Hillification, or, How We Write Action

I need a break on writing about crushing rejection, so seems like a good time to talk a bit about writing action scenes.  Writing action for screenplays was certainly hard for us at the beginning.  Like all new screenwriters, our impulse was to describe as much as possible, in as much depth as possible, which works fine for a novel, but doesn’t work at all in a screenplay.

When we went back to start our rewrites on Extracurriculars, we realized our action chunks were a serious problem.  While they clearly described what was going on, they were painfully unpleasant to read, and, frankly boring.  We spent a while looking at other scripts online to get a sense of how they write action and found a fair bit of variation.  All more minimal than ours, but nothing that really seemed inspired.

Then we found some scripts by Walter Hill.  Now, Matthew and I are both big Walter Hill fans to begin with, so it was pretty great to read some of his scripts.  Apparently, he wasn’t sure how to write scripts either until he read the script for Point Blank (which, sadly, doesn’t seem to be available anywhere), which inspired him to write the most terse, hard-boiled scripts he could.

Check out this early action scene from the never-made American remake of The Killer:

INT. PRIVATE ROOM - WUCHOW DRAGON                                             

 High stakes PAI KAO.
 The MAN IN THE BRIEFCASE PHOTO, and three others at the table --
 Big time CHINESE GANGSTERS.
 And they look it.
 Tough, cruel, very ugly.
 BODYGUARDS stand around lean against the walls fill the doorways...
 No noise except the SLAPPING of the tiles on the table as the game progresses.

 INT. CORRIDOR - WUCHOW DRAGON                                                 

 The Hostess speaks quietly to Jeff - indicates down the hallway --
 then leaves.
 Jeff moves down the corridor, eyes the doorways
 Stops near the fourth door...
 He leans up against the wall outside the room.
 Pulls on a pair of thin white gloves.
 Brings one of the WALTHERS up out of his coat --
 Knocks lightly on the door.
 A BODYGUARD cautiously opens the door.
 And the FIREFIGHT BEGINS --
 Jeff FIRES TWO SHOTS into his stomach.
 Then drives into him, forcing the door open --
 Rolls into the room...                                                        

 INT. PRIVATE ROOM - WUCHOW DRAGON                                                    

 Jeff lands on his back, now with a pistol in each hand --
 BLOWS AWAY the two GUARDS.                                                           

 MAN IN THE PHOTO
 Reaches for his gun --                                                               

 JEFF                                                                                 

 Immediately on his feet with his arms extended in each direction -- A cross with a gun
 at each end.
 He looks down the barrel of the pistol in his right hand.
 It's trained on the Man In The Photo.
 Without looking he SHOOTS a GUARD drawing a gun behind him.                          

 MAN IN THE PHOTO                                                                     

 His gun half drawn --
 Staring at the barrel of Jeff s gun pointed at him...                                 

 JEFF                                                                                 

 Hesitates...
 Then BLASTS a hole in the man's forehead.
 FIRES three more in his chest with the other gun.
 Wheels around and BLOWS AWAY a THUG who has come through the door behind
 him.
 The SOUND of a SHOTGUN PUMP --
 Jeff leaps to his right as the SHOTGUN FIRES.
 He avoids the full impact of the BLAST --
 Takes some PELLETS in his back.                                                      

 SMALL BAR                                                                            

 The BARTENDER pumps the shotgun for a second BLAST --
 Jeff moves toward him CONTINUOUSLY FIRING both pistols.
 Every bullet rips into the Bartender's body.
 His second pellet blast FIRES uselessly into the ceiling.                            

 JEFF                                                                                 

 Out of ammunition and targets...
 He drops both pistols --
 Starts for the door.                                                                 

 SMALL BAR                                                                               

 An already WOUNDED THUG finds life --
 Goes for the BARTENDER'S SHOTGUN... --                                                   

 WIDE SHOT                                                                               

 Jeff sees one of the Thug's PISTOLS on the card table --
 He steps on the edge of the table, catapulting the revolver through the air and into his
 hand!
 Aims and FIRES.                                                                         

 THUG
 JERKING and TWISTING as the slugs TEAR into him --                                       

 JEFF                                                                                    

 Turns and walks to the doorway.
 Hears a SOUND.
 He raises the pistol to fire, stops when he sees...                                     

 JENNY                                                                                   

 Standing in the doorway.
 She freezes.
 Jeff's gun pointed at her head --

That’s not screenwriting – that’s a series of macho haikus.  Obviously, neither Matthew nor I smoke nearly enough cigars to write something like that without feeling silly, but it’s a pretty great goal.  We took a pass at rewriting the opening scene of  Extracurriculars in a variety of levels of terseness to get a sense of what worked best for us.

Here’s a sample chunk of how it looked before:

Gina turns and runs through the darkness, only able to see a few feet in front of her. She looks over her shoulder, but sees no one following her. She looks ahead again, and sees the light from her headlamp glinting off the metal of the SUV.

She sprints toward the car, throws open the car door, and dives in, slamming the door behind her. She mashes the power lock button. Nothing happens. She slams the lock closed manually, then fumbles around in the cup holder and comes up with the car keys. She jabs them into the ignition and turns them. Nothing.

GINA
No, no, no. Come on!

She pumps the gas pedal and turns the keys. again, but, again, nothing happens. She freezes as the roof of the car creaks faintly. She looks around, panicked, then screams as the SUV’s battery drops onto the hood, denting the metal with a heavy thud. She reaches over to the glove compartment, coming up with a heavy metal flashlight.

She clutches the flashlight in her hands, looking upwards, listening for motion on the roof. She clicks the flashlight on and grips it tightly, trying to psych herself up for a fight. She glances in the rear view mirror and sees a pair of headlights in the distance. She looks over her shoulder and confirms the headlights, then places one hand on the handle of the door. She takes one last deep breath, then throws the door open and begins sprinting toward the lights.

She looks over her shoulder at the SUV and sees the hooded figure leap off the roof and give chase. She runs, clutching the heavy flashlight in one hand, looking frantically over her shoulder as the hooded figure follows just behind her. She looks ahead, and, seeing the headlights moving away, aims the flashlight at the car and waves it around, trying to be noticed.

That’s fine, I guess, but, man, is that a lot of text to read. I believe we have a more absurdly stripped down version somewhere, in which I implemented the James Ellroy method of removing all the verbs, but we settled on this one as terse, but not absurd:

Gina turns and runs, barely able to see ahead of her.

Looks over her shoulder. Nothing. Ahead of her, the safety of the SUV.

She reaches the car. Throws open the door. Dives in, door slamming behind her. The power lock button.

Nothing.

She mashes the door lock with her hand. Keys from the cup holder. She jams them into the ignition.

Nothing.

GINA
No, no, no. Come on!

Pumps the gas pedal, turns the key.

Nothing.

A faint creak from above. Gina looks at the ceiling.

THUD!

The battery of the SUV crashes down on the hood, denting metal. Gina screams.

She reaches over to the glove compartment and pulls out a heavy metal flashlight. She clicks it on, illuminating the car, and clutches it tightly.

Lights reflect in the rearview mirror. Gina looks up. Headlights in the distance, far behind her. She closes her eyes, steeling herself. A deep breath. Eyes open. She wraps her fingers around the door handle.

Gina dives from the car, sprinting toward the lights, bare feet slapping the dirt. The Hooded Figure leaps to the ground and gives chase.

She looks over her shoulder. She runs. It runs. It is getting closer.

She waves her flashlight wildly at the headlights.

So much better!  Not quite Walter Hill-style poetry, but reads nicely on the page and still conveys everything we need to convey.