Car Chases Don't Buy Movie Tickets
Excerpts from The Secrets Of Action Screenwriting, by William C. Martell
So Martell is this wonderful, hack, B-movie action screenwriter to whom so many people have gone to fix their action scripts that he got sick of doing it piecemeal and just wrote the cult bible on the topic. (Printed copies have sold for $1000 on eBay. And check out that cover!! → That's an actual still from the credit sequence of one of his movies! Totally unimprovable.) He also knows, a bit unexpectedly, as much about storycraft as anyone I've ever read. (And I've read everyone.) I've gone back to this book again and again, and have been long been meaning to publish some excerpts. Basically, I dumped out my thousand or so highlights from Kindle, then winnowed them down by about 80% and then down to half of that and not just to the most priceless bits, but to keep it on theme (as he would no doubt endorse). There's oceans more good stuff in the book about sidekicks, and female protagonists, and henchmen, and structure, and setups and payoffs, and characters arcs, and secrets, and hero introductions and on and on. You should buy and read the whole thing.
The most important element of an action film isn't the hero, isn't the sidekick, isn't the dialogue, and isn't the plot. The most important element of an action film is *the Villain’s Plan*.
The Villain brings the conflict, and story *is* conflict…
Conflict is the key to story… and that is what makes the Villain (or antagonist or force of antagonism) the most important character in your screenplay.
If your Hero has no stake in the outcome of the story, we won’t be emotionally involved in the story. If your Villain’s Plan doesn’t impact the Hero and the world around him in any way, the plan doesn’t matter and neither does the story. No stakes - no story.
An action script needs *global* stakes or *personal* stakes - or both. If the Hero doesn't stop the Villain’s Plan, it will screw up the world or screw up the Hero's life forever.
Global stakes are external, personal stakes are emotional. A great movie has both, which is why *Die Hard* works so well.
The more clever the Villain’s Plan, the more clever the Hero must be to thwart it… and vice versa. You never want to make things easier for the hero by creating a flawed Villain’s Plan - because that ends up making your Hero look stupid.
The hero's job is to stop the villain. Indiana Jones has to stop the Nazis from getting control of the Lost Ark and winning World War 2. Batman has to stop The Joker from creating chaos in Gotham City. Those guys in “Armageddon” have to stop that big asteroid from slamming into Earth. Dirty Harry has to stop the Scorpio Killer from killing again. Since the Villain's Plan fuels the story, the hero has to be someone who gets in the way of the plan. "The fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench," as John McClane says in "Die Hard".
BAD ASS HEROES
The key to a Bad Ass Hero is mystery - not knowing too much about him or her, which would make them human.
The Man With No Name drifts into town and shoots a lot of people. Where did he come from? Why is he doing this? What’s his name?
One important thing to remember when creating your hero, even if he’s a Bad Ass, is that they can't be invincible.
Remember, villains must always be stronger or smarter than the hero.
Bond is no match for Goldfinger. He's also no match for Odd Job. In the Bond films, the lead henchman is physically stronger than Bond. It's important to note that in every good James Bond film, the villain is smarter than Bond and the lead henchman is stronger than Bond.
The Hero needs to be the underdog or the movie will be over in 5 minutes… or boring for the next 105 minutes.
If your Bad Ass Hero is the fastest draw in the west, there needs to be some legendary retired gunfighter who was twice as fast and shows up at the end.
Your Hero probably isn’t stronger than the Villain, they are just more dedicated and more willing to take risks for what they believe in.
Heroes and Villains are frequently linked. Belloq tells Indiana Jones: "You and I are very much alike… Our methods are not different as much as you pretend. I am a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me; to push you out of the light."
Sometimes it's not the similarities between heroes and villains, but the differences that are important. In "Die Hard" Bruce Willis is a hard working blue collar every day guy, and Alan Rickman is a suave, tailored, over educated, snob. There is an underlying theme of working class struggle in "Die Hard".
When Willis and Rickman tangle at the end, it's working stiffs like you and me against a profit hungry corporate raider (literally). In this case you are showing the difference in values between your characters and this will tie directly into your theme (the point of your story or aspect of the human condition you are exploring).
If your protagonist is logical and level headed and your antagonist is angry and emotional, that difference is secretly what your story is about.
