a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Chases and Confrontations

It's amazing how often you see people warning writers against not using voiceover or flashback, because of the difficulty of using them right and because they tend to show up in the scripts of bad writers.

But no one warns about chases and confrontations, which to me are even more of an amateurish sign.

Too often they are just placeholders in a script. A writer has run out of story, needs something to happen, so they will throw in a chase. Or a confrontation. Or, even more generally, a confrontation, which the good guy ultimately flees, and is chased.

Don't get me wrong, I think chases and confrontations can be great, if done right. And they are also commercial; two current hits, the Da Vinci Code and Mission Impossible III, have lots of them.

But if you are going to throw a chase or a confrontation in your script, makes sure it satisfies both of the following conditions:

1) It should be integral to the plot.

2) There should be something fresh or inspired about it.

In regards to the second one, it's amazing how often people just dump in the same tired confrontations into the scripts I read. If I never had to read a random bar-room brawl again, I'd be happy.

But too often, these scenes are there not because they really fit in the movie, but because the writer seems to think they should. A typical script has an ordinary guy who suddenly finds himself pursued by thugs/the authorities/mobsters and is on the run for the whole script. "Enemy of the State" did this right. "The Fugitive" did this right.

But the generic script will have a lot of scenes in which bad guys burst into the good guy's apartment, and the good guy will either be able to flee down the fire escape or out the front door, and then make it to his car. Then there will be a car chase, and he'll lose the bad guys, often by driving down an alley and having a truck conveniently back up between him and the pursuing guys.

Then the main character will go to his girlfriend's apartment, the thugs will burst in again, and it will all start over.

Then there's the type of script (often affiliated) where the guy is fighting for his life; literally, everyone is being killed around him. But for some reason the villains never seem to be trying to harm the main guy in the scenes with him; despite being an ordinary guy (and more likely to be the target of death than half the supporting characters who are killed), he is able to get away too easily.

Chases and confrontations really have to kick ass if you want them to be the script. But your script ultimately needs to be about the story that links all these scenes together anyway; if this structure is solid, then the chases and confrontations won't feel as forced.

So before you drop a chase and a confrontation into your script, ask yourself these questions:

1) What does this scene reveal about my character?

2) How does this scene advance the story?

3) If it doesn't really advance the story, but it is just there because it seems time for a fight or a chase (or both), then can it reveal things about my character and advance the story anyway? And can it be so fresh and original that even if it doesn't, it'll be cool and memorable?

4) Is the car crashing into the fruit stand really necessary?


At 4:49 PM, Blogger Systemaddict said...

I've probably been guilty of this. check that- have been guilty of this. And as I rewrite, or begin new's something I've seen and tried to address. It's apparent a lot of times, in review, that it's just a page filler...often without reason. Sometimes it makes sense, because sometimes people run. Even more so, ordinary guys may be more inclined to run first...but without a reason that advances the story, instead of just getting to the next scene- it really is needless.

At 5:58 PM, Blogger wcmartell said...

There's a section of this Script Tip that shows how a good action scene is a *character* scene (I think it's reason #2).

But on top of action scenes advancing the story and exploring character, they have to be *original*. Just as you wouldn't swipe a dialogue scene from another movie, you shouldn't do an action scene that you have *ever* seen before. Be creative.

Actually, I think that's the solution to almost every script problem - be creative. Too many writers are just not creative enough and write boring stuff or recycled stuff. Use your imagination. If you don't have an imagination, this is the wrong job for you.

- Bill

At 11:26 PM, Anonymous Chris Soth said...

Hear, hear. I never wrote a car chase till about script number 12, and I'm considered an action writer...I had said I'd NEVER write one...then I did come up w/a twist that was worth it.

Then I wrote sort of a "Speed" type thing, so...don't know if that counts...probably does...

At 5:34 PM, Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

My favorite chase scene is the one from Dragnet -- more about exposing Dan Aykroyd's and Tom Hanks' characters than about plot.

Rats, now I gotta go rent the stinkin' thing.

Joe Friday: Ah, sure, but just like every other foaming, rabid psycho in this city with a foolproof plan, you've forgotten you're facing the single finest fighting force ever assembled.

Reverend Jonathan Whirley: The Israelis?

At 9:17 AM, Blogger Alex Epstein said...

John Rogers has a really great post where he points out that you shouldn't have action sequences -- you should have suspense sequences that are resolved by action.

At 10:42 AM, Blogger Steve Barr said...

"Is the car crashing into the fruit stand really necessary?"

Yes, Scott. Yes, it is.

At 4:22 PM, Blogger Brett said...

I'm with you, Steve-O.

What the hell good is a streetside fruit stand if not for running through?

I always figured that those were in the same category as:

• stakebed trucks loaded with empty drinking water jugs which scatter across the intersection when the truck is broadsided

• large panes of glass being carried by hand across teh street which leave two terrified guys in white jumpsuits holding nothing hut handles

• huge carefully-stacked pyramids of canned goods which collapse in a cacophonous orgy of clanking when the bad guy slips into the stack in a grocery store pursuit

• deserted rocky roadside cliffs on the drive back from basically everywhere the hero or bad guy routinely drives

-- "Trite Obstacles Which Look Good When Invoked or Used In A Cliché-drizzled Action Sequence"
hooked on classics B

At 11:33 PM, Blogger A. M. said...

Yes, Bill's tip re: revealing character via action scenes was very insight- and helpful.

I'm going to write my first car chase scene during the 14 Day Screenplay challenge. That sequence happens to have the dynamic Alex quoted: suspense resolved (not completely) by the action. But it also reveals character in how the girls handle the pursuer and get rid of him (for the time being).

I love how advice always seems to arrive when needed. Great!

At 8:36 AM, Blogger Belzecue said...

Gotta make your action scenes do double duty: kick up the heart rate *and* kick the story along. e.g.


REESE: Are you injured? Are you shot?

etc. Huge chunk of backstory delivered during that car chase/hunt. Pages 44 through 52 (R 3/11/84). Those pages fire on all cylinders.

Take the dialogue from those pages and drop Reese and Sarah into a quiet, brightly lit truckstop diner. All of a sudden that backstory doesn't sound so convincing when the audience is focusing solely on the words. But have that conversation while a mutherlovin terminator is ramming your rear fender at 70 mph and you could say anything and have the audience buy it without question.

At 9:44 AM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

The better the obstacles the better the pursuit. Just remember:

1. What's the hero's goal?
2. What are the stakes?
3. What's the villain's goal?
4. What's the hero prepared to do to get the bad guy? (the character bits)
5. What's he not prepared to do? (the character flaw)
6. What have you seen in chases before? How can you make it completely different and better?

Break it down from there and figure out the most dramatic, painful, heart-wrenching scene you can and go with it.

At 1:14 PM, Blogger Lucy said...

I don't know about fruit stands, but there is one Q that persistently runs thru my mind...What's a girl gotta do to get a link from your blog to hers?? Should I get you to read another script of mine Scott?? ; )


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