How much should one describe a fight scene in a screenplay? How specific should you get writing a fight scene?
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I tend to only describe what's needed. If you've got a cool line of dialogue, or a particular action that's of story significance, work it in: They go at it, fists flying. One of Gandalf's punches lands hard, and the Ring flies off Frodo's finger. FRODO I'll strangle you with your own beard, you jerk. Frodo comes at Gandalf with renewed intensity, a blizzard of kung fu kicks. Not: Frodo punches Gandalf in the chin. Gandalf falls, but then quickly counters with a leg swipe which knocks Frodo on top of him. They lock legs until Gandalf flips Frodo and then stomps on his head with both feet. That said, if you're writing a genre where the nature of the fight is dictated by the genre -- a kung fu picture, say -- you probably could whittle that down, as Alle says, to: "They fight. Lin Su wins, killing Pu Chi." This is one writer's take.
The only fight scene I ever wrote was in a sitcom pilot where there was a big fight at a wedding. I thought of it in terms of what I wanted the camera to catch... each piece of action in the sequence it would be filmed, if that makes sense?
Write everything you think is important. Then, after you look at all the details, cut anything that does not drive the story. For instance, if someone punches another person and bruises their hand such that they cannot use an electronic device at a plot point later, that stays. Maybe reach out to some of the stunt performers on here and ask their opinion of the scene. The best fight scene in a script I ever read was written by Jack Young in a western screenplay he penned. Jack formerly did stunts for John Wayne and Clark Gable, and his years of experience made the scene tight and worked around production concerns and cost factors rather brilliantly.
This moves faster and works better if you ask me: Gina bounds. Fatima circles, lunges... Gina blocks, slips her blade, slashes her shoulder... Strikes and counter strikes... Fatima thrusts, nicks Gina's hip., pounces Gina in the face, lunges with the blade. Gina strikes with her knife. Fatima slashes Gina across her leg. Gina spins, sweeps, slices Fatima’s jugular vein. Fatima gargles, thrashes desperate, stumbles and falls in the water. Gina's lifeless body floats.
Alan: thanks for your suggestions
You want to paint a clear picture without describing every brush stroke. not every jump and punch but you certainly need more than just "a battle ensues". think of action as another way to make your voice shine thru on the page. make it visual, use SFX if you'd like, just keep it clear and simple.
For my taste, even Alan's version has too much detail. I found myself skimming it (a nicked this, a slashed that..). If the reader is skimming, something is miscalibrated. Philip Sedgwick has the win on this question, IMHO.
Kerry; I completely disagree with you. Read a script like Pearl Harbor or Life of Pi to see how much detail goes into the action. Sometimes the reader may have too short an attention span. By your philosophy Bonnie and Clyde wouldn't need action description like in this long ass paragraph: BUCK, crouching, shooting with one hand, gets the garage door open. A policeman fires. BUCK fires back and the cop falls dead in the street. BUCK, firing, dashes to the police car blocking their escape and releases the hand brake. CLYDE, BONNIE and C.W. leap into their car, gun the motor, still shooting madly. Two more police fall dead or wounded. One policeman is hurled through a fence by the blast of a sawed-off shotgun. BUCK jumps into the car with the others. They now begin to bump the police car with their car. The police car picks up speed as they push it and it tears into the street right at the group of firing police. The gang's car turns into the street toward the running BLANCHE. BONNIE and CLYDE are in front; BUCK and C.W. in the back seat firing back at police. The car pulls alongside the wildly running BLANCHE; the back door is flung open and in almost the style of a cartoon, two hands reach out and lift her off her feet and pull her into the car. They speed away. Hell, why not just say "the gang shoots some cops, Blanche screams, they jump in the car and drive off. " Hell, why bother writing anything in your script. It take too much effort to read. PS, Elaine was asking how much should you put into a fight and I offered some references points. You're the credit screenwriter. Why don't you offer her some feedback?