If you have a hero who forgives and a villain who holds a grudge, that’s the aspect of the human condition you are exploring. This is why you need to consider the relationship between hero and villain carefully.
Can the protagonist be a criminal? The answer to that is: Hell yes!
Professional criminal leads like Roberts DeNiro in “Heat” and Duvall in “The Outfit” are anti-heroes - protagonists on the wrong side of the law. Bad Guy Leads. Once they have broken the law, even if it’s for a good reason, they are on the wrong side of the law for *the rest of the story*.
So we are rooting for the bad guys, they are our protagonists and we want them to achieve their goals…. though they usually either end up dead or without their money. DeNiro gets killed at the end of “Heat”.
Usually how scripts with Bad Guy Leads work is the protagonist may be bad, but the antagonist is worse.
Usually this is done by giving the heist guys a code of conduct that the cops do not have.
He doesn’t work with trigger-happy lunatics. He doesn’t work with robbers who kill innocent civilians. It’s kind of like in “Reservoir Dogs” when Pink asks if they killed anybody and White answers “Only cops”, “No real people?” “Just cops.”
Your hero and the villain will usually confront each other at least three times in the course of a script. A set up in Act 1, where the hero gets stomped. A second meeting in Act 2, and the final confrontation in Act 3, where the hero kicks butt. Because the villain brings the conflict, if the hero and villain *don't* bump into each other a few times, there isn't going to be much action in your action screenplay.
This is why we need an active villain (or force of antagonism) – to keep that conflict coming!
The Act 3 confrontation is often a "high noon" where the hero and villain actually face off against each other. In Westerns and Samurai films, there is usually a highly stylized scene where the hero and villain size each other up before drawing their weapons. "Die Hard" uses this device: there is a moment where Rickman and Willis just look at each other and laugh. Then the shooting starts.
We’ve just spent 100 minutes watching the villain and hero prepare for a battle to the death, and now we want to see that battle.
Remember, the *Hero* must vanquish the Villain. The sidekick or love interest or some total stranger can't do it, it's not their job. And the Villain can't trip and fall off a cliff or over the side of a building into wet cement. It's the hero's job.
If the hero doesn't destroy the villain, why are they even in the film?
And the better the villain's death, the more satisfying the ending.
Would you have enjoyed “Star Wars” if instead of the Death Star blowing up, they'd just pulled the plug? Kind of difficult to cheer that. So we want the villain's end to be just as amazing and exciting as the Death Star blowing up.
Ask anyone who's seen “Leon: The Professional” - exploding villains are great! When I saw this in the cinema, the audience cheered like a Roman Coliseum crowd.
One of the problems when writing in the action genre is that almost everything seems to have been done before. The first fiction film ever made, "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) was an action film.
Most new writers end up writing the first idea they come up with instead of the *best* idea they can come up with.
Don't be afraid to come up with 100 ideas in order to find the great one… and throw away the other 99 ideas.
William Goldman says the most important thing in screenwriting is *structure*.
That Three Act Structure thing has been around for over 2,400 years years.
Act 1: Introduces the conflict. Act 2: Is the conflict & escalation of the conflict. Act 3: Resolves the conflict.
THE CONFLICT ACT
Act Two is all about conflict. Act One ends with the Hero and Villain on a collision course.
If they are not *trapped* dealing with that physical conflict, you haven't entered Act Two, yet.
Act Two begins when the villain tries to remove the hero from his path - that's conflict. The hero and villain tangle through Act Two, the villain trying to get around the hero - but the hero just keeps getting in the way.
In “Die Hard” Act Two kicks in when McClane kills his first terrorist… and ends up with the detonators. Hans *needs* the detonators.
Often for the first half of Act Two the Hero tries to solve the physical problem while avoiding his emotional problem (his fears). Often there is a *Midpoint* where the hero realizes that he can't solve the physical problem without confronting his emotional problem. He or she reaches an emotional crisis, because their entire life is based on avoiding the emotional problem (his fears).
The last half of Act Two often thrusts the hero into increased danger from the physical conflict (car chases, shoot outs, fist fights, sharks, asteroids, androids, whatever). They reach the point of no return where all is lost… and that is what prods them to deal with that emotional conflict they've been avoiding for the whole movie.
