Action, Inaction and Raising the Stakes
Even if you’re writing a romance, even if you’re writing a children’s book, even if you’re writing nonfiction, you’re writing action scenes. Not an easy task, even for the best novelists and screenwriters.
“Writing a good action scene is more difficult than it appears,” wrote screenwriter Brad Johnson, best known for the movie Clueless and the TV show Coach. “Too often, screenwriters see them as filler; they think it’s an easy way out of focusing on the ‘real writing.’ Throw in a car chase, a handful of explosions, maybe some gunplay.”
John Irving is on my favorite list. Like Garp. Love Cider House Rules. A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of the best books on the planet. So a few weeks ago, I ordered two of Irving’s first few books, The Water Method Man andSetting Free the Bears.
After 50 pages, I quit both. Now I know why those novels didn’t become movies, as five other John Irving books did. They just didn’t seem to be about anything, and lack of action was one reason why.
How to write a burst of action? Not only must the writer craft a scene that starts the audience’s adrenaline flowing, it must serve the story, Johnson wrote.
Every scene – and that includes every action scene – must have a point, reveal character, build suspense, and move the plot forward.
Read this page from the Die Hard screenplay. Bruce Willis plays John McClane; Hans Gruber is the villain. Pay attention. A pop quiz comes next:
McClane curses himself, then retreats into a bank of computers, where he ducks and dodges as bullets ping and ricochet all around him. Ducking, rolling, he fires at: FRANCO
McClane’s bullets rake FRANCO’S middle, throw him over a desk: CLOSER
FRANCO slides right into a glass door. It smashes around his head. Bright arterial blood fountains up.
MCCLANE Hope rising at the prospect of an equal battle, his face suddenly falls as BULLETS fly in from an unexpected direction. He turns:
HANS has reappeared and snatched up FRANCO’S weapon.
MCCLANE FIRES, moving, trying to keep from being flanked. One of his shots SHATTERS a glass panel, raining down shards near Hans, who escapes with only superficial scratches.
HANS looks at the glass around him, gets an idea. He shouts to Karl in German:
HANS The glass! Shoot the glass!
HANS demonstrates. Karl follows suit.
AS GLASS FLIES EVERYWHERE, McClane sees one option, 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!
Big GRAY units GROAN with electronic SQUEALS and SPARKS as a million Gigabytes goes to RAM heaven. McClane reaches the end of the counter, dives and rolls to the floor:
HIS FOOT goes down on a jagged shard. He groans, keeps going:
He’s out, gone, safe!
Yeah, yeah, I know. Die Hard wasn’t my fave either. But what do we know now about the hero and the villain? Their characters have been revealed. McClane and Hans are men of action. Neither is afraid of gunplay. Both keep fighting, even when glass is flying and they are injured. The stakes have been raised: the hero has stepped on glass, so he’s limping now.
Do you feel the tension when McClane shoots his way out of the room? Do you feel the suspense build when the bullets follow McClane’s steps?
Does the plot move forward when McClane escapes the bad guys? (Those who watched the 1988 movie recall that McClane walked in an office skyscraper to find his wife. He must rescue her from the terrorists.)
This scene has foreshadowed future events. Hans and McClane must face off. And when a TV news report shows McClane and Holly, Hans will know John’s face. Hans will know Holly is the wife of his nemesis. Everyone in the building is a hostage, but Holly will be an MVP of Stage 11 of the Hero’s Journey.
The Resurrection sets up the final showdown in the third act: the hero has encountered death already, but now he must fight his most dangerous encounter. The final battle – which is fought in the special world – represents something greater than the hero’s own existence. The outcome has far-reaching consequences. If the hero fails, innocent people may die.
That action was shown on the screen. And that’s what is meant by showing, not telling. A movie audience must see what’s on the screen and infer what means:
McClane is a vulnerable and fallible protagonist, in contrast to the muscle bound, invincible heroes in movies that followed Die Hard.
When the screenplay moved into an action scene, the writing pace picked up, Johnson pointed out. Action blocks come in short, emphatic bursts. That’s an important skill for screenwriters and novelists alike. Modify the pace of your writing to reflect the type of scene, while still maintaining the voice.
Now check out the words that Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza chose. McClane ducks, dodges, whirls, jumps, dives. McClane’s bullets “rake” Franco’s middle, his blood “fountains up.”
Finally, that last line about McClane. “He’s out, gone, safe!” Johnson loved that conclusion.
The high drama of inaction
That’s the drama of action. But there is also drama in inaction.
