FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

REVERSALS IN ACTION


You want your action scenes to be exciting and unique - if you have seen a similar action scene in a script, find a way to make yours different. I have lists of car chase ideas, hand to hand combat ideas, strange shoot out ideas, and just about any other kind of action scene that may pop up in a screenplay. I like to find an action scene that is thematic as well as unique. On my blog a while back I posted script pages from the car chase in BLACK THUNDER as well as video of the chase itself. The theme in that script was concealment for purposes of deception, and the action scene featured the hero hidden in a fruit truck who bursts out from under the mellons and kicks some butt. The scene was kind of a joke - Roger Ebert always complained that car chases always find a fruit vending cart to crash into, and I thought it would be funny to do the opposite - have a fruit truck as part of the chase crashing into things. I had never seen that in a film before, and thought it would be fun to have the hero use the fruit and mellons as weapons.

But once I came up with a car chase I hadn't seen before, my job has just begun - now I have to make the chase exciting to read and exciting to watch... and for that I used reversals.

Reversals are like Good News/Bad News jokes - they keep action scenes exciting and actually help to infuse action scenes with emotions by adding suspense and surprise. In the new version of SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING I use a scene from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK as an example of reversals. When I was a guest speaker at the Sacramento Film Festival a few years ago, I used this scene from ROAD WARRIOR to show how reversals work. Here's the set up: Mad Max and the Feral Kid are in a tanker truck being chased by all manner of scumbags in dune buggies and pick up trucks...

* * *

BAD NEWS: Three scumbags, including the mohawked WEZ, jump onto the back of the tanker truck!

GOOD NEWS: Max swerves the tanker, ramming their dune buggies- CRASH! - trapping them on the tanker truck.

BAD NEWS: Scumbag #1 climbs onto the roof of the truck, fires and arrow through the roof at Max.

GOOD NEWS: It misses.

BAD NEWS: Max has to reload his shotgun.

SUSPENSE: Who will finish reloading first? Max or Scumbag #1?

GOOD NEWS: Max reloads first. Swings his shotgun up to the roof.

BAD NEWS: Scumbag #2 is on the running-board, pokes his gun through the truck window right at Max's face!

GOOD NEWS: Max changes aim, BLASTS Scumbag #2 with his shotgun. One down, two to go!

BAD NEWS: Scumbag #1 has reloaded his crossbow by now... Prepares to fire!

GOOD NEWS: Max's shotgun is a double barrel... he has another shot! He presses the gun barrel to the roof and FIRES! Blasts Scumbag #1 right off the roof!

BAD NEWS: Mohawked Wez swings his spiked mace through the back window of the truck cab... it slices into Max's shoulder. Ouch!

WORSE NEWS: The shotgun is empty. Time to reload!

GOOD NEWS: The Feral Kid BITES Wez. Wez lets go of Max, pulls out of the back window.

BETTER NEWS: This gives Max time to reload the shotgun.

BAD NEWS: Mohawked Wez swings his mace through the truck's front window, CRASH, spraying glass!

GOOD NEWS: The spiked mace barely misses Max's face.

BAD NEWS: When Max swings out of the way, he spills the shotgun shells...

WORSE NEWS: Onto the hood of the truck, where they begin rolling to the edge!

EVEN WORSE NEWS: Mohawked Wez swings his spiked mace through the broken front window again, right at Max's face!

GOOD NEWS: Max hits the brakes! Throwing Wez right off the roof of the truck!

BETTER NEWS: The truck runs over him when Max starts moving again.

BAD NEWS: While the truck was stopped, more scumbags in dune buggies catch up with him.. Including the ultra-badguy, DARK LORD HUMUNGUS (who wears that weird mask).

WORSE NEWS: The last of Max's shotgun shells are rolling around on the hood of the truck, out of reach.

GOOD NEWS: The Feral Kid is small enough to crawl out of the window of the speeding, swerving, truck... onto the hood... where he can crawl to the very edge of the hood and grab the shells.

THIS IS GOOD NEWS? Wait a minute! We have watched the relationship between Max and the Kid grow throughout the movie, the Kid is like Max's son at this point. We really care about the kid, and we really don't want to see him fall off the edge of the hood and have Max run over him in the truck. This is an emotionally charged scene.

BAD NEWS: Dark Lord Humungos zips past the truck in his dune buggie, preparing to block the road.

GOOD NEWS: The Feral Kid climbs to the edge of the hood, stretches his fingers, grabs the last shotgun shell.

BAD NEWS: You remember mohawked Wez that Max ran over? Well, he held on to the front bumper of the truck. He s climbed up the truck's grille, and now he SPRINGS UP and GRABS at the Feral Kid!

GOOD NEWS: The Feral Kid pulls away... back into the truck cab.

BAD NEWS: Without the last shotgun shell!

WORSE NEWS: Mohawked Wez starts to climb up the hood to attack Max. Max has no shotgun shells, no weapon, nothing! He is completely defenseless!

GOOD NEWS: The dark Lord Humungus is speeding RIGHT AT THE TRUCK in his dune buggie.

WAIT A MINUTE! How can this be GOOD NEWS? Well, mohawked Wez is still on the truck's front bumper.

IMPACT! Mohawked Wez is CRUSHED! The Dark Lord Humungus' dune buggie is SMASHED to bits!

GOOD NEWS: All of the badguys are killed!

BAD NEWS: After running into the dune buggie the truck goes out of control and overturns, spilling all of it's precious cargo!

* * *

See how the Good News/Bad News aspect of reversal works? Reversals ask a question: will Max get the shotgun reloaded before Scumbag #1 gets his crossbow reloaded? Then giving you an answer that creates a brand new question: Max gets the shotgun loaded first, but Scumbag #2 aims his gun through the window at him. The new question is: will he be shot by Scumbag #2? Each solution creates a brand new problem. A reader can't put the script down - there's always an unanswered question, and unsolved problem. Before the reader knows what's happening they have been drawn into the protagonist's problems. They are hooked! Emotionally involved!

* Here's another example, the opening scene from THE MATRIX.

* Here's another example, an action scene from THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT.

Though this Script Tip focuses on action scenes, the tool of Reversals works in every genre - comedies often use reversals in scenes, as do thrillers and rom-coms and dramas and science fiction and fantasy films and traditional nudist westerns and westerns where they wear more than just spurs and hats and sports films and superhero movies and dark comedies and musicals and... well, Reversals are one of the great tools to keep a scene interesting and exciting and unpredictable. You can use Reversals in *dialogue scenes* too - by leading the audience to believe one thing and then twisting it into something else. Misunderstandings in dialogue are a form of reversals.

Often the difference between a good screenplay and a great one is in the details - the small things. Just telling the story is step one, you need to make every single moment of that screenplay exciting and interesting and involving, and reversals are a great tool for that.

Note: This scene was "edited" for the tip, the actual scene is much much longer and contains even more reversals!



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