Act Three begins with our hero as a new (whole) person and ready to lead the charge against the villain.
Often in action films our hero usually gears up for battle to show that he is ready to take on the Physical Conflict head on. I call this the “gun worship scene” even though guns aren't always involved.
The hero dons their warpaint and loads and checks their guns and straps on their knives and prepares for that big battle.
From that point on, Act Three in an action film is often non-stop action.
A car chase leads to a shoot out leads to a fist fight leads to another chase leads to a shoot out. Watch the last 30 minutes of "Lethal Weapon" it is a *roller coaster* of action scenes from the escape until the final shoot out.
Act Three of any James Bond movie usually has Bond and a small group of commandos raiding the villain's secret stronghold. There is a huge gun battle, ending with the villain's escape. Bond battles the lead henchman (who's usually a musclemen), then catches the villain moments before he can escape. Bond and the villain face off for a "High Noon" style confrontation. The villain and Bond have usually tangled twice before: In Act One, where they played golf, and in Act Two, where the villain completely *stomped* Bond and left him for dead. Can Bond possibly win the rematch in Act Three? Well, he has so far in 22 films.
It's important to keep your conflict escalating in Act Two, so that things keep getting worse (and more exciting).
The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then – that's it. Don't hang around.
Though a car chase is an exciting scene that may be in the trailer and may get the audience to pay for the ticket and may keep them from making that mad dash to the restroom, it is also a *character scene* and a *story scene*. Your protagonist is in trouble and must make life or death decisions in a car chase, so think of the “juice scenes” as character scenes as well. They aren't just something to keep the story exciting, they are also scenes of conflict that will expose character.
If your action screenplay becomes *less* exciting as it progresses, you're in a heap-o-trouble.
The only real rule about scene length is that it can't overstay its welcome – if you have a 5 page *dialogue* scene and it is tense and riveting, that's all that matters.
Another important element to consider in your timeline is how the action scenes relate to your protagonist. You want the action in Act Three to be *more personal* than the action in Act One. "Lethal Weapon" is a great example. In Act One, the action scenes are more plot related – deal with the death of his friend's daughter. But in Act Two the bad guys begin shooting people Danny Glover knows, and by Act Three, they have kidnapped his daughter.
Each action scene should draw the protagonist *deeper* into the action until the protagonist's life is on the line.
Wait… did you say *emotional conflict*? Aren't we talking about action movies? Film is a dramatic medium, and as I've said a million times – car chases don't buy movie tickets, people do… so make sure your screenplay is about the people.
We need both physical conflict (car chases, fist fights, explosions) *and* emotional conflict… and they need to be connected.
Everything in your screenplay is there to explore the theme – so it is all connected.
Just making a detective an alcoholic is meaningless (and cliché) unless the case sends him into bar after bar where temptation awaits. The emotional conflict needs to be connected to the physical conflict – not two separate stories.
My definition of story: A story is when a character is forced to solve an emotional problem (why we care) in order to solve an external problem (the conflict we see - cool idea plus explosions) in order to prevent a catastrophic event from occurring (stakes)… often by a specific deadline.
It's all grown from a story seed – where the emotional conflict and external conflict are connected. Nothing is grafted on from the outside, nothing is just some random scene or idea glued onto the story just because it sounds cool. If you have a scene that is *only* character or *only* action, it's best to find a better scene that is both character *and* action.
Unity Of Event (action) is still important – a story is about *one* thing happening.
In “Face/Off” the central conflict (where the external conflict and emotional conflict intersect) is FBI Agent Sean Archer's relentless pursuit of the man who killed his son… at the expense of the rest of his family.
Family is at the core of the theme, and most of the action scenes have a family-based component in them, whether it's Archer rescuing his daughter from the Villain, or Archer rescuing the Villain's son in the middle of a massive shoot out, or the henchman taking a bullet so that his sister (Gina Gershon) can live. Every character and most of the scenes in the film reflect Archer's central conflict concerning family… and job vs. family specifically. *All* of the characters are defined by decisions they must make between job and family.
Where Archer sacrifices family for career, Troy is a family man who is devoted to his brother and only works when he's having fun.
