Film & TV

What Is an Action Screenplay? Tips and Tricks on How to Write Great Action Sequences in Your Screenplay

Written by MasterClass

Jun 1, 2019 • 4 min read

Writing an action screenplay requires more than just strong writing skills. In addition to being storytellers, action writers must also craft exciting action sequences to complement the story.

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What Is an Action Screenplay?

An action screenplay is a script for an action movie. Action movies are fast-paced films that put the main character or characters through a series of dangerous physical obstacles, like fight sequences or car chases, on their quest to victory. They balance action with story to raise the stakes and get the audience emotionally invested.

5 Things Every Action Screenplay Needs

Common features of action movies include:

  1. Fight scenes and/or chase scenes: Entice audiences with the promise of big blockbuster fight sequences. They have little to no dialogue but are full of gripping action, stunts, and special effects.
  2. Slow-motion shots: Freeze or slow down moments in the story. Let viewers dwell on the implications and emotions of what’s unfolding.
  3. Cliffhangers: Pose big questions at the end of scenes. Take the audience right up to the moment before the action concludes, then cut to a new scene, letting them wonder how it will play out.
  4. Surprises: Set up expectations, then subvert them when the audience least expects it. Introduce a piece of new information or a plot twist to keep them on their toes.
  5. Bad guys: Give the audience someone to root against and more reason to support the main character. Villains are great vehicles for exploring the strengths, weaknesses, and motivations of your protagonist.

5 Tips for Writing Great Action Sequences in Your Screenplay

Writing an action screenplay involves a lot more scene description than other movie genres because action scenes are very visual. Action writing is hard to do well; you have to balance the story with fast-paced sequences.

  1. Write action lines in the present. Write the description of every action sequence as if you’re watching it unfold in real time. Use the present tense and active voice. Avoid words like “is,” “are,” and words that end in “-ing.”
  2. Keep action descriptions pitchy. Write action so it takes roughly the same amount of time to read as it does to play on the screen. This allows you to focus on the written words that will be said on screen, while the director only needs the blueprint of the description and action to translate your vision to the screen.
  3. Use slug lines. Screenwriting software like Final Draft and Celtx allow you to add slug lines to your screenplay. Slug lines denote a new scene and convey three important pieces of information about a scene: whether it’s set inside (interior/INT.) or outside (exterior/EXT.), the location, and the time of day.
  4. Don’t get too technical. There’s no need to include camera shots and camera angles in your screenplay. The director will determine those specifics in the shooting script, the final document that contains the scenes in the order in which they’ll be filmed.
  5. Include the pertinent details. As the screenwriter, you’re able to see the whole version of the scene, but your initial script readers aren’t close to the story like you are. Introduce key details about the characters, setting, and circumstances early on in the script to paint the full picture.

6 Tips and Tricks for Writing Action Screenplays

Here’s how to make your action screenplay even more exciting:

  1. Withhold information from the audience. Put your characters in tense situations and rearrange scenes to keep the pacing swift. This way, you don’t get bogged down in details or “information dumps.” Withholding information allows room in the audience’s mind to form ideas, ask questions, and sustain their interest in the story.
  2. Put your characters to work. Craft situations where they’re unable to get the information or tools that they desperately need. This forces them to strategize and take actions to reach their goals.
  3. Construct believable scenarios. Don’t make it too easy for your characters to get the information they need. Otherwise, viewers will lose respect for them and for you as a screenwriter.
  4. Vary the pacing of your story. Balance action scenes with more reflective, internal moments to give the viewer an equal dose of excitement and recovery. The quieter moments are the places to share relationship details, a character’s thoughts and memories, and anything they might do while taking a break. These spaces, which are just as important as the more dramatic scenes, give viewers a chance to orient themselves and process their reactions.
  5. Raise the stakes for your protagonist. Throw obstacles in their path, even if you don’t know how they’ll surmount them. Sometimes forcing your characters into a corner can stimulate your problem-solving skills.
  6. Do something unexpected. Ironically, action scenes have a tendency to be boring. Audiences know what to expect from them and know how they’ll probably end. Catch them off guard by doing something they’ve never seen before.

10 Action Screenplays to Read for Inspiration

Use these screenplays as examples of how to structure your action script. Reference how they draw the audience in with heart-pounding sequences and balance action with emotional drama to keep them invested:

  1. Goldfinger by Richard Mailbaum, Paul Dehn, Johanna Harwood, and Berkely Mather (1964)
  2. Raiders of the Lost Ark by Lawrence Kasdan (1981)
  3. Die Hard by Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart (1988)
  4. Mission: Impossible by David Koepp and Steven Zaillian (1996)
  5. The Matrix by the Wachowskis (1999)
  6. Fight Club by Jim Uhls (1999)
  7. Gone in 60 Seconds by Scott Rosenberg (2000)
  8. Charlie’s Angles by John August (2000)
  9. The Bourne Identity by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron (2002)
  10. Mad Max: Fury Road by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris (2015)

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