I've read the Bonnie and Clyde script. It doesn't read anything like a modern screenplay, though obviously it's terrific. I'll paste the first few paragraphs of the first page below to demonstrate the point. Anyway, in reference to why don't I offer Elaine some feedback: I did. My response was the second one in this thread and pretty detailed. I can't claim to speak from on high: every screenwriter has their own style, and that's as it should be. If your style is working for you, regard my take on it as one lazy reader's opinion. I wish you the best of luck. Now here's Bonnie and Clyde, page one: FADE IN. INT. BEDROOM. CLOSE-UP OF BONNIE PARKER. DAY Blonde, somewhat fragile, intelligent in expression. She is putting on make-up with intense concentration and appreciation, applying lipstick and eye make-up. As the camera slowly pulls back from the closeup we see that we have been looking into a mirror. She is standing before the full-length mirror in her bedroom doing her make-up. She overdoes it in the style of the time: rosebud mouth and so forth. As the film progresses her make-up will be refined until, at the end, there is none. The camera pulls back and continues to move very slowly throughout the first part of this scene. As the camera continues to move away, we see, by degrees, that BONNIE is naked. Her nudity is never blatantly revealed to the audience, but implied. That is, she should be "covered" in various ways from the camera's P.O.V., but the audience must be aware of her exposure to CLYDE later in the scene. This is the only time in the film that she will ever be this exposed, in all senses of the word, to the audience. Her attitude and appraisal of herself here are touched with narcissism. The bedroom itself is a second-story bedroom in a lower- class frame house in West Dallas, Texas. The neighborhood is low income. Though the room reveals its shabby surroundings, it also reveals an attempt by BONNIE to fix it up. Small and corny objets d'art are all over the tops of the bureaus, vanity tables, etc. (Little glass figurines and porcelain statuettes and the like.) BONNIE finishes admiring herself. She walks from the mirror and moves slowly across the room, the camera moving with her, until she reaches the screened window on the opposite wall. The shade is up. There are no curtains. She looks out the window, looking down, and the camera looks down with her.
Kerry: Good response and thanks for taking your valuable time to write a thoughtful post. I may be a little hypersensitive, because I often read thread responses at Stage 32 from the "greatest expert on everything type". They're quick to criticize and don't offer anything constructive. I can see by this post you are not one of those folks. I don't judge a screenplay by contemporary standards. I just look at the writing. When conveying a story I take care to show and not tell. For me, I like old school action guys like Peckinpah, who really know how to convey the action. Case in point, Walter Hill's script from the original "Getaway": DOC MOVES MUCH PASTER. HE DUCKS TO THE RIGHT, levels the disguised shotgun and fires in the same movement. The reception desk near the Accountant splinters from the blast and he is hit painfully. The other three men duck away from the sudden burst of fire power. DOC AND CAROL JUMP FOR THE STAIRS HAYHOE LEVELS HIS PISTOL AT THE RETREATING COUPLE Another shot from Doc's riot gun... this one breaking open the floor at Hayhoe's feet and cutting him down at the knees. Cannon, Cully, Swain and Max open fire as they dive for cover. They miss their shots, digging up walls, stairs and flooring. ON THE WINDING STAIRWAY DOC AND CAROL FLEE UPWARD She struggles with the heavy suitcase, Doc transfers the riot gun to his left hand, pulls out the more accurate .45 to use with his right. WITHIN THE LOBBY THE SIX MEN SPLIT FORCES Cully and the Accountant run to the elevator, enter it, pull the door shut. Swain and Hayhoe, limping, and Cannon and Max start for the stairwell in direct pursuit of Doc and Carol. All the men, save the Accountant, now have guns in their hands. SWAIN AND HAYHOE CAUTIOUSLY GOING UPWARD. Still below the first level landing, their eyes search overhead. The SOUND of Doc and Carol's pounding feet can be heard. HAYHOE LEANS OUT OVER THE BANISTER, points his gun directly up and fires. DOC AND CAROL BETWEEN THE FIRST AND SECOND FLOOR landings as Hayhoe's bullet tears by, ripping through the wooden banister supports. INSIDE THE ELEVATOR THE ACCOUNTANT AND CULLY WATCH the arrow indicator pass "Two." DOC AIMING HIS .45 RESTING IT ON THE BANISTER He fires two shots back down the stairwell. SWAIN AND HAYHOE MOVING UP THE STEPS TWO AT A TIME Suddenly Hayhoe's leg buckles as a .45 slug tears through his hip, the other bullet ripping the plaster wall near his shoulder. SWAIN IS NOW BESIDE THE BANISTER, he points his 54l revolver straight up... empties it. DOC AND CAROL AS SWAIN'S BULLETS BREAK AROUND THEM. Doc pulls Carol down, lifts the riot gun and fires down the stairwell with a huge roar. THE STAIRCASE TEN FEET IN FRONT OF SWAIN IS SMASHED by Doc's blast. Swain has to climb over the uprooted planking to continue moving upward. Cannon following. THE ELEVATOR INDICATOR STOPPING AT "THREE" CULLY PULLS OPEN THE DOOR, MOVES OUT INTO THE corridor. The Accountant remains within the elevator. SWAIN ON THE STAIRWAY FIRES HIS PISTOL UPWARD CAROL, ON THE STAIRWAY ABOVE, AS THE SHOTS SMASH PAST, runs ahead of Doc by three steps. They pass the second landing, keep moving upwards towards the third. Doc's focus of attention is downward. He knows that he and Carol are being pursued up the stairwell, but he isn't aware of the fact that the gunsels have split their forces. RUDY ON THE THIRD FLOOR AGAIN RISES LIKE LAZARUS FROM THE DEAD. His head bloodied from Doc's heavy pistol, he slowly wobbles to his feet. Rudy looks down at Fran... she sobs violently, her back leaning against the wall. Rudy picks up his .44 then stumbles into the open door of Doc and Carol's room. He unsteadily crosses to the bathroom, closes the door. CAROL FRANTICALLY MOVING UPWARD, DOC HAS NOW FALLEN five steps behind. DOC FIRES THE .45 DOWN THE STAIRWELL AT SWAIN ON THE THIRD FLOOR Cully walks cautiously down the corridor, pistol raised. He moves toward the landing, having covered one quarter of the distance from the elevator. The Accountant is still within the elevator. Carol comes up the stairwell and looks back for Doc. The SOUND of Swain's pistol and Doc's answering .45. Carol senses a movement; she turns and sees Cully's gun leveled at her. As Carol screams: Doc dives onto the landing facing the corridor... his plane of movement knee high.,, the riot gun in his left hand, .45 in his right. CULLY IS HIT IN THE CHEST BY BUCKSHOT. The killing wounds fling him upward as he fires his own gun... his aim destroyed by the death blows,, the bullets stray above Carol, high of their mark. DOC FIRES THREE TIMES MORE AT THE ELEVATOR CABLE THE CORRIDOR WALL NEAR THE ELEVATOR IS SMASHED BY ONE OF the riot gun's jumbo shots, as is the top of the elevator. The plaster flies away revealing further damage. The cables are smashed, the elevator breaks loose and plummets downward. The above takes time to read; but when this writing was realized on film it was fantastic cinema.
When Warner Bros. calls me out of the blue next week to offer a three picture deal, then I'll post as greatest expert on everything. Till then, I'm here to learn like everyone else (and occasional pontificate, let's be honest). That Walter Hill excerpt is terrific, and I'd never advocate cutting that down to "then a bunch of guys have a gun fight". He's describing a lot of complicated action, spanning across multiple locations and characters. It's necessarily complex, and he includes lots of human detail. But note: it's not just a description of what body part strikes what body part. There's storytelling going on here. So, sorry... you were very generous with me, I don't mean to be a dick by turning around and criticizing you, but I wonder if your Gina/Fatima encounter wouldn't benefit from dramatic (as opposed to strictly physical) detail. Not saying this is Shakespeare (or Hill), but something in the vein of: Gina meets her opponent’s strike, slips her blade and slashes her shoulder. Fatima cries out in pain but quickly parries, thrusting forward and nicking Gina in the hip. Before Gina has time to counter, Fatima is on her again with an elbow to the face. Gina staggers backward. The women's eyes meet. There's fear on Gina's face. She can't hold back this onslaught forever. WIth a snarl, Fatima slashes Gina's leg. Gina falls to her knees. Fatima approaches, knife high, ready to deliver the death blow. Brings down her blade-- But at the last minute, Gina spins and sweeps her knife forward, slashing Fatima's jugular... Obviously that might not be the story you're telling, but you get the idea. I guess that's what I'm missing when I read stacked action that's just a series of physical strikes... what's the actual story that's being told here? You know? Or, disagree?
