you mean. Personally, I avoid CAPS at all costs unless it's really, REALLY needed. I also try and keep my paragraphs at 2-4 lines still. I don't like the whole:

He hurls the knife at --

-- John, who catches it and stabs --

-- Jim in the chest.

I would write that simply as:

He hurls the kife at John, who catches it and slams it into Jim's chest.

More like prose than anything else. Though I've been told that's the 'wrong' way to do it.

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