How to Write Potent Action Scenes – Part 2 by Jessica Page Morrell – Writing Craft Series

 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 


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.


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)

On the estate - as the power goes out.The team on the 
mansion's front porch pops the door and pours in.


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.


The team kicks open a door.  Rushes into the room.


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 

                   (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 


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 

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.  

                   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.


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.

                       (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 


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.

                    (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 

             Maybe we should consider running him 
             for re-election instead of the U.S.
The applause dies as Marshall begins to speak.

               (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.

          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.

          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.

           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.


Sprawling terminals spread out to runways like 


Bathed in floodlights, perched majestically on the 
runway, dwarfing nearby commuter and military jets, 

                        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.

          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.

           We've already been inspected.

          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.

         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.

            Please place your thumbs on the ID 

Korshunov puts his thumb on the ID pad of a portable

The computer matches up his thumbprint with his 
dossier and photograph. "CLEARED" flashes on the
computer screen.


The President, walking with his entourage.

           CBS said they'll 
           give us four minutes.  They thought 
           the Russian was a nice touch.

           I always wondered if my freshman 
           Russian class would come in handy.

           Sir, you threw out page two.

           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?

           It was a good ad-lib, sir.

           Thanks.  Wrote it last night.

The President exits the building and enters his 


Walters hands the bags back to the Russians.

          Equipment checks out.

A striking woman in her early thirties descends Air
Force One's stairway.  MARIA MITCHELL.

          Gentlemen, this is Maria Mitchell.

          Press Relations for the Presidential Flight Office.  She'll 
          take you from here.

          Ms.  Mitchell.  So nice to finally 
          meet you in person.

          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.

          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: 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 Page Morrell

Jessica Page Morrell

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.

2018-06-23T17:26:57-07:00By |

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