There’s a huge difference between meaningful action and pointless action. Pointless action wastes time with explosions and gunfire with lots of obstacles happening but little meaning behind any of it. If you’ve watched “The Scorch Trials,” which is the sequel to the movie and book called “The Maze Runner,” you’ll see plenty of mindless action that creates visually exciting scenes, but remains emotionally bankrupt afterwards.
In “The Scorch Trials,” the most common dialogue characters utter is “Go, go, go!” The characters wander into an area, something happens, they run and fight their way to safety, and the process starts up all over again. After a while, watching the same characters run and fight gets monotonous because none of this action develops the characters.
Now look at a good movie like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” where the main characters are trapped on a cliff with a posse coming to kill them. Rather than waste time with endless gunfire, the action scene focuses on the two characters arguing about what they should do. In the process of arguing, Butch learns that Sundance can’t swim, and this is right before they’re about to leap off the cliff into a raging river below. Not only is the raging river terrifying enough, but not knowing how to swim makes the obstacle worse but also funnier at the same time, especially when we see Butch Cassidy’s reaction.
What makes this action scene more interesting is that it reveals more about the two characters instead of focusing on more gunfire, explosions, and random people getting shot or blow up. If you look at most action screenplays, they actually describe the action in simple terms. Most of the action sequences are created by the director on the set. However, if the screenwriter didn’t write ann interesting action scene, then the director has to compensate with louder gunfire and wilder explosions.
The key to a good action scene is to strip away the action and focus on revealing more about the story. How does the action tell us more about the characters or the characters? In “Terminator 2” we get plenty of action when the hero blows up the Cyberdyne facility that will ultimately create SkyNet. Yet in “Terminator 3” we just see lots of action for the sake of action. The amount of explosions or stunt work means little if the action itself means little.
The way to write an action scene is to first determine the purpose of that scene. As in any scene, someone has to pursue a goal and then the scene must show us whether the character achieved that goal or not.
In “Terminator 2,” an early action scene has the hero (the good Terminator) on a motorcycle, trying to save John Connor who’s on a scooter, trying to run away from the villain driving a semi-truck. The goal here is to see if the hero can rescue John Connor in time or not.
Now examine practically any action scene in the far inferior “Terminator Genisys” or “Terminator 3” where after the action occurs, nothing seems to have changed. The scenes in “Terminator 2” are memorable because they also show us how the characters are changing. When the hero (the good Terminator) machine guns the police cars surrounding the Cyberdyne facility, he checks for casualties and sees that he killed no one. The action of machine gunning the police cars is interesting, but seeing how the hero learns that he can protect John Connor without killing anyone is far more crucial.
Now think of any scene in “Terminator Genisys” or “Terminator 3” and you’ll be hard pressed to learn anything about any of the characters. There’s a scene in “Terminator 3” where the good and evil Terminators are fighting and the good Terminator is dangling from the end of a crane while the evil Terminator drives it. Does anything change at the end of this scene other than watching buildings get smashed apart?
In “Terminator Genisys” there’s a scene where Sarah Connor lures the liquid metal Terminator into a room so acid can drip on him. Does this let us learn more about Sarah Connor? Nope. All we get to see is a liquid metal Terminator melting under a barrage of acid, and that’s it. Visually it’s interesting, but emotionally it’s boring, so ultimately it’s pointless and boring once we get past the thrill of seeing the action.
Before writing any action scene, decide how the scene changes one or more of your characters. If there’s no change, then the action scene is pointless. All scenes must create change. Without change, no amount of action will make any sense.