“I’m an action movie guy,” wrote William C. Martell, who wrote and produced films for cable and video. “I not only like action movies and write action movies, I preach the use of action to tell your story. If you don’t show it, the audience can’t know it.”
A character slapping his opponent is more powerful than that character saying, “I hate you.” Characters need to show the audience and the reader what they’re feeling. That’s how actors act, and that’s how characters emote in a book.
Sometimes, Martell wrote, it’s more dramatic if a character does nothing. Whether the medium is film or words in a book, the writer’s mission is to transmit emotional information to the audience or the reader.
Here’s the exception to that rule: if the character doesn’t transmit the information, Martell said, the situation must transmit the information.
In the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, written by Donna and Wayne Powers, Donald Sutherland leads a team of thieves on a daring gold robbery in Venice. It’s Sutherland’s last job. That’s physical situation the characters are in.
The emotional situation is even juicier – Sutherland is retiring, and he’s handing over the reins to one of his trusted lieutenants – Marky Mark Wahlberg or Ed Norton. A father must arbitrarily choose one son over the other.
Marky Mark will run the team. Ed Norton will be second banana, but he’s unable to react because they have to pull the robbery. That’s Norton’s situational inaction.
However, after the team gets away with the gold, Norton murders Sutherland, double crosses the team, leaves the team to die, and takes off with all the gold. That’s situational action.
The writers have set up two of the richest emotional concepts in a story: betrayal and revenge. Wahlberg’s team has survived (else we wouldn’t have the second half of the movie). Wahlberg’s team wants their gold back.
To get their gold from Norton’s safe, Wahlberg’s team needs a safe cracker to replace Sutherland. The best in the world is now Sutherland’s daughter, Charlize Theron. Would she like Sutherland’s share of the gold? That’s the physical situation. And would she like revenge against the man who murdered her father? That’s the emotional situation.
See how easy this is to set up?
Now we come to the inaction. Remember, if the character doesn’t provide the drama, the situation must. To do that, the writer must set up a scene so that the audience understands what’s going on inside the character.
Norton has never met Charlize. To get inside, she must be seductive to Norton. The bastard who killed her father. So she’s not really going to seduce him, is she? What she really wants to body slam this guy. She wants to tear his face off. Let’s not mention what she wants to do with the boy’s unmentionables.
But what Charlize must do – actually, what she must not do – makes this scene the cinematic masterpiece of the movie. Martell: “Her inaction is more dramatic than any action could be. We feel her rage bubbling below the surface.”
Contrast is needed here, so Norton is all action. He hits on this tall, beautiful blonde. He acts like every woman in the world wants him.
Every time Norton pushes Theron’s buttons, the audience expects her reaction. Pavlovian, isn’t it? If Norton was polite, the audience couldn’t react to anything, so the writer must make Norton act like a jerk. The writer must make Norton push Charlize’s buttons. Again. Again.
And Charlize must push aside her hatred. Donna and Wayne Powers ramp up the tension by writing a scene in which Charlize does little. Norton comes on to her. She’s polite. Norton delivers offensive lines. Charlize flirts.
The fewer emotions Charlize shows, the more emotional the scene becomes. Her inaction is what makes this scene dramatic. But the audience knows her anger – her rage – hides behind her smile. The audience anticipates the climatic moment when Charlize will strike.
Actors would sell their very souls for a subtle, emotional, gut-wrenching scene like this. Okay, big overstatement. But actors do read these scenes and then beg their agents to get the parts.
There must be a reason why violence does not erupt, Martell write. Charlize was undercover; if she showed her emotions and tore Ed Norton’s face off, they’d lose the gold in his safe, she wouldn’t get her revenge, or he’d kill her.
And, finally, in the next scene, Theron leaves Norton’s house and meets her team. She explodes in front of Wahlberg. Her fury is natural. But the writer and the audience have a little more fun. Theron’s anger doesn’t resolve her problem: she still hasn’t gotten the gold or her revenge against Norton.
Remember City of Angels? Nicholas Cage is an angel. Like a grim reaper, he came to take a soul at a Los Angeles hospital, but was fascinated by a human doctor. (Well, it was Meg Ryan. I was captivated by her too.) But angels are forbidden to interact with humans. So that’s the physical situation.
The emotional situation was that Nick Cage fell so in love at first sight, gave up his immortality. He became a fallen angel for a chance at Meg Ryan. (Yeah. Me also.)
