The Rhetoric of Action

From the Winter, 1995, issue of Creative Screenwriting

by Charles Deemer

        In his biography of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell tells of a
long night in the tavern when the good doctor and his intellectual
drinking buddies argued through the night about whether a horse gets
to its feet in the morning front feet first or hind feet first.  The
debate was as spirited as the libations, and the late night and early
morning hours were filled with sophisticated arguments and references
to knee anatomy and centers of gravity.

        When someone pointed out that the sun was about to rise and
suggested a trip to the nearby barn to settle the question by
observing a horse, the gasps and protests were immediate: no 18th
century intellectual and gentleman would set foot inside a barn!  If a
question couldn't be settled by reason alone, it was not worth asking.
They all went home to bed with the issue unresolved.

        In this article, I am going to lead you into the barn.  Rather
than relying on any theory of screenwriting, we are going to go where
the action is, into the language of scripts themselves, in order to
look for an answer to this question:  is there an identifiable pattern
of rhetoric common to action scenes in successful screenplays?

        In other words, what language choices do successful
screenwriters make in their descriptions of action?  Virtually all
contemporary theories of screenwriting point out the economy of
language in any effective script.  How is this economy played out in
scenes of action, where the temptation to over-write is great,
particularly to beginning writers?  Can beginning writers learn any
general principles of rhetoric that they can apply to their future
action/adventure scripts?

        Occasionally questions like these can cause debate as heated
as the tavern discussions in the Boswell/Johnson era.  Recently on the
Internet, for example, a literary agency offered a "format tipsheet"
that contained this advice:

        "...with violent action merely state: 'John raises his fist,
strikes Carl and they begin fighting.'  Choreography for any type of
physical action is done by the director."

        This advice brought an angry response from a produced

        "Wonder if Shane Black would've sold for $4 mil if that's how
he wrote the action?  This is bad advice, gang.  If you envision a two
minute fight to the death, you'd better take two pages to compellingly
describe it."

        Who is right?  Rather than argue theory to settle the
question, I suggest we go into the barn and look closely at relevant
scripts for clues - and answers. In particular, I'm going to analyze
five representative action scenes from classic movies of the genre:

        1. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1979), the early scene that ends
with the famous shot of Indy being chased by a huge boulder;

        2. "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984), the comic
action scene in the restaurant when Indy is trying to get an antidote
to the poison he has taken, while at the same time the vamp Willie
tries to retrieve her diamond;

        3. "Die Hard" (1987), the showdown between McClane and Karl;

        4. "Jurassic Park" (1992), raptors stalking the kids in an
industrial kitchen;

        5. "True Lies" (1994), the confrontation between Harry and
thugs in the men's room.

        Along the way, we also might ask whether "the rhetoric of
action" has changed over the past two decades of our examples.


                               EXAMPLE ONE

                         RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
                           by Lawrence Kasdan
                      Rev. 3rd Draft - August, 1979


              The santuary has begun to rumble and shake in
              response to the mysterious mechanism.  Just as
              Indy goes out the door, a rock shakes loose
              from the wall and rolls onto the tiled floor.
              Immediately, a noisy torrent of poison darts
              fills the room.

              IN THE FOYER, Satipo swings across the pit.
              He makes it just as the whip comes undone from
              the beam, leaving Indy without an escape.
              Satipo, extremely nervous, regards the whip a
              moment, then turns back to face Indy, who has
              run up to the far side of the pit.

                        No time to argue.  Throw me the
                        idol, I throw you the whip.

              Indy hesitates, eyeing the rumbling walls.

                        You have no choice!  Hurry!

              Indy concurs with that assessment.  He tosses
              the idol across the pit to Satipo.  Satipo
              stuffs it in the front pocket of his jacket,
              gives Indy a look, then drops the whip on the
              floor and runs.

                        Adios, amigo!

              Indy grmaces.  He had a feeling this might
              happen.  He looks around.

              AT THE VINED LANDING, Satipo flies through
              like a chubby ballet dancer and takes the
              steps five at a time.

