This is one of those questions that there isn't one answer to, because a lot depends on the specifics of your script. ATOMIC BLONDE is a great example because it’s extra juicy - it zips along at a fast pace, but doesn’t skimp on character or drama along the way. Generally, if you have 8-9 action sequences, you're probably okay. If you end up with 12, you're also okay. If you have 3, you may be in trouble... unless you have some really emotionally powerful scenes that provide as much juice as a big action scene: WITNESS doesn't have many action scenes - but makes up for it with other juicy stuff - its Act Two is mostly a romantic triangle among the Amish... not much room for action scenes in Amish Country.
One of the things reviewers always say about my SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING book is that it’s good for all genres. Ted Elliott (SHREK, those PIRATES movies, etc) wrote a massive blurb for the first edition where he listed all of the genres the book would help you write, and I think he left out Traditional Nudist Western - I ended up using a different quote from him that actually fit on the cover of the book. But since the book came out, I’ve often tested some of my theories with different genres to see if they hold up, or it I’m full of sh!t... so far, they’ve help up!
In the book I note that Producer Joel Silver says that you've got to have a "whammo" every ten minutes... an explosion, a car chase, a fight scene, an exciting scene that will keep the audience interested. Silver believes that pacing is one of the most important things in an action film. But pacing and timing are critical to all genres -- if you have a comedy that goes twenty pages without a funny scene you're in trouble! Imagine going for twenty minutes without a heartbeat. To test this theory, I once did an article for Script Magazine where I looked at the “heartbeat” of a couple of hit romantic comedies, and I expended that as a chapter in the Act Two Blue Book. I’ve since used thrillers and dramas and comedies in other books, and guess what? The idea of a regular heartbeat of exciting genre scenes holds up no matter what the genre is. Though I also have not tried to test this with Traditional Nudist Westerns (Just like a 1940s John Wayne Western: 10 gallon hat, pair of spurs, 6 gun... but nothing else!).
In SECRETS OF ACTION I say that our job as screenwriters is to rupture bladders.
Our scripts should be paced so that there is *no* time for the audience to get up and go to the rest room. They've just spent $9 on that king sized Coca-Cola which is almost empty about halfway through the film. Now they're looking for that dead spot so that they can run to the bathroom. Our job is to make sure there are no dead spots... that every showing of the movie has at least one messy bladder explosion. But how do we do that?
Kurt Johnstad’s ATOMIC BLONDE is based on the graphic novel COLDEST CITY and takes place in 1989 in the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall - which split Germany into West Germany (democratic) and East Germany (communist). Two very different Germanies. And all of the characters have two very different sides - their public side and their secret side. This is a story of spies, and every character is duplicitous - they have two sides, the one they are showing and the one they are hiding... and hiding that second side in order to make people believe something that's not true*.
This film has a great 80s soundtrack and uses all kinds of great film (and screenwriting) techniques as it zips along - lots of match cuts like a character who is tossed in a river cutting to our protagonist splashing in the bathtub, and one character taking a drink of an alcoholic beverage and we cut to another character setting theirs down. This film has “flow” - one scene just flows right into the next... and all of the scenes and characters deal with the idea of two sides to everything and everyone.
British spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to Berlin to recover a list of *double* agents hidden inside a wrist watch that was lost when the previous spy sent to smuggle it to the other side of the wall and oput of the country, James Gascoigne (Sam Hargrave) is murdered by KGB Agent Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson). Lorraine doesn’t tell her boss that Gascoigne was her lover, and there is a strong emotional component for her in this mission. They warn her about an unknown double agent, “Satchel”, who will pretend to be working for our side - but is really working for the enemy side, No one knows who Satchel is - everyone is suspect, including the head of the UK’s espionage bureau in Berlin, Percival (James McAvoy - who between this film and WANTED seems to be the male half of gonzo action flicks with kick ass female leads). Percival is also looking for the watch with the list of double agents, but he has also found the source of the list - “Spyglass” (Eddie Marsan) who has *memorized* the list and wants safe passage to the other side of the wall for himself and his family in exchange for the information. As Lorraine deals with duplicity on both sides of the wall, and both sides of the conflict, she fights her way through a series of interesting and inventive action scenes and eventually rescues the list and exposes the double agent “Satchel”.
So how many action scenes are there? This is from memory, folks, so I may be leaving something out...
1) Agent Gascoigne is chased through Berlin, eventually hit by a truck and shot by Bakhtin, then tossed in the river.
2) When Lorraine arrives in West Berlin she is picked up by KGB spies pretending to be British Agents, and there’s a car chase and fight scene *inside the car* which includes some high-heel-fu.
3) Lorraine and Percival have a kind of “meet cute fight scene” in her hotel room.
4) An awesome fight scene in Gascoigne’s apartment between Lorraine and a bunch of KGB Agents, which includes refrigerator door fu and using a garden hose as a weapon and means of escape - a really great action scene, filled with imaginative found weapons. Frying pan fu, and some amusing spatula fu.
5) Percival ambushes Bakthin and steals the watch with the list of double agents... including the identity of “Satchel”.
6) Lorraine is tailed by KGB agents, followed through East Berlin, and gets into a big fight with them in an East German cinema showing Tarkovsky’s STALKER (love that she’s being stalked through a cinema showing that particular movie) - and stabs an agent played by Daniel Bernhardt (hey, I almost wrote a film for him!) in the face with her car keys... and the keys stay in his face for the rest of the fight! Great silhouette fight in front of the movie screen!
7) The Parade Escape from East Germany - smuggling Spyglass out past assassins and snipers. You know, that scene from THE FUGITIVE and THE 39 STEPS and a million other movies - they do it in this one, too! But with *umbrellas*! There’s a shoot out here, too. Sniper attack, and a double cross assassin on the street. The parade scatters.
8) Lorraine and Spyglass are chased into an apartment building, and there’s a giant super-brutal fight scene in the apartment itself... that appears to be all one take! Lamp-fu, using an empty machine gun as a club fu, hotplate fu (ouch!) and corkscrew-fu!
9) Seemingly without a cut, the fight and shoot out spills onto the stairway and just keeps going! I am counting these as two scenes, even though they are edited to look like a single shot, because each has different terrain and has different types of action. If you think that’s a cheat on my part and want to count them both as one action scene, fine with me!
10) The big car chase with Lorraine and Spyglass being chased by an army pf KGB Agents and eventually the big crash that sends the car flying into Spree River and sinking like a stone... which creates an exciting escape and survival scene.
11) Percival fights Delphine in her bedroom. More found weapons fu!
12) Lorraine fights Percival. “Truth and lies: people like us don’t know the difference.”
13) Lorraine vs a bunch of KGB Agents in a shootout that happens at the end of the movie but is the first thing in the trailer - damned spoilers!
Did I leave something out? I know there are a bunch of small suspense scenes, and no shortage of twists that I’ve tried to avoid spoiling and suspense scenes and chases... but those are the 13 action scenes I remember (12 if you combine that epic seemingly single shot fight scene). That’s more than one every ten minutes - the running time for ATOMIC BLONDE is 115 minutes. But that gives you a pretty good idea of what a 2017 action flick’s heartbeat is like.
But, what about those good “old fashioned” action films from the 1990s, like AIRFORCE ONE (1997 - 20 year old) - which was written by a Nicholl Fellowship Winner (so, you know, it’s *good*!) - how many big action scenes did it have? Hey, it all takes place on the plane - so probably not very many, right? No chance for a car chase at 30,000 feet... (oh, wait... that FAST & FURIOUS movie did that!)
1) Opening - commandos kidnap Rattick. 2) Terrorists hijack Air Force One. 3) Shooting the pilot. (a small action scene - but the plane goes out of control). 4) President in fist fight with terrorist. 5) Airforce fires on Air Force One to knock terrorist off his feet so that captured President can punch him out. 6) Big shoot out between President and two terrorists. 7) The fuel plane explodes. 8) Ivan and the President fist fight. 9) After Ivan leaves, the President escapes, beats up two terrorists. 10) President and Ivan fist fight at cargo door "Get off my plane!". 11) MIGs attack - Airforce dogfights them. 12) President escapes Air Force One moments before it his the water and explodes.