But just a few days after they fell in love, Meg was killed in a bicycle accident. Nick blamed God. Nick understood the workings of heaven, and believed that everything was God’s design. If true, that meant that God was irritated that one of his angels gave up his immoral gift – his God-given gift – to become a human.
Raising the Stakes
In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos acquired the Power Stone. Thanos intercepted the spaceship carrying the survivors of Asgard’s destruction. Thanos subdued Thor, overpowered Hulk, and killed Loki and Heimdall. Those are high stakes.
So Hulk returned to Earth and, as Bruce Banner, recruited superheroes to fight Thanos. Hulk warned Dr. Strange and Wong that Thanos planed to kill half of all life in the universe. Now the stakes are higher.
Thanos captured Dr. Strange. More superheroes were needed. The Scarlet Witch and Vision were alerted that Thanos needed the Mind Stone in Vision’s forehead. Vision would be killed. Higher stakes.
The Guardians of the Galaxy responded to a distress call from the Asgardian ship. They rescued Thor, who surmised that Thanos would go after the Reality Stone. Thanos kidnaped his adopted daughter. To save her sister, Gamora revealed the Soul Stone is on Vormir. Thanos could only acquire it by sacrificing someone he loves, so he threw Gamora off a cliff. Higher stakes.
Soon, every superhero on Earth – plus Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy – is involved. Higher stakes.
The message: the writer must raise the stakes, raise the stakes, and in a 300-page novel or a two-hour movie, keep raising the stakes until the climax, when the writer is ready to conclude the final battle. And then – no joke – raise the stakes one last time.
Whether you’re writing a novel, a television show, or a feature film, there are no greater stakes than life itself, Hayley McKenzie wrote. Armageddon, Independence Day, Men In Black, War of the Worlds and every superhero movie ever made put worlds in jeopardy.
But those movies rarely moved us to tears. The audience “left the movie theater feeling precisely nothing,” McKenzie wrote. Which is why it was necessary for the writers to kill Tony Stark.
If the writer wants to deliver an emotional thunderbolt, threaten one character. Joseph Stalin said it: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”
The threatened character doesn’t even have to be human. Old Yeller defended Arliss from razorback pigs. Elliot and Gertie were in tears when E.T.’s heart stopped. (I admit, my eyes watered a little.) All stories, McKenzie blogged, “need to illicit an emotional response from the reader/viewer to move us in some way.”
But putting lives at risk isn’t the only way to make an audience care. Think about Downton Abbey. The first script was about the Titanic going down with Downton’s heir. By law, females could not inherit the estate, so another heir had to be created by marrying off the current Earl’s eldest daughter. The Duke of Crowborough was a possibility, but he was a closeted gay man who had eyes for handsome-but-obnoxious footman Thomas.
As for Thomas, he had been passed over for promotion from footman to valet in favor of Bates, the earl’s batman from the Boer War. But Bates was wounded in the war, and had a stiff leg. Could he be an adequate valet? Maybe, so Miss O’Brien and Thomas schemed to discredit Bates.
Petty feuds, family breakdowns, blossoming romances, financial struggles. Hardly the stuff of aristocrats. But the stakes rely on the skill of the writers to make feel huge and important to the reader, McKenzie wrote.
The success of Mad Men also showed U.S. audiences that characters don’t need to be threatened by death or violence. Audiences cared about Peggy Olsen because she was a good girl who threw herself at her boss, Don Draper.
And Draper was faced with a dilemma: how to advertise cigarettes after the federal government makes the public aware of the dangers of smoking.
Joan Holloway – the older, experienced woman in the office – must advise new girl Peggy on how to appeal to the men in the office, achieve success in her career, and an advantageous marriage.
Pete Campbell makes boorish comments about Peggy’s appearance and clothing as a way to cheat on his wife. In a subsequent episode, Peggy shows up Pete’s apartment door.
The key, McKenzie wrote, is in realizing what each character has at stake: happiness.
In Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper spends time in a mental institution and loses his job and his wife. He must move in with his parents.
Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver just want Bradley Cooper to share their obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles. Jennifer Lawrence offers to help Bradley Cooper reconnect with his wife – if he will do something for her.
How to make these petty things seem important? Up the stakes in Stage 8 of the hero’s journey by finding the emotion in each situation, McKenzie wrote. Make each situation enormous to the character. Deliver the emotional intensity so that the characters feel deeply when the reward is delivered in Stage 9.
“To engage an audience,” McKenzie wrote, “the story doesn’t need the stakes to be high from a subjective point of view. Convey just how incredibly high the stakes feel to your characters.”
If the characters feel their own pain, the audience will too.