              IN THE FOYER, Indy runs in full stride to the
              edge of the pit and broad jumps into space.
              He doesn't make it.  His body hits the far
              side of the pit and he begins to slide out of
              view.  Only wild clawing with his fingers at
              the edge of the pit stops his descent.  With
              just the tips of his fingers over the edge, he
              begins pulling himself up.

              AT THE CHAMBER OF LIGHT, Satipo has slowed
              down.  He begins to edge carefully around the
              light shaft.

              AT THE VINED LANDING, Indy sails through
              sideways and rolls to a stop at the bottom of
              the steps.  His whip is grasped in his hand.
              As he raises himself, he hears from above the
              giant spikes of the Chamber of Light CLANG!
              and an abrupt, sickening rendition of SATIPO'S
              LAST SCREAM.  Indy runs up the steps.  The
              rumbling sound grows louder.

              AT THE CHAMBER OF LIGHT, Indy slides to a
              stop.  The spikes have retracted, taking
              Satipo's body to one side.  Indy edges into
              the chamber with his back to the shaft of
              light.  Soon he is face to face with the dead
              Satipo; spikes protrude from several vital
              spots in the Peruvian's body.  Indy removes
              the idol from Satipo's pocket and moves
              quickly out the other side.



              Indy shoots out of a cut-off hallway and turns
              toward the exit.  The rumbling is very loud
              and now we see why: right behind Indy a huge
              boulder comes roaring around a corner of the
              passage, perfectly form-fitted to the
              passageway.  It obliterates everything before
              it, sending the stalactites shooting ahead
              like missiles.  Indy dashes for the light of
              the exit.  His hat flies off his head.  Almost
              immediately it is crushed by the boulder.
              Indy dives out the end of the passage as the
              boulder slams to a perfect fit at the
              entrance, sealing the Temple.


        When I compare the passage above to the writing of my
students, something immediately jumps off the page:  where are all the
adjectives?  Students, who early in their writing careers commonly
are addicted to over-blown descriptions ("the handsome broad-shouldered
dark-haired gent walked across the thick red carpet under the swinging
expensive chandelier to the long white-tableclothed table of the
incredibly delicious buffet"), tend to over-write, which is a sin
especially visible in such an economic form as screenwriting.
Note that Kasdan's writing has a mere scattering of adjectives.

        The other rhetorical characteristic of our first example is
the preponderence of simple sentences.  I looked for four kinds of
sentence structures: complex (using subordinate clauses), modified
(using significant modifying devices), compound (using compound
subjects, verbs or sentences) and simple (subject, verb, minimum of
modifying elements).  Kasdan favors simple sentence structure:  "Indy
dashes for the light of the exit.  His hat flies off his head. Almost
immediately it is crushed by the boulder," although all the
alternative structures above also are used.

        The lack of adjectives in writing action scenes will be an
important but qualified "rule" in our examples, as we'll see below.
First, however, our next example clearly puts the burden of action
writing where it grammatically belongs - with the verbs.


                               EXAMPLE TWO

                     by Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz
               Authorized Publicity Shooting Script, 1984

              (from 5.)

              Indiana scrambles on his hands and knees after
              the rolling vial.  People keep kicking it - he
              almost has it when Willie runs into him, trips
              and lands on her back.

                        Look out, damn it, I need that

                        Who cares?  Where's that diamond?

              Gunfire explodes and they both scramble in
              different directions.  Indy dives through the
              fleeing nightclub patrons and slides behind a
              water-spewing fountain.  Water kicks up as
              Indy is shot at by Lao and his henchmen.

              Indy sees the vial of antidote kicked again
              and it spins across the marble floor - feeling
              the poison, Indy shakes his head groggily and
              splashes water on his face.

              Meanwhile, Willie is chasing her diamond,
              shoving through the panicked crowd.  She spots
              the diamond!  Another elegantly dressed woman
              is bending to pick it up -

                            (acidly polite)
                        Excuse me, but I believe that's
                        my diamond!

              Willie smiles and suddenly kicks the woman in
              the butt!  Willie reaches to get the diamond
              but not before the other woman tackles her.

