Of the few original IP blockbuster franchises of the 2010s (and beyond), John Wick makes a strong case for itself, having revitalized Keanu Reeves’ career, and to some degree, the action genre itself. Certainly its style has had an impact on physical action, but the writing of these films may not be the first thing you think about when considering the series, though where there’s strong filmmaking, the flint of strong writing is not far behind, even so for scenes driven near-totally by the physical.
StudioBinder’s SC Lannom knows there tends to be confusion surrounding the act of writing action scenes. For instance, how do you format a fight scene? How much detail do you include or exclude? What do you take the lead on and what do you leave to the director? According to Lannom, it’s pretty simple, and he’s able to write and breakdown a simple fight scene within 5 minutes. He illustrates, armed with a timer.
The scene Lannom sets about writing includes an extraordinarily John Wick-like character, who needs to stylishly work his way through a wave of gunmen before facing down a slightly more formidable single baddie in hand-to-hand combat. Playing the classics, as it were.
Following along, the formatting of such a scene makes itself apparent. Every time Lannom needs to explain why he’s made a particular choice for the scene, or when he’d like to make note of a technique being employed, he is able to freeze his 5-minute timer to elaborate on his writing choice. For instance, why does he periodically specify how many enemies are left to dispense with?
Lannom goes on to espouse the qualities which make a fight scene take flight, among them forward momentum (pop in some Onomatopoeia), a sense of style, using qualifiers like calmly or quickly, etc. Another quality to note would be the variability of setting, so Lannom makes sure to transition his scene to a new location, here just an adjacent room, continuing the battle all the while. Lannom’s character shifts from a club interior to a kitchen. Think of all the knives and things to play with.
Lannom’s most helpful hypothetical involves the sudden appearance of a producer’s note. Helpfully their suggestion, in this instance, would only serve to make the scene more interesting, as their request to have the main character shot creates a further obstacle, raising the stakes of the scene.
Lannom also touches on what to avoid when writing this sort of scene, how to provide space for the director without leaving a page barren (none of that George Lucas – “They fight.” – nonsense) and how to make minor adjustