by William C. Martell

POP QUIZ. Which hurts more: hitting your elbow on a door frame or getting blasted by a laser? The obvious answer is the laser blast, but it isn't the correct answer. If I were to show you a film clip where a man hit his elbow on a door frame, you'd go "ouch". You'd understand the pain and empathize with the man. But if I showed you a "Star Trek" clip where a laser dissolves a man, it wouldn't effect you. You've never been hit by a laser blast, you have no idea what it feels like.

We all know about the evils of abstracts. Mystery novelist and TV writer Joe Gores says in the Mystery Writer's Handbook, "Don't indulge in 'soft' writing. A street, means any street. A car, means any car. I want to see a specific street, a specific car. Hard detail is what makes a story believable."

You probably take special care when deciding whether your protagonist drives a sports car or a family sedan, if he wears tennis shoes or spats; but even specifics can be abstracts if the audience hasn't experienced them personally.

Which takes us back to that laser gun. Even if you actually know how lasers work, create a brand name and specifications, fill in all the knobs and do-dads; the audience still won't feel the pain along with your laser blastee.

George Lucas figured out a way to by-pass this problem by creating 'light sabers', which are basically laser blades. They cut. We all know what it is like to get cut, don't we?

Using action and violence in your script is meaningless unless your audience can feel it. Remember: Film is communication. Your script must be designed to communicate with the audience (through the medium of the camera and the actors). The difference between effective violence and gratuitous violence is: Gratuitous violence isn't felt by the audience. It's just exploitation. Spurting blood and exploding heads. Who among us have had our heads explode? (If this HAS happened to you, please don't write me... I'd rather not know).

So violence must be personalized.

Here are three examples of action scenes which work because the audience understands the results of the violence:

Steven deSouza's "Die Hard" contains one of the most painful moments on film. John McClane is our barefoot hero, taking on a team of ruthless terrorists. Hans and Karl have cornered McClane in the Computer Room, and the three are involved in a shoot out.

* * *
looks at the glass all around him, gets and idea. He SHOUTS to Karl:
HANS The glass! Shoot the glass!
And, saying this, he demonstrates. Karl follows suit.
As glass flies everywhere, McClane sees one option and takes it. BLASTING a burst to keep their heads down, he WHIRLS, JUMPS on top of a long counter and RUNS ACROSS THE ROOM. Their BULLETS follow him, six inches behind his moving form.
McClane reaches the end of the counter, DIVES to the floor:
goes right down on a jagged SHARD. He groans, keeps going.
He's out, gone, safe.
McClane all but crawls inside. His dragging foot leaving a trail of blood on the linoleum.
Wincing in pain, McClane washes his foot in a sink basin. He washes a deep cut, but the pain doesn't relent.

* * *

When I was a kid, I was walking barefoot in my back yard and stepped on a nail. It went right through my foot. I'll bet, in your life, you once stepped on broken glass while barefoot. It hurts. We know it hurts. When John McClane drags himself into the bathroom, we know EXACTLY how he feels. The pain is real for us, more real than a shotgun blast.

My second example is from the classic Dean Riesner scripted "Play Misty For Me". Clint Eastwood is having a major ex- girlfriend problem: She is trying to kill him. With a knife. A very sharp knife. Do you know what 'defense wounds' are?

She attacks Clint with the knife, stabbing out at his face. Not wanting to get stabbed in the face, he catches the knife in his hand. Ouch! There's a close up shot of the blade slicing his fingers as he tries to hang onto it. Double ouch! Then she pulls the blade back, out of his hand, practically severing his fingers. Triple ouch!

How many of us have been chopping an onion and cut ourselves? Probably everyone. Again, we know EXACTLY how being cut with a knife feels. When it happens on screen, part of the audience's brain flashes back to the time THEY were cut, and they instantly feel the pain.

My last example is from a dark comedy film called "Swimming With Sharks" about a Personal Assistant who holds his mean spirited Boss hostage and metes out a strange revenge for on the job abuse. I've seen this film four times, and every time the audience jumps at one painful scene. Even though I know the scene is coming, it still affects me:

The Personal Assistant takes a crisp, clean, new piece of paper and slashes his Boss's face with paper cuts. Ouch! He also cuts his Boss's tongue with a sharp envelope flap. Ouch! This scene was worse for me than "Play Misty For Me". I work with paper and envelopes EVERY DAY. Paper cuts hurt worse than anything else on earth (including that nail in the foot). And a paper cut on your tongue? I've had one before. The pain stays for weeks! If you haven't seen "Swimming With Sharks", it's well worth a rent. Oh, and did I mention the Boss is a film producer?

The key to writing an effective action sequence is to make sure the violence is something the audience understands, and can empathize with. As B-Movie Maven Fred Olen Ray once asked me: "If a man is shot by a laser and falls down, is the laser on stun or kill? Is he hurt or dead?" We don't know, because we've never been shot by a laser.