              Behind the fountain, Indiana makes a break -
              he runs and dives on top of a serving cart.
              The wheeled cart hurtles toward an
              unsuspecting gunman, crashes into him from
              behind and sends him flying head first into a
              row of ice buckets.

              Nearby, Willie slugs the other lady in the jaw
              and grabs for the elusive diamond just as the
              ice buckets shower ice across the floor -
              which camouflages the diamond!

                        Aw nuts!

              Searching desperately for the jewel, Willie
              sees the vial of antidote spinning across the
              floor - as it slides by, she grabs it.

                                INDIANA (O.S.)
                        Hey, doll!  Don't move!

              She sees Indy speeding by atop the serving
              cart.  Lao and his gunmen rush out to block
              the way.  Indy rolls off the cart and slides
              behind a potted palm as Lao's men open fire

                           (shouting to Willie)
                        Hey, don't go away!  I need that!

              Willie smiles meanly as she slips the vial
              down the front of her dress, thumbs her nose
              at Indiana and walks way.



        Although Huyck and Katz use adjectives more often than Kasdan
does, they rely on verbs to convey the flow of action.  I call these
"power verbs" - vivid verbs evoking images of action:  "Indiana
scrambles...", "Indy dives...and slides...", "cart hurtles...", "ice
bucket showers..."  This is a technique will shall see repeated often
in the examples below.

        The writers here also prefer compound to simple sentence
structures, a choice that better conveys the wider focus of the
action, with many things going on at once:  "The wheeled cart hurtles
toward an unsuspecting gunman, crashes into him from behind and sends
him flying head first into a row of ice buckets."

        Another example:  "Indy sees the vial of antidote kicked again
and it spins across the marble floor - feeling the poison, Indy shakes
his head groggily and splashes water on his face."

        There is a small picture and a big picture at work in the
writing strategy here:  small, at the level of words and decisions on
how best to embellish the action, whether with adjectival or verbal
elements; and larger, how to structure and order the sentences, what
balance to use between simple, compound and more complex sentences.

        How you make these decisions will determine your
action-writing style.  (For example, note the free use of exclamation
points here, which I find over-bearing.)  But as we shall see, there
are some general decisions made in common by successful writers of our
examples.  Beginning writers need to know what they are and how they


                             EXAMPLE THREE

                                DIE HARD
                              by Jeb Stuart
                     Revisions by Steven E. DeSouza
                     Revision #6, November 17, 1987

        326   THE MACHINE FLOOR

              McClane and Karl move towards each other, each
              sizing the other up, each looking over the

                        Better this way, isn't it?
                        I mean, any faggot can shoot a

              This time Karl doesn't take the bait.  Then,
              when he does charge, it's unexpected.

              The two men fight brutally, Karl bringing
              years of martial training to the moment,
              McClane bringing nothing but the street.

        327   NEW ANGLE

                        You should've heard your brother
                        scream when I broke his fucking

              Karl steps in quickly with a deadly move.
              McClane twists free, slams an elbow into
              Karl's kidney.  Karl backs off, circles
              McClane with new respect.

                                                CUT TO:


        337   MACHINE FLOOR

              Karl drives McClane back with a sweeping head
              kick.  Another one.  McClane is staggering.
              He gets in one hard punch and then Karl
              charges at him.  McClane falls backwards,
              drives his legs upwards, propelling Karl into
              the air:

        338   LOW ANGLE

              Karl goes into a loop of chain hanging over a
              turbine, becomes entangled.

        339   MCCLANE

              jumps to his feet, yanks the other end of the

        340   KARL

              is JERKED upwards by the neck.  He TWITCHES
              like a captured fish - starts to turn blue.

        341   MCCLANE

              Twists the chain end around a pipe as Karl
              STILLS.  McClane snatches up his Baretta from
              the floor, runs out.



        The first thing to note is that this screenplay uses a
presently out-of-fashion format that was popular in the 1980s, in
which sluglines are used to focus action visually, making decisions
properly determined by the director (as reflected in the master-scene
approach in fasion today).  Format aside, the writing here uses "power
verbs" and a balance between simple and compound sentence structures -
almost to the near exclusion of more complex forms.  But something new
is added: a judacious use of adverbs and fragments.

        Adverbial constructions - "fight brutally", "steps in
quickly" - have been previously conspicuous by their rarity, probably
because the right choice of a "power verb" does not require additional
amplification.  As an exercise you might try and replace the adverbs
above with more powerful verbs.

        Stuart/DeSouza use fragments in a way we haven't seen before
but which many contemporary writers favor:  "Karl drives McClane back
with a sweeping head kick.  Another one."  A similar "fragmented"
effect is obtained by dropping an expected word:  "He TWITCHES like a
captured fish - starts to turn blue."  Here the dash replaces "and",
and sometimes a comma is used: "Karl goes into a loop of chain hanging
over a turbine, becomes entangled."  With the grammatical flow
interrupted, the sentence has a staccato rhythm that duplicates the
action of the fight.

        In our next example, the use of "power verbs" reaches new
emphasis, a trend that is pushed even farther in our final excerpt.
But our final example adds two new elements to our action-writing tool
box as well.


                               EXAMPLE FOUR

                              JURASSIC PARK
                           by Michael Crichton
                     Re-write by Maria Scotch Marmo


              The kids hurtle through this huge, industrial
              kitchen.  The kitchen is a maze of turns, from
              the hot lamp pickup area to the rows of
              stainless steel burners to the chopping blocks
              to the potwashing area.  The kids dart and
              duck from one area to the next, taking
              shortcuts under tables, crawling behind
              counters, scattering pots and pans behind.

              Relentlessly, with a casual speed, the raptor
              stalks them.  It avoids their obstacles with a
              casual grace and when it cannot fit through
              their shortcuts, it just continues around.

              Timmy pulls open the large silvered door of
              the freezer.  Lex starts to hurry inside.
              Timmy grabs her.

                        We'll freeze to death in there.

                        He's going to eat us!

              Timmy reaches into the freezer and grabs a
              pile of steaks.  He tosses one toward the
              raptor.  The raptor gobbles it in one bite.
              Timmy shoves Lex out of the way and begins to
              toss the steaks on the floor.  One after the
              other, he tosses them, in a row, closer and
              closer to the open freezer.

              The raptor mechanically gobbles the steaks,
              following their path.  He continues right into
              the freezer to grab the last of Tim's bait.

              Tim leaps and slams the heavy freezer door
              shut.  Lex comes running and throws her small
              weight alongside of Timmy's.


              They heave and the lock catches on the door.
              From inside, there is a strangled CRY and the
              door is slammed repeatedly.  The metal panels
              of the door buckle but they do not break.  The
              door hinges bend and curve but they do not

              The kids collapse in relief on the kitchen
              floor.  In just a moment, Timmy is back on his

                        What is it, Timmy?

                        I just remembered something.
                        Raptors are born in large litters.
                        There's probably more coming.  We
                        gotta hide.

              He grabs her hand and they run out of the back
              entrance of the kitchen.  There's a stairway
              and they race up.



        In "Jurassic Park", the power verbs drive the narrative:
"kids hurtle...", "kids dart and duck...", "raptor stalks...", "raptor
gobbles...", "Tim leaps and slams...", "door hinges bend and
curve...", "kids collapse...".  Indeed, this sequence of power verbs
does well to summarize the movement of the scene.

        There is an equal use of simple and compound sentence
structures here and very little use of more complex structures.
There are few adjectives and adverbs.

        The lack of grammatical complexity here makes the scene a
quick and easy read, and yet the scene is very graphic, driven by the
writers' choices and dependence on evocative verbs.


                            EXAMPLE FIVE

                              TRUE LIES
                            by James Cameron
                     Revised draft, January 3, 1994

        82    INT. RESTROOM - NIGHT

              Harry can't answer because Mahmoud just
              entered the room behind him.  Harry is at one
              of the urinals, apparently taking a leak.
              Mahmoud goes to the mirror.  Starts combing
              his hair.  He doesn't much notice the pack of
              Camels sitting on the counter nearby.  Harry
              is whistling.  Shaking himself.