Alle: The Getaway script I have is the final shooting script. So I guess the guys who shot the movie disagreed with you. I can't tell attest to who typed this guy of Bonnie and Clyde. Nor do I care. Re: Gna Jericho excerpt. The two characters pulls their knives earlier. Sorry I didn't post the whole script. They are standing by a river and Gina jumps off a rock. As far as slipping a blade or meeting knife strikes? Watch this video and see Steven Segal and Tommy Lee Jones slipping knife strikes and nicking each. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kf206nMfkJI. By the way, are you a fight choreographer in addition to all your other areas of talent?
Kerry: No, were cool and good suggestions. The bit I put in from Gina was just a short passage at the end of a long sequence of chasing and fighting. I was attempting to just show Elaine how to block out simple fight. But apparently, I'm way off the mark and it's lacking the requisite drama. And God forbid I misused bound.
Kerry: I'm incorporating some grimaces and moans. Thanks again for your feedback.
You're welcome. Actually, thanks back to you, because you made me think about this by suggesting I read the Pearl Harbor script. I found a draft online and searched for the word "punch" which led me to a boxing scene. The scene actually DID have all the choreographic detail I tend to leave out, but when I really looked at how he deployed those details, that's when I realized that in each instance he was tying the physical move to a specific bit of storytelling. There were details, but nothing extraneous. I started to write all that up before I realized I'd look insane if I posted 3 pages of analysis here. So I just acted like it was something I'd always understood and responded that way. :) But what I most love about this conversation is that in the end you're able to sum it up by saying you're "incorporating some grimaces and moans". God bless our craft. :) Cheers. I'm going to bed.
Alle: you are soooo right! And, I couldn't have lived without the clarification. I don't care if Stage 32 agrees with me or not. I dub you official scribe and fact checker for Stage 32. Please accept this position with our gratitude. Oh, and I would love to read one of your scripts sometime.
Kerry: L God bless our subjective craft. Have a good rest sir! Oh, and I'll tie more emotions to my future fights.
Adding "History of Word Processors" to my list of reading for trivial shit I don't care about. Thanks for the tip.
Alle: Yes, you fascinate me. Please provide me with a sample of this work you so often speak about. As far as your expertise of fight choreography, I'm sure you could stage the battle of Waterloo with miniature soldiers and make it look real. Sorry folks: I apologize for now having completely hijacked this thread. Elaine: Don't listen to me. I have no idea what I'm talking about.
Hi Elaine. What type of fight? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org as my cowriter is also a stunt man so can advise.
I may have written a book on this.
I'd say it legitimately depends on what kind of fight you're trying to describe. I've written gunfights and aerial combat, but not hand-to-hand.
For fight scenes, try any of the LETHAL WEAPON scripts by Shane Black. He also directed IRON MAN 3.
Several things to consider about fight scenes: They are usually more budget intensive than dialogue or atmospheric scenes. Insurance issues may prevent principal actors form doing their own stunts, especially if there is any physical risk involved. Some actors glory in doing their own stunts, and "actor action" may be the only way to proceed on a low budget indie. In this case the director/actor may decide to simplify your action or set in in a different location, if possible, for safety or logistics reasons. On larger shows the producer/director may relegate the filming to a second unit that can spend more time on the gags using stunt doubles/photo doubles and of course a second unit director who is often the stunt coordinator. A reduced crew is often used for second unit. In this case your action may be elaborated upon, and the action sequence may receive more screen time. Stunt coordinators and stunt performers bring their own talents to the table and while "stunt adjustments" may drive up costs, they can usually create a better action sequence in reality than you can on the page. While dialogue may be sacred from page to final cut, this is often not the case with action. The general rules of screenwriting apply. Large blocks of dense print on the page scare everyone from the producer to the prop man. Three to five sentences give the inspiration to cast and crew without micro-managing their creative talents. All of this means timing an action picture needs to be more "Loosey-Goosey" than your average drama. It is the director who needs to be able to extend or shorten action scenes, not the writer.
I second the Shane Black scripts, read LONG KISS GOODNIGHT or LETHAL WEAPON or any of his other scripts. He writes great action. Why Write Action Scenes: http://www.scriptsecrets.net/tips/tip324.htm
PS: Writing "They fight" is like writing "They say funny things" in a comedy script.