Okay, that’s a dozen action scenes - which is either one less that ATOMIC BLONDE or the same number of action scenes. So even a 20 year old film from the “good old days” of action movies moves at a pretty fast clip and has a regular heartbeat of genre juice scenes. If your question is: “What about romantic comedies?” just take a look at the chapter in the Act Two Blue Book where we look at pacing in that genre - which also have a genre juice scene within every ten minute segment.
You might look at a movie like John Woo’s HARD BOILED (1992) and only see three action scenes - but those are big set pieces that last about a half hour each and are filled with a number of smaller action scenes. The hospital sequence at the end of the movie has as many action scenes within it as most American action films have. By the time we get past saving the babies and Chow Yun Fat has to fire that amazingly accurate shot, we're practically out of breathe. So much exciting stuff has happened!
It's all about *pacing* - the frequency of scenes where the conflict breaks to the surface of the story. Genre juice scenes. If you are writing a comedy those scenes will be the big funny set-pieces, if you are writing a drama those will be the big meaty dramatic scenes, if you are writing a rom-com it’s the scenes where the couple comes together only to be pulled apart, if you are writing a horror script it’s a big scare scene, if you are writing a thriller it’s a big suspense scene. Whatever the appropriate “genre juice” is for your story’s genre. If you don't have enough "meat" in your screenplay it's going to be fatty and slow paced... and not much of a meal for your audience.
QUALITY AND QUANTITY
That doesn't mean you should just throw in a car chase or comedy set piece when things get slow. That might seem exciting, but it's all surface - empty calories. You can't sustain a screenplay or novel on empty calories - you need the power of emotion. Remember, the purpose of external conflict is to expose character. If your external conflict isn't exposing character - isn't creating a dramatic situation - it isn't doing its job. We won't care about the car chase. That's just metal chasing metal - movies are about people. Cars don't buy tickets, people do! The place to find organic conflict is to dig deeper into your story - go back to that emotional conflict and create a scene that forces your protagonist to make a decision. That may end up being a car chase scene, but it will be one with a purpose.
The reason why ATOMIC BLONDE works so well is that it is set up that the murdered agent was her lover - so this is personal. And she has memory flashes of their relationship. The Netflix show PUNISHER uses memory flashes of Frank Castle and his murdered wife waking up in the morning several times to keep the emotional component in the story. Because we know that Lorraine in ATOMIC is mourning the loss of her lover as she is coming into contact with people who may be responsible for his murder gives the scenes something extra. But that sustained action scene and shot that goes up the stairs, into an apartment where they try to hide and are discovered, and then back down the stairs to the car so that we can have a car chase is infused with emotion because Lorraine is trying to protect Spyglass - and Spyglass is a meek little accountant type... with a wife and family who we have met in an earlier scene. We care about Spyglass, and that creates stakes for the action scenes he is in.
Finding the emotional conflict within the physical conflict transforms the cliche car chase into something exciting and imaginative instead of just metal chasing metal is what creates *quality* in an action scene. Let's say our hero's emotional conflict is that he puts his own well being before others... and let's create a car chase that illustrates that.
Our hero and the sidekick are being chased by the villains. The hero and sidekick run across the parking lot to their car, villains right behind them! The sidekick is a few paces behind the hero, yelling "Wait up! Wait up!", but the hero doesn't slow down. He climbs into the car, starts it up... The villains get into their car and start it. The sidekick throws open passenger door. Villain’s car roars to give chase... before the sidekick can climb in! The hero throws the car into gear, speeds away, with sidekick running next to the open door! "Jump in!" "Slow down!" But the chase is on. The sidekick can't find the right moment to jump through the open car door. The villains are speeding up. The hero speeds up... and the passenger door closes. Now the sidekick is running beside a car with no way inside... and the villain's car is closing in. The hero has no choice but to floor it. So the sidekick jumps on trunk of car as the hero speeds off.
Begin standard car chase... with sidekick hanging onto the back of the car, feet dangling off the edge of the car. If the hero drives too fast, the sidekick will fall off. If he fishtails around corners, the sidekick will fall off... but if he drives too slow? You know that cliche of villain's car ramming hero's car? It's different now that the sidekick's legs are in the way. Now the sidekick's life is tied to the car chase, and whatever the hero does will be tied to his emotional conflict - putting his well being before others. Plus, we've given the audience what they don't expect - a car chase they haven't seen before. A car chase with built in *human* emotions. A car chase we can *care* about. Plus a darned exciting scene that helps illustrate the theme and emotional conflict of the story. Though the ATOMIC BLONDE fight scene and shoot out and car chase with Spyglass are different than the one I’ve just come up with, both share the idea that the hero must protect the “sidekick” in the middle of an exciting action scene. Here, since the list of double agents is in Spyglass’s head, if Lorraine fails to save him - they have lost all of that information... and will never discover the identity of “Satchel” (who may have been involved in the murder of Lorraine’s lover). There are emotional stakes on top of emotional stakes in these action scenes.
Also, from my brief descriptions, you may have noticed that all of the action scenes are *interesting* and *imaginative* and *different*. Nothing generic about any of these scenes - they all have some unusual location or odd weapons or something else that makes them more amazing than the usual fight scene you find in movies. That’s another important element, no matter what the genre - no scenes we have seen before! If you have seen a similar comedy scene in some other movie, you need to come up with an original comedy scene for *your* comedy. An original screenplay is filled with original characters and original scenes.
Physical conflict and emotional conflict are co-conspirators in story. Both must be present for a story to grow, regardless of genre.
Your Story Checklist: 1) How many “genre juice” scenes do you have in your story? 2) Is there a steady, regular “heart beat” of exciting scenes? In screenplays it tends to be a “genre juice” scene within every 10 pages. 3) Are your “genre juice” scenes *emotional*? Do we care about the characters? 4) Are your “genre juice” scenes original and exciting? 5) Do the characters have to make a difficult decision in the scenes? 6) Is every “genre juice” scene required by the story?
The best way to check the pacing on your script regardless of genre is to grab three films in the same genre and time them - write down every exciting scene and note the running time in the movie. That gives you an idea of the "heart beat" requirements for the genre. Now compare your script to the three films in the same genre. Do you have enough stuff happening? One thing you'll notice when you do start doing this is how FAST stories move in films. A great drama like ORDINARY PEOPLE or GODFATHER PART 2 moves at break-neck speed. Every couple of minutes something dramatic is happening. Both films were made in a pre-MTV world but still move quickly from one exciting event to the next. Check out the pacing for NORTH BY NORTHWEST - made almost 45 years ago! No matter the genre, movies *move*. Make sure you have enough exciting events happening in your script... you don't want to put the audience to sleep. You want enough action, or enough comedy, or enough big dramatic scenes to keep your story moving... and new interesting scenes. It’s not a *Quantity* or *Quality* situation, as I’ve said before: In screenwriting there are no “or”s - it’s all “and”s - you need Quality *and* Quantity*. Both.
Loglines, Treatments, Pitching, Look Books, Pitch Decks, One Pagers, Rip-O-Matics?
You have written a brilliant 110 page screenplay, but how do you get anyone to read it? You need to distill it down into some form of verbal moonshine or story rocket fuel that will ignite that bored development executive or manager or agent and get them to request your screenplay. But how do you shrink those 110 pages into a 25 word logline or a 2 minute elevator pitch or a one page synopsis or a short paragraph? This 100,000 word book shows you how! Everything you need to know! From common logline mistakes (and how to solve them) to how your pitch can reveal story problems to the 4 types of pitches!
Making Your Own Movie?
Writing An Indie Film?
Writing A Low Budget Genre Script To Sell?
Writing A Made For TV Holiday Movie?
You will be writing for BUDGET. On a standard spec screenplay, you don’t have to think about budget, but these types of screenplays writing with budget in mind is critical!