The *Emotional Conflict* meets the External Conflict when Troy escapes and takes over Archer's life… and becomes a better husband and father than Archer has been since his son was killed!
Instead of going to his wife and daughter for help, Archer continues his relentless pursuit of Troy. Seeking out the terrorist's henchman (Nick Cassavettes) and girlfriend in an attempt to destroy Troy. Continuing his mistake of thinking destroying the man who killed his son will bring his family together. The more Archer ignores his Emotional Conflict through denial, the bigger the External Conflict becomes.
Archer must deal with his family problems in order to regain his identity and bring down the terrorist. He must resolve his Emotional Conflict in order to resolve the External (plot) Conflict. Become himself inside before he can regain his identity outside.
Emotions are what make our characters human and what allows the audience to identify with them, and care whether they live or die.
There are two basics endings to a story – protagonist solves the problem, or problem solves the protagonist.
Indiana Jones does have a subtle Character Arc in “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” (the most curious man in the world who puts treasure before people and plans to con Marion out of the headpiece… and by the end will shut his eyes tight and protects Marion – putting people before treasure).
If people are shooting at the hero, we need to care whether he or she lives or dies or the scene doesn't matter.
In “Casino Royale” (screenplay by Paul Haggis), M calls Bond a "blunt instrument" and that's exactly what he is - a sledgehammer slamming anything that gets in his way. The first action scene in the film is designed to *show us* who Bond is - an amazing foot chase where Bond pursues a parkour trained Bomb Maker. The foot chase in the next sequence is an exciting set piece, but it is also a *character scene*. Bond commandeers a bull dozer and smashes through the fence, crushing everything in his way. The Bomb Maker continues to gracefully vault and spin and climb; while Bond gives chase with complete focus - not caring about anyone else.
What does this tell us about Bond? He is more concerned with the pursuit than injuring others. He is a man of swift and brutal action. He is driven. This shows us his character through his actions.
The action scene also sets up Bond’s character arc for the film. He will learn to care about someone other than himself… action scenes are character scenes.
Find a unique location for your action scene that provides a second level of danger *and* provides an interesting background to your fight or chase scene.
You don't want to use the cliché “spark factory” (a Roger Ebert term for that factory that seems to produce nothing but sparks in action movies).
We want every punch to have an emotional affect on the reader and the audience.
One way to give your action scene maximum emotional impact is to put someone the protagonist cares about in danger.
Action *is* character.
In “True Lies” the theme is trust. So James Cameron came up with action scenes that *demonstrates* this emotional conflict.
There is a strong emotional component at the center of this action scene: This is the woman he loves - the most important person in his life.
By adding the emotional component the action becomes even more exciting – it's not just a car and a helicopter and some stunts – it's a character who must save the woman he loves from *death*. This is a scene that explores the theme of the script, is filled with emotions, and is also pretty darned exciting. Most of the action scenes in “True Lies” explore some aspect of trust - the action scenes are critical to the story!
Neo races to the empty office, goes out the window to the ledge, starts climbing around the building… but reaches a point where it becomes difficult and just quits… and gets captured. We learn from that action scene that Neo doesn't believe in himself and when the going gets rough he quits. That is Neo's character arc in “The Matrix”, he must learn to believe in himself. This action scene is critical to the character, to the story, to the character arc and emotional conflict, and it shows the theme.
Later there's a scene where Morpheus fights an army of police while Neo and the others crawl through the inside of the walls to escape. It's a long fight scene - and every minute is critical. Because this is the scene where we *see* how much Morpheus believes in Neo - he sacrifices himself. He must keep getting back on his feet and getting knocked down until Neo is safely away… But Neo hesitates. Neo knows he's not the Chosen One - he knows that Morpheus is going to be killed for no reason - because Neo is a fraud and wasn't strong enough to tell Morpheus what the Oracle said. But when Neo hesitates inside the wall… Morpheus has to get back on his feet and get pummeled even more! So Morpheus believes in Neo, but Neo's lack of belief in himself is getting his friend hurt. The more Neo hesitates, the more Morpheus gets beaten up.
That's theme and story… in an action scene. You can't remove that without losing critical information that the audience needs. And it's also critical character information.
Every scene in your screenplay needs to move the story forward and change the direction of the story. If things are the same at the beginning and the end of an action scene, it can be removed without impacting the story - and it *should* be removed.