Fighting is like any action when you are writing if there is a specific beat you need to tell the story add it otherwise generalize it. The director and stunt coordinator will change whatever you put down on the day. As a writer your task is to tell the story a fight is window dressing unless of course your story is about a fight but still the same rules of script writing apply.
If you're going to write action, write the freaking action or stay out the genre. To suggest shirking this in a spec script is ludicrous. Regardless, any scene, be it action or otherwise, should contain beats, it should serve a purpose, otherwise the scene is redundant and should be cut. Not being able to write fight scenes isn't a style choice, it's a lacking. We have one job, and that's to give the reader the experience we want an audience member to have. So really it boils down to doing that with prose. It's an art-form in itself and poetic when done right. My advice is to try and move as fast on the page as the action would unravel on the screen.
Alle: Yeah, I've seen some of your work on youtube... Impressive! Trust me, you're not entertaining.
Just google it. Lots of sites, Simply scripts for example.
Paper copy. And now signed by Shane. But it looks just like this one: http://www.screenplay.com/downloads/scripts/lethal%20weapon.pdf
Any action scene (including a fight) is a story and a character scene or else it's crap... and you should flush it. As someone who has had 19 feature scripts produced (and many many more on studio shelves collecting dust), and have also written the book on writing action screenplays, which is recommended by pro screenwriters whose credits include those PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, TIMECOP, PITCH BLACK, PULP FICTION, etc; I think I probably know what I am talking about. Do you?
William; nicely put. And congrats on getting so much product to market. More aspiring writers should spend more time on that and less time trying to prove they're right. Particularly when nobody gives a shit.
If you're not listening to Bill on this, you're only hurting yourself.
19 produced feature scripts? In other words, less than 20.
The above is a joke. I could have also tried: "Only ONE highly-recommended book on writing action screenplays? Not TWO?" This is how I warm up for screenwriting. I get all my bad material out of the way here, then everything that goes into Final Draft is genius.
William, do you know where I can find a Die Hard screenplay?
Elaine, nothing personal, I've just always wanted to do this: http://bit.ly/1jSEHrI
Again, I have a hard copy of that (signed by Steve) and don't really know where to find a pdf. The problem with older scripts is that they were never in electronic format, so someone has to scan them into a computer and then search and edit for all of the scan screw ups. That takes effort, so it often just doesn't happen.
It frustrates me to no end that it's only 19. For the past few years I'm been making more money on scripts that don't seem to end up going into production... because they need bigger stars to get off the ground. Now it's looking as if it might hit 21 next year... but none of that is in my control.
Elaine: I checked www.simplyscripts.com and they don't have Die Hard available. Drew's Scriptorama may have but I got a download warning from my Anti-virus software. Amazon has a hardcopy script available for $49.00.
$49??? That's outrageous! This place has photocopies of actual screenplays for less... and page D has DIE HARD on it. https://www.planetmegamall.com/screenplays/movie_scripts_D.html
Good find! $49.00 is ridiculous.
Love fight scenes, especially barroom brawls! I have what I think is a good /funny one in my script "Desperate Enough".
I really enjoy writing fight scenes for my comedy/crime caper novel. I make it as funny as I can and move the writing at a cracking pace. Immensely enjoyable.
IMO you write the specific shots you want to see and let the rest come organically - get lots of coverage - in slomo too
I might be late here but ... i love a good piece of action and wouldn't mind saying what i want seen e.g. ----- Sam quickly thrusts a straight kick into the oncoming stomach, which is countered with a close right fist to his face. ----- ... He blocks the round house kick to his head, countering with a kick to Trevor’s knee dislocating it throwing him to the ground. ----- Or how about knowing when to leave it to the director: ---- A chinese ‘tug’ beats on a small chinese man in an alleyway. ---- I believe we should be mindful that the fight choreographers will want to change it to suit them but helping them see the technical side may make them allow your technique especially if your fight scene requires a specific form of martial arts.