              HARRY'S POV  - In the video glasses Harry sees
              himself and Mahmoud.  Yusif comes into the
              restroom, seemingly ignoring both Harry and
              Mahmoud, as if heading for the stalls.  As he
              passes behind Harry he reaches into his coat -

              Harry spins lightning fast.  He knocks away
              the SILENCED PISTOL aimed at the back of his
              head with a sweeping block, capturing Yusif's
              arm in an arm-lock.  The shot goes wide,
              shattering a urinal.

              Harrly slams his palm into Yusif's face like a
              piledriver, and spins him against the steel
              stalls.  The silenced pistol goes skittering
              across the floor.

              Mahmoud whips a pistol out of his waistband.
              Still holding the bear-like Yusif, Harry draws
              his Glock so fast we can barely see him move.
              BLAM!  BLAM!  BLAM!  Three .45 slugs go
              through Mahmoud's chest, shattering the mirror
              behind him.  He flops on his butt, slumping
              against the wall.

              Yusif, who is easily Harry's size, bellows and
              grabs his gun arm.  They smash against the
              walls, struggling for the gun.  Yusif, locked
              to Harry, hurls him against the stalls.  They
              hit a locked door, which pops open, banging

              Yusif drives Harry to the floor.  Harry's head
              is between the shoes of an OLD GUY sitting on
              the can, who looks down uncomprehendingly at

              Yusif slams Harry's gun hand repeatedly
              against the doorframe of the stall.  He twists
              Harry's wrist brutally.  He even pounds
              against Harry's hand with his knee.  The old
              guy winces.  That's got to hurt.  Harry cries
              out in pain and the gun drops.  Yusif reaches
              for it, but Harry kicks it under the stalls.

              He punches Yusif in the face, driving him
              back.  They grapple, spinning.  Harry drives
              Yusif's head into the counter.  Then he elbows
              him in the throat and they crash together on
              the filthy floor.  Harry grabs Yusif's hair
              and pounds his face repeatedly against the rim
              of a urinal.  In case you haven't noticed,
              this is a messy, nasty fight.  Survival is
              like that.

              Yusif sags into submission.  Harry pulls a
              nylon zip-strip out of his pocket and uses it
              like hand-cuffs, securing Yusif's wrists.



        But power verbs carry even more weight in our final example,
suggesting a writing trend over the years to cleaner, more verb-driven
action screenwriting.  Cameron also uses, more than the writers of our
other examples, modifying elements and fragmented constructions.

        The verbs are easy to spot:  "Harry spins...", "Harry
slams...", "pistol goes skittering...", "They smash...", "Yusif
drives...", "He twists...", "old guy winces...", "They grapple...",
"Yusif sags..."

        Again, the sequence of power verbs reads like an outline of
the action, evocative and visual.  Verbs, after all, are action words
by nature, and good action writers learn how to choose them
effectively and creatively.

        Cameron, more often than others, puffs up verbs with
modifying phrases, usually verbal in construction:  "shot goes wide,
shattering a urinal",  "go through Mahmoud's chest, shattering the
mirror behind him", "flops on his butt, slumping against the wall",
"punches Yusif in the face, driving him back."

        This not only enhances the visual impact of the scene but
presents a less steady rhythm of language than, say, the example in
"Jurassic Park."  But there the action was focused on stalking and
danger, a quieter, more evenly paced tension than the flat-out fight
depicted here.

        Cameron also uses fragments to change rhythm:  "Harry is
whistling.  Shaking himself"  Or: "BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!"

        He also personalizes his narrative with editorial asides:
"That's got to hurt"; "In case you haven't noticed, this is a messy,
nasty fight."



        The literary agency's tip sheet is wrong: although it is true
that directors, not writers, choreograph action in a film, nonetheless
the writer must describe action with economy and imagery, bringing the
scene to life on the page.  For this goal, verbs are the heavy-hitters
and simple sentence patterns, rhythmicly broken up with compound or
modifying elements, build the foundation of the narrative structure.

        As the examples above show, within these guidelines a variety
of personal writing styles is possible.  You must find yours.

        But always remember that you are writing for the SCREEN:

        S implify!
        C reate
        R eadable
        E fficient
        E vocative
        N arration

SCREENWRIGHT: the craft of screenwriting