If you are making your own movie, budget, is even more important - and you need to think about budget *before* you write your screenplay... or you will end up with a script that you can’t afford to make (or is a struggle to make). Everyone is making their own films these days, and even if you have done it before there are lots of great techniques in this book to get more money on screen - for less money! You can make a film that looks like it cost millions for pocket change.
ARE YOUR SCENES IN THE RIGHT ORDER? AND ARE THEY THE RIGHT SCENES?
Your story is like a road trip... but where are you going? What's the best route to get there? What are the best sights to see along the way? Just as you plan a vacation instead of just jump in the car and start driving, it's a good idea to plan your story. An artist does sketches before breaking out the oils, so why shouldn't a writer do the same? This Blue Book looks at various outlining methods used by professional screenwriters like Wesley Strick, Paul Schrader, John August, and others... as well as a guest chapter on novel outlines. Plus a whole section on the Thematic Method of generating scenes and characters and other elements that will be part of your outline. The three stages of writing are: Pre-writing, Writing, and Rewriting... this book looks at that first stage and how to use it to improve your screenplays and novels.
Most screenplays are about a 50/50 split between dialogue and description - which means your description is just as important as your dialogue. It just gets less press because the audience never sees it, the same reason why screenwriters get less press than movie stars. But your story will never get to the audience until readers and development executives read your script... so it is a very important factor. Until the movie is made the screenplay is the movie and must be just as exciting as the movie. So how do you make your screenplay exciting to read? Description is important in a novel as well, and the “audience” does read it... how do we write riveting description?
William Goldman says the most important single element of any screenplay is structure. It’s the skeleton under the flesh and blood of your story. Without it, you have a spineless, formless, mess... a slug! How do you make sure your structure is strong enough to support your story? How do you prevent your story from becoming a slug? This Blue Book explores different types of popular structures from the basic three act structure to more obscure methods like leap-frogging. We also look at structure as a verb as well as a noun, and techniques for structuring your story for maximum emotional impact. Most of the other books just look at *structure* and ignore the art of *structuring* your story. Techniques to make your story a page turner... instead of a slug!
All Six Movies analyzed! All of the mission tapes, all of the “that’s impossible!” set pieces and stunts, the cons and capers - and how these scenes work, the twists and double crosses, the tension and suspense (and how to generate it), the concept of each film as a stand alone with a different director calling the shots (broken in the sixth film), the gadgets, the masks, the stories, the co-stars and team members (one team member has been in every film), the stunts Tom Cruise actually did (and the ones he didn’t), and so much more! Over 120,000 words of fun info!
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This book takes you step-by-step through the construction of a story... and how to tell a story well, why Story always starts with character... but ISN'T character, Breaking Your Story, Irony, Planting Information, Evolving Story, Leaving No Dramatic Stone Unturned, The Three Greek Unities, The Importance Of Stakes, The Thematic Method, and how to create personal stories with blockbuster potential. Ready to tell a story?
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E BOOKS: New Blue Books and Novelettes!
I am expanding all of the Blue Books from around 44 pages of
text to around 200 pages! Some are over 250 pages! See what is availabale and what is coming soon!Also, I've been writing Novelletes and there
will soon be novels. E BOOKS: BLUE BOOKS & NOVELLETES
MY OTHER SITES
B MOVIE WORLD Cult Films, Exploitation, Bikers & Women In Prison, Monster Movies.
Every screenwriting book in the world! SCREENWRITER'S BOOKSTORE In Association With Amazon.com From the latest screenwriting book to
guides for finding agents and producers... all with at the
BOOKLETS & PRODUCTS
FIRST STRIKE BLUE BOOKS
Each Blue Book is 48
pages and focuses on a different aspect of screenwriting. Dialogue. Visual Storytelling. Your First Ten Pages. Act 2 Booster. Protagonists. Great Endings. Seventeen Blue Books now available!
CLASSES ON MP3! Take a class on MP3! GUERRILLA MARKETING - NO AGENT? NO PROBLEM! and WRITING THRILLERS (2 Full length classes on MP3. Now Available: IDEAS & CREATIVITY, WRITING HORROR, WRITING INDIE FILMS, more!
Take classes on MP3s!