A few years back, above the sparkling Pacific, the prolific and talented Chelsea Cain talked to writers about what she’d learned from writing bestsellers. One piece of her advice always stuck with me: Write the bare bones version of the scene first using mostly dialogue, and then move on and in the second draft flesh out the scenes with description and action.
In other words, an early draft might look more like a screenplay than a novel.
Fiction and memoir writers need to be omnivorous–searching out classics and bestsellers, prizewinners and Goodreads favorites–reading widely, and analyzing with an eye for structure and arcs. And they need to analyze movies and read screenplays for storytelling techniques. All screenplays reveal the underlying acts and key events and there’s a lot to be learned from what screenwriters leave out.
…there is a lot to learn from what screenwriters leave out.
Below I’ve pasted the opening or set up in the thriller Air Force One written by Andrew Marlow. If you write action or thriller novels, what did this story teach you? For example, notice how the protagonist has a lot to lose. Air Force One is hijacked while the president and the first family are on board. Smart writers insert sky-high stakes by using vulnerable characters and complicated motives. In the opening, the president makes comments about not bargaining with terrorists. And the first two acts set up a deadly showdown and the memorable dialogue “Get off my plane.”
(I listed two screen writing resources at the end of this post – JPM)
Tip for Writing Action Scenes: READ SCREENPLAYS!
Here is the excellent sample from top screenplay writer, Andrew Marlow, the opening from Air Force One.
Like most action films, Air Force One begins without prelude:
Air Force One Andrew Marlow FADE IN: INT. C-130 HERCULES TURBO-PROP - NIGHT Eighteen combat-ready special forces, wearing assault black, jump packs and combat gear,stare down the deep end of a greasy ramp into the night sky. Village lights flicker 19,000 feet below. The STRIKE FORCE LEADER signals to his team. Without a moment's hesitation, they dive into the darkness and plummet toward earth. EXT. MANSION - NIGHT A military GUARD, old Soviet-style uniform,rounds the corner of the large estate toting an AK-47. A red laser dot appears briefly on his forehead and after a beat, the red dot seems to bleed.The Guard collapses dead.Two other GUARDS are dispatched with single, silenced shots. A Strike Team member at a junction box awaits a signal. Through infra-red binoculars the strike Force Leader watches his assault troops as they take positions. STRIKE FORCE LEADER (into headset/in Russian) (Russian) GO! On the estate - as the power goes out.The team on the mansion's front porch pops the door and pours in. INT. MANSION - NIGHT FOLLOWING - the FIVE TEAM MEMBERS as they rush a stairway in phalanx formation. They nearly knock over an old lady, who in turn lets out a blood curdling scream. UPSTAIRS CORRIDOR - The team kicks open a door. Rushes into the room. INT. BEDROOM - Assault weapons pointed at the bed. The soldiers yank back bedsheets to reveal IVAN STRAVANAVITCH, a middle-aged man and his half-naked 18-year-old concubine. SOLDIER (in Russian) Get up, now! Up! The soldiers pull Stravanavitch to his feet and haul him out of the room. FOLLOWING - As they push down the hallway. MANSION SECURITY GUARDS rally with haphazard gunfire. Out come the strike force's flash-bang grenades. Exploding everywhere, disorienting Stravanavitch's men. EXT. FIELD - NIGHT Signal flares burn as a helicopter descends on the position. The Strike Team evacuates across the field and forces a struggling Stravanavitch into the low- hovering copter. The commandos swiftly board the craft as a handful of Stravanavitch's guards break into the clearing.They open fire. And the mounted machine guns on the helicopter return. One of the Strike Team members takes a bullet to the neck. He's pulled by his comrades into the chopper as it lifts into the sky, its guns spitting lead... STRIKE FORCE LEADER (V.0.) Archangel, this is Restitution. Archangel, this is Restitution.The package is wrapped. Over. VOICE (V.0. RADIO) Roger, Restitution. We are standing by for delivery. FADE TO BLACK The SOUNDS of a dinner banquet. Forks clanking against plates and the din of a hundred conversations, broken by... The DING, DING, DING of a SPOON tapping against a wine glass. SUPER TITLE: "MOSCOW - THREE WEEKS LATER FADE IN: INT. BANQUET ROOM - NIGHT Hundreds of men and women in formal evening wear sit at round banquet tables. A HUSH falls over the guests as the DINGING continues. All attention turns to the front table. A rotund, silver haired-man in his late sixties rises and sidles past U.S.and Russian flags up to the podium microphone. He is STOLI PETROV, President of Russia. PETROV (in Russian) Thank you for joining us this evening. Petrov's harsh Russian issues through the room. But over it we hear a young woman's voice translating. TRANSLATOR (V.0.) Tonight we are honored to have with us a man of remarkable courage, who, despite strong international criticism... AT THE FRONT TABLE - A translator's words ring in the earpiece of a handsome man in his mid-forties. Worry lines crease his forehead and the touch of gray at his temples attest to three very difficult years in office. This man is JAMES MARSHALL, and he is the PRESIDENT of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. He busily makes last minute changes to his speech. TRANSLATOR (V.0. earpiece) Has chosen to join our fight against tyranny in forging a new world community. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the President of the United States of America... Mr. President. Thunderous applause as Marshall rises and approaches the podium. At the back of the room, DOHERTY, a senior policy adviser whispers to the President's Chief of Staff ED SHEPHERD... DOHERTY Maybe we should consider running him for re-election instead of the U.S. The applause dies as Marshall begins to speak. MARSHALL (in Russian with subtitles) Good evening and thank you. First I would ask you to join me in a moment of silence for the victims of the Turkmenistan massacres. The room remains silent a few beats. Most guests respectfully bow their heads. Marshall begins again, but this time in English. The young woman translates simultaneously for the Russian audience. MARSHALL As you know, three weeks ago American Special Forces, in cooperation with the Russian Republican Army, secured the arrest of Turkmenistan's self- proclaimed dictator, General Ivan Stravanavitch, whose brutal sadistic reign had given new meaning to the word horror. I am proud to say our operation was a success. Applause from the audience. Marshall turns the page on his speech. MARSHALL And now, yesterday's biggest threat to world peace... today awaits trial for crimes against humanity. During the applause, Marshall pulls a page from the speech, folds it and slides it into his pocket. He removes his glasses and looks out into the crowd. His tone becomes more personal. He's not reciting the speech anymore. MARSHALL What we did here was important. We finally pulled our heads out of the sand, we finally stood up to the brutality and said "We've had enough. Every time we ignore these atrocities-- the rapes, the death squads, the genocides- every time we negotiate with these, these thugs to keep them out of gig country and away from gig families, every time we do this we legitimize terror. Terror is not a legitimate system of government. And to those who commit the atrocities I say, we will no longer tolerate, we will no longer negotiate, and we will no longer be afraid. It's your turn to be afraid. Applause rolls through the crowd. EXT. MOSCOW INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT - NIGHT Sprawling terminals spread out to runways like tentacles. ON THE TARMAC - Bathed in floodlights, perched majestically on the runway, dwarfing nearby commuter and military jets, stands... AIR FORCE ONE The President's own Boeing 747-200, dubbed "the flying White House". The distinctive royal blue stripe over a thin gold line tapers to a tail adorned with the American flag and the Presidential Seal Secret Service agents and Marines stand guard at the aircraft's perimeter. A RUSSIAN NEWS VAN emerges from the darkness and pulls to a stop by a Secret Service barricade. SPECIAL AGENT GIBBS greets the Russian news team that emerges. GIBBS Gentlemen, welcome to Air Force One. Please present your equipment to Special Walters for inspection. The news team's segment producer, a crusty old Russian named KORSHUNOV raises his big bushy eyebrows. KORSHUNOV We've already been inspected. GIBBS Sir, this plane carries the President of the United States. Though we wish to extend your press service every courtesy, you will comply with our security measures to the letter. KORSHUNOV Of course. I'm sorry. Korshunov and the FIVE MEMBERS of his news crew present their video cameras, sound equipment and supplies to Special Agent WALTERS for inspection. Secret Service DOGS sniff through the baggage. GIBBS Please place your thumbs on the ID pad. Korshunov puts his thumb on the ID pad of a portable computer. The computer matches up his thumbprint with his dossier and photograph. "CLEARED" flashes on the computer screen. INT. HALLWAY - NIGHT The President, walking with his entourage. SHEPHERD CBS said they'll give us four minutes. They thought the Russian was a nice touch. MARSHALL I always wondered if my freshman Russian class would come in handy. DOHERTY Sir, you threw out page two. MARSHALL Goddamn right I did. I asked for a tough-as-nails speech and you gave me diplomatic bullshit. What's the point in having a speech if I have to ad-lib? DOHERTY It was a good ad-lib, sir. MARSHALL Thanks. Wrote it last night. The President exits the building and enters his limousine. EXT. TARMAC - AIR FORCE ONE - NIGHT Walters hands the bags back to the Russians. WALTERS Equipment checks out. A striking woman in her early thirties descends Air Force One's stairway. MARIA MITCHELL. GIBBS Gentlemen, this is Maria Mitchell. Press Relations for the Presidential Flight Office. She'll take you from here. KORSHUNOV Ms. Mitchell. So nice to finally meet you in person. MITCHELL The President and I were delighted that we could accommodate you. Now if you're all cleared? (Gibbs nods) You can follow me then. They ascend into the belly of Air Force One. MITCHELL I'll be giving you a brief tour, then during the flight, two members of your crew will be allowed out of the press area at a time for filming. You will have exactly ten minutes with the President and twenty with the
Screenplay Resources from Jessica Page Morrell:
You can find thousands of screenplays online to read.
Here’s a good resource for screenplays: SIMPLYSCRIPTS.com where you can read the scripts from
3 Kings, The Fifth Element, An American Werewolf in Paris, and more!
And here is a screenwriting informational website titled Go Into the Story
Click here to read Part One of How to Write a Potent Action Scene by Jessica Page Morrell.
Jessica Page Morrell is a top-tier developmental editor and a contributor to Writer’s Digest magazine, and she teaches Master Writing Craft Classes at the Chanticleer Authors Conference that is held annually.
Jessica understands both sides of the editorial desk–as a highly-sought after content development editor and an author. Her work also appears in multiple anthologies and The Writer and Writer’s Digest magazines. She is known for explaining the hows and whys of what makes for excellent writing and for sharing very clear examples that examines the technical aspects of writing that emphases layering and subtext. Her books on writing craft are considered “a must have” for any serious writer’s toolkit. For links for her writing craft books, please click on her above.
Chanticleer Reviews and OnWord Talks will interview Jessica for more of her writing tips and advice. Stay tuned! ~ Chanticleer
We are planning a writing craft workshop soon that will be taught by Jessica.