Personalizing action/violence/pain means showing us the DETAILS. Details which we understand. Say you have a plane crash survivor forced to search for help in a rocky terrain. He has been walking all day, and stops to take off his dress shoes. When he takes off his socks, we see the blisters on his feet. Big, painful blisters. Some have broken open, and when the air touches the nerve endings, our Survivor gasps in pain.

Anyone who has ever had new dress shoes knows how this feels. Because this is drama, we have MAGNIFIED the injury and the pain. Taken it up a couple of notches. Steven deSouza's "Commando" ends with an epic battle in the furnace room of a mansion. At one point, John Matrix's face is pressed against the furnace door. Sizzle! We know how that feels, from the time we lifted the pan without a pot holder. DeSouza has magnified the pain by making the furnace door red hot, and subject of the burn our hero's face. You know that's gotta hurt!

When you are writing a fight scene, think of the detail. The personal injury which will make your audience gasp in identification. I like to have villains break my hero's fingers, either by crushing them or bending them backwards. We know that hurts. Did you know that a pistol barrel gets hot after firing? Hot enough to burn? When I have two characters struggling with a gun which keeps discharging, I like to add in the burn factor. Grab the barrel... sizzle... ouch! We may not have burned our hands on a gun barrel, but we've burned our hands on SOMETHING. We know exactly how it feels.

We know how it feels to have someone step on our foot really hard, to get something in our eye, to get a pavement scrape, etc. These are the kinds of things to use in your action scenes to make them effective.


Your villain has spent his entire life hurting people one by one, and now he's ready to move on to world destruction and/or domination. He wants to blow up Cleveland or wipe out his enemies' family lines. How do you make such massive destruction personal? There are two ways to make big action effective on screen.

ONE: Make sure your protagonist has a stake in the outcome, and make sure the audience's identification with your protagonist is VERY strong. A good example is Donald Stewart and W. Peter Iliff's "Patriot Games". We are introduced to family man Harrison Ford, his wife and daughter. We learn to care about them as a family. When Ford steps in to thwart a terrorist bombing, not only do the terrorist come after him, they come after his family as well. Ford must stop the Terrorists, because he and his family are directly threatened.

If your villain is killing a bunch of people you don't know, or don't care about, it is meaningless violence. Giving a spear- carrier a scene where he is kind to small animals before he is killed just doesn't cut it. Audiences see it coming from a mile away. Is there anyone in the world who saw "Top Gun" and didn't KNOW Goose was about to die after they suddenly introduce his wife and family halfway through the film?

TWO: Have the Villain's Plan threaten the audience. We are sitting in the theater, minding our own business, when the Villain threatens to unleash a virus which will spread like wildfire. We see a map of the United States, and Donald Sutherland shows us how far the virus will spread in 24 hours... 48 hours... 96 hours (entire map is covered). Now the audience is affected by the villain's plan. If the hero doesn't stop him WE will die.

This method works best in films like "Fail Safe" and "War Games", where a nuclear incident will start a nuclear war which will probably destroy the world. The audience itself is threatened by the villain's actions. We will become the victims.

In my script "Crash Dive!", a group of terrorists have hijacked a 688 Attack Class nuclear submarine, and are threatening to nuke New York. Because I realized that might sound like a good idea to some audience members, I added the threat of firing at some random "small town" targets as well. Like the very city where the movie theater you're watching "Crash Dive!" is located in. Now you, the viewer, have a stake in the outcome.

The ultimate audience threat was in the William Castle film "The Tingler". At the end of the film, the Tingler escapes into a movie theater... the one YOU'RE sitting in! Vincent Price looks RIGHT AT YOU and warns you "It's under your seat". Theaters were wired with buzzers under some of the seats to reproduce the feeling of the Tingler's attack. I'm sure a few people jumped.

THE ONE THING YOU DON'T WANT TO DO when creating violence in an action scene is to make it ineffective and painless. If the audience doesn't feel anything when a character is killed or injured, that's akin to pornography. It's violence desensitized.

In Shane Black's "The Last BoyScout", one of our heroes gets a knife stuck RIGHT THROUGH HIS HAND. He is pegged to a desk. He pulls the knife out, wraps a handkerchief around the wound, and is as good as new. This very violent act was without pain, without feeling... desensitized.

In Shane Black's "The Long Kiss Goodnight", Henessey gets beat up, shot a dozen times, blown out of an exploding building, and manages to walk away unharmed. None of the violence in this script has any effect on anyone. Getting blown out of a building doesn't matter to Henessey, so why should it matter to the audience? Getting shot doesn't matter. Getting hit doesn't matter. When the bad guys kidnap Charly's daughter... it just doesn't matter to us. If they shoot her, she'll just get up and walk away, right?

Wrong. In real life pain hurts. Our job as screenwriters is to make an emotional connection with our audience. To INVOLVE them. To allow them to feel our characters' pain, and our characters' joys. To do that, we must personalize our stories and our action scenes and make the audience an active participant in our script.

When you get ready to write the next draft of your script, just remember: This time, it's PERSONAL.


This is an excerpt from my book THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING, available below...



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