I suppose it depends on the scene itself, and how much you want to convey? Like if you wanted the fight to convey that Joe is an unco-ordinated brute and David is a pacifist, you can do that writing fight scenes--- "David lumbers forward, striking blows left and right, half of them meeting their mark. David stumbles back, arms crossed over his face in fear. " And then, if they need to end up somewhere specific- "In a final move, Joe lurches forward to grab David, but David slips, dropping out of reach, onto his ass on the floor. Joe careens over him, and crashes through the office window with an immense shattering of glass." And then, continued as an exterior shot- "Joe flails in the air, horror washes across his face as he falls, seemingly forever, and then CRUNCH, bends in the roof of an unsuspecting little blue car. A small group of gathered BYSTANDERS look on, in horror and fascination, as blood rivers down Joe's chin. Dead." So you don't have to get super detailed, and if you do, then it sort of just weighs it down. Just try to be as succinct as possible :)
I am thinking that however you write it, it should have some original stuff in it and stuff no one could see coming.
I wrote and Choreographed these fight scenes https://vimeo.com/88793343 if you like them i can send you the script and show you how they are written :^)
@Mary - I agree, it should be a different fight not the same ole especially the one to one, i throw a punch you throw a punch type
@Chance - sure share it for us to learn :)
I think it depends how much you are into it. In a fight the characters have to stay in character in their actions, plot and relationships can be advanced through action sequences, or it can merely be an aesthetic interlude like in some lesser Kung fu movies. Hope this doesn't sound too weird but I'd apply the same principle to sex scenes.
If you think about "Burn Notice", there are so many technical things the fighter might do that enhance a fight scene. Who says it has to be fair? It just has to be entertaining.
Get Vic Armstrong if you can! The best. He directed the fight scenes in Gangs of New York. Apart from They Fight in the script, the other essential is to state who wins… That, presumably, being critical to the story!
PS And don't make The Win too easy. You must put your Hero into jeopardy to get your audience all worked up, to a point where it looks as though the Hero will lose.
David: that is incorrect and bad advice.
Send him to the principal's office ... and now i see a good use for ... they fight ... :)
Um, yeah, sorry David that is really incorrect and bad advice. If I read a script and a big action scene is coming and all it says is "a car chase ensues" or "they fight" - it's an automatic pass. Makes the writer look insanely lazy, and no one wants to work with a lazy writer.
Don't even bother with that pesky dialogue either. Just put characters speak here.
I have seen "pesky dialogue" in a few movies. The movie might have been better if they were mimes.
thanks for this discussion. Fight scenes are ones that I struggle with because I never know what to add or what to take out. But this discussion is great! Thanks everyone!
If you have the ability (27 years as Marine Infantry) then write every stitch, it is going to be changed regardless, but you have to keep the reader involved, so not only detailed but colorful, if you don't have the experience of want guys flying around on wires better write it in because on a spec script you are writing for the reader, Period. Don't care if CLint Eastwood said he would read it, or if Jennifer Connelly said send it to my agent, you are writing for the reader, and they will determine if it is a GO or No GO.
My Script Tip article for today is on action scenes (which include fight scenes) : http://www.scriptsecrets.net/tips/tip80.htm Every day I have a different screenwriting article on the website.
It depends. 1. Your fight scene is like The Matrix (Jack Chan) type? Or like Indiana Jones? 2. This fight scene is between protagonist and villian? Or protagonist and sidekick? Or between protagonist and cops? 3. This fight scene occurs in the first act or last act? Basically, a scene between protagonist and villian will have a different kid of approach. In this kind of fight scene, the all-lost moment will be locate in the LAST BEAT. Think about Smith and Neo. The train will hit NEO. (Ticking clock = tension). But he is saved. So, it depends. Basically think about ACTION and REACTION (escalate of conflict). Also think about change of power. One character will have more power that the other one in the beginner. Loose it in the middle. Recovery it in the end. Depends. Running gags, surprises. Read Karl Iglesias, Robert Mckee and William C. Martell (the action book and the scenes blue book).
You should describe a general battle and add anything specific like, "he hits him with a beer bottle or she unsheathes her sword". As a filmmaker, cinematographer, writer and director it is not necessary to describe every detail, because in the real world, the actions might not work that way and it will have to be choreographed anyway. So it's a waist of time and ink, the most important thing is unless you are directing it yourself, no director wants to be told how to do their job. Just tell the story and let me handle the details.
A good fight scene (or car chase, or whatever) is a story scene and a character scene and how it plays out is critical to the script. Covered in my book with examples from films.