Just like any other scene in your screenplay, there will be a goal, a conflict, and something at stake.
Finding an interesting way to vanquish your villain is great, but a clever or ironic method is even more satisfying for the audience. Turning their own plan against them at the last minute turns the end of your action scene into more than brute force or great marksmanship. A protagonist who outsmarts the villain by turning the tables on him is someone we’ll cheer on for the rest of the script.
Shane ("Lethal Weapon") Black says: "The key to a good action scene is reversals. The "Star Wars" movies work because they are FULL of reversals."
"It's like a good news, bad news joke. The bad news is, you get thrown out of an airplane. The good news is, you're wearing a parachute. The bad news is, your rip cord breaks. The good news is, you have a back up 'chute. The bad news is, you can't reach the cord. Back and forth, just like that, until the character reaches the ground. He's gonna die… no, he's not… Reversal, reversal, reversal."
Action crosscutting takes two *separate* actions and divides the audience's loyalties between them. The idea is to create a pair of different actions, and just as one scene gets exciting, jump to the other. When that scene becomes exciting, jump back to the first scene. Suspense is created through *cliffhangers* at the end of each segment.
A great example is the end of “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” where Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is engaged in an epic fight with the villain over a briefcase filled with launch codes in an automated car park, which is cross-cut with comic relief Benji (Simon Pegg) is trying to rewire a computer without tools and keeps pricked his fingers into a bloody mess, which is cross-cut with sidekick Brandt (Jeremy Renner) who is battling the henchman in order to get get the power back on. We cut between all three battles – each being a different part of the solution which will stop a nuclear missile from taking out San Francisco (oddly – the city where I saw the film).
Our job as writers is to give the audience an emotional experience, whether it's fear from a horror movie, sadness from a tragedy, romance from a love story, joy and laughter from a comedy, excitement from an action movie.
Action films are all about life or death situations, and those are about the most emotionally charged situations I can think of. When you are writing an action scene, remember to make it emotional as well as physical.
If a film fails to engage me, it can have lots of swell action scenes and/or pretty pictures and it's nothing more than porn. Action porn or cinematography porn.
I once read a script by a new writer which was a real page turner. Non stop action, with the protagonist narrowly escaping one dangerous situation, only to find himself in a worse predicament. Sounds exciting, right? Well, the script was actually rather dull. It took me another read through to find the problem. The lead character spent so much time running, we never had a chance to really know him. There was never a scene where he stopped to contemplate his fate. To let us in on his fears and anxieties.
What do you propose? Some sort of speech like the soliloquy from "Hamlet"? Yes. That's *exactly* what I am proposing. "Hamlet" is an exciting tale of murder, mystery, and revenge. Filled with sword fights and intrigue. Yet the action stops about halfway through the script so that Hamlet can examine his mortality and his soul.
Wait a moment, you say. We're talking about an action script, here, not a drama!
So let's look at "Die Hard". About two thirds through the script (page 94), John McClane manages a very dramatic soliloquy about his mortality, and the mistakes he made in his marriage. A dramatic confession of past sins. This is the most powerful scene in the movie. The "Hamlet Moment" for the John McClane character.
There are two great moments in “The Incredibles”:
"This is my fault. I've been a lousy father. So caught up in the past that… You are my greatest adventure. And I almost missed it." Now *that's* a moment - not a dry eye in the house.
"No… I can't lose you again. I can't… not again… I'm not… strong enough." Wow, brought tears to my eyes just typing that!
In “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, and Paula Patton each get a nice dramatic moment dealing with the “ghosts” in their past. The things that haunt them and make them the characters they are today. Even in a wall-to-wall action flick a moment of character reflection adds to the story.
Make sure your script has a handful of great moments that cut to the heart of your characters.
Movies are about people, about what people learn about themselves and their world, and how they deal with what they've learned.
"Face/Off", like "Die Hard", is really a story which explores families in crisis against a background of things exploding real good.
Both use their action plots to fuel the type of smaller, personal stories usually found in dramas.
In a strange way, "Face/Off" is the action version of "Ordinary People"… both films are about how the death of a son affects a family.
The life-or-death conflict just raises the stakes and deepens the drama.