One of the best tools you have to combat a dull screenplay is pacing – something that is often overlooked when designing the structure of a screenplay, flouted when writing, and then eventually done by the writer when they walk up and down, frustrated because they can’t work out why a scene isn’t working!
Alfred Hitchcock said “Movies are life with all of the dull bits cut out.” This may be the best advice you ever get as a screenwriter and I guarantee that if you let it, it will improve both your screenplay and your chances of success.
THINK OF A SCREENPLAY AS AN ARGUMENT
To keep things interesting, think of a screenplay as an argument. That way you’re halfway to shaping your story effectively. BUT this will only work if you know what your argument is. Do you? It’s your premise. There are always two sides to every good premise, and the two primary characters in your story, (the protagonist and the antagonist,) should champion the two opposing sides of the dispute.
PEAKS & VALLEYS
Now that you’re in an argumentative mind-set, try looking at the beats in your screenplay breakdown, as blows for each side of the argument; verbal or physical. Insure that you arrange the beats so that they resemble a wave with peaks and valleys for each side of the argument. Action, re-action, re-group. They should fit together perfectly with the apex of one taking place at the same time as the lowest point of the other.
Design the beats so that your side fights with dignity and integrity. For the opposition I’ll understand if you paint a picture that is less than flattering, but remember for the argument (and the antagonist) to work, they must be strong and a worthy opponent for your protagonist. Like most fights, the intensity and desperation to win from both sides should increase as we head towards the climax, where –of course – your chosen fighter wins.
KISSING YOUR SISTER
Each scene, just like a round in a boxing match, should have a clear winner, be it physical or emotional. Sharing the points equally in a scene is a bit like kissing your sister. (Err… something to be avoided!)
An action element in a scene has the ability to rise off the page and make or break a screenplay. If it’s written well, it has the potential to be a scene that the reader – and viewer – will not forget. If it’s written poorly, it’ll be the scene they wish they can forget… and it’s possible that it may be the last scene that they read.
YOU HAVE THE POWER
The choices you make as a writer, will dictate the pace of your screenplay. Long rambling sentences, with lots of description, extreme detail and direction as to what exactly the actors are doing at any given point… will slow things down. Short punchy phrases speed things up. It’s as simple as that. You have the power. Use it!
Compare these two passages of script; the first is from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Wang Hui-Ling…
And the second is from The Bourne Identity by Tony Gilroy & Willian Blake Herron.
Hopefully you can recognise the difference between the two extracts; one used five paragraphs of detail and the other only one short line – the bare minimum. An interesting observation though, is that both these scenes turned into fantastic action sequences in the finished films even though both writers didn’t list every punch. (Kudos to the Fight Choreographer, Director and Cinematographer who only had the bare minimum to work with.)
So how much detail should you write? Considering that you are writing a screenplay to be read, and can’t rely on the innate ability of a reader to choreograph the fight effectively in their mind, I propose that you write with a level of detail that best expresses both the atmosphere and level of excitement of the action you want on screen. That way the reader gets enough information to visualise and experience the correct level of emotion that you had in mind for the scene.
TIP OF THE WEEK
A useful tip that will help you judge the action writing – and one that you can use for your own writing – is to read the screenplay out aloud. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn from this simple exercise if you commit fully to the reading.