Do you have advice on improving an overly talky script into something with more action? I have a character driven dramedy pilot and my characters are all talk.
There is nothing wrong with starting a draft with too much dialogue as long as you possess the ability to be lethal with your rewrite. Once you’ve established your characters’ voices go back and look for ways that the camera can speak for them. This doesn’t mean giving camera directions, it means adding “looks” and parenthetical nuances that take the place of words and inspire (or force) the director to cover them in order to make the scene work. This sort of elliptical writing, leaving out the obvious, will also engage the reader to dig into the character and has the added benefit of creating niches where your better lines of dialogue can flourish.
How do you best convey a hero’s emotional growth in one scene without any words spoken?
If you look at The Fugitive, Harrison Ford’s character, Dr. Richard Kimble, often goes minutes at a time without saying anything, and yet the audience thinks he does. That’s accomplished by describing his ordeal in small actions, which aren’t meant to just entertain, but propel his mission. Since the whole movie was about an innocent man trying to prove he didn’t kill his wife, I felt it was good to get the hopelessness of any personal protest out of the way early on. In the tunnel scene with Tommy Lee Jones’s Marshal Gerard, Kimble says: “I didn’t kill my wife.” It sounds hollow and impotent and invites the cold response: “I don’t care.” This brief exchange does two things, first it tells Kimble that his pursuer isn’t interested in his version of the truth. And second, it instantly changes Kimble’s from misunderstood victim to a proactive investigator who better damn well solve his problem because no one else will.
What is your rewrite process? Do you edit on page or start with a new beat sheet?
My rewrite process depends on the edits I must address. When I get notes from studio, producers or network, I work really hard making sure I get to the bottom of what isn’t working for them. A script is all about communicating an idea and if someone isn’t getting what I spent a great deal of time writing, then I need to be open to the possibility that I haven’t done my job well enough (or could simply do it better.) That said, I’ve also been very fortunate to work with directors, producers and executives who approach my writing with respect, so their comments can usually be counted on to be well thought out and constructive. In dealing with studio notes I like making the process interactive, meaning trying to engage the critic into what’s not working for them (that’s very different from asking for someone to solve the problem). I’ve learned that listening to the note behind the note, often means a simpler fix, and can often make a huge ally later because they’ve become invested in the process.
As a personal rule of thumb, I love working off my existing script. If I need to do a major overhaul however, I make sure to NOT work off the script as I’ll become overly dependent on what I’ve already written and try to make it better instead of attacking the problem on a blank page–with a fresh beat sheet.
How much action do you leave to the director vs how much do you put on the page?
I write character-based action, which really means my characters do the things because they need to advance the story, not because the story requires action. For that reason, I spend a great deal of time thinking out the beats of the action and the appropriateness for that character. This approach is my first line of defense against a director or stunt coordinator who does not have an aligned interest. That is not to say that a great stunt coordinator or director doesn’t make my writing better, it means they do it with an understanding of what the action is meant to accomplish. For example, I’m currently working on a Vikings project now for Netflix. Vikings are pretty brutal and have a culture for raiding and death that begins at birth. One of my protagonists in the first season comes from outside of this culture, but he is a prolific hunter. While hunting and raiding involve killing living things they are quite different. It’s my job to make sure that when I write this character it should not look like he’s spent his life killing people. It should feel foreign, he should move differently. If I communicate this difference in his actions, the director will do his or her job and not only capture the character but elevate the scene.
How do you balance conveying your action sequence without overwriting?
When I teach action writing, I get asked this question a lot and I always tell my students to ask themselves one simple question: “Were you entertained when you read your scene?” If you’re writing action, you’re obviously a fan and have put in the requisite number of hours studying the genre. With that massive amount of time invested in the action world, you should have a pretty decent idea of what gets your pulse elevated (and conversely when you get up to buy Milk Duds or get a soda from the fridge.) If your goal is to write a classic piece of action that will be enjoyed 30 years after the movie comes out, that scene’s best litmus test is that you can read and re-read it a hundred times and still be entertained. Bottom line: Trust your internal “action barometer.”
What is your favorite action sequence? What do you love about it?
Wow. I have a few. Personally, I still love the sequence where John McClane must escape from the top of the building in Die Hard, because it epitomizes the roller coaster action/reaction of a character in peril and doesn’t let the audience relax until McClane does. Outside of my own work, I’m partial to scenes where the character’s skills surprise me and allow me to vicariously be him or her in that moment. Two classic examples are Vigo Mortensen’s response to the violent criminals who aim to kill the patrons of his diner in A History of Violence (screenwriter, Josh Olson), and Colin Firth’s great “lock the pub” fight sequence in Kingsmen (screenwriters, Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman).
What are things that negatively standout to you when reading action/description in someone’s work?
The presence of the writer. It’s my own pet peeve but I hate action writers who inject themselves into their scene descriptions. It takes me out of the moment. There is no need to overdramatize violence or gore, a little verisimilitude goes a long way and too much invites the reader to question your bonafides (“does a snapped neck really sound like someone stepping on a dry twig?”) Great action should be so cleanly written that the character’s story is all you feel. Every few years I re-read Isak Dinesen’s “A Shooting Accident on the Farm” from Out of Africa, just to remind myself of how powerful a cleanly written a piece of violence can be. A great piece of action writing should leave you emotionally wrung out. And since it should also progress the character’s story it should leave you wanting to read on.
Questions submissions have been edited for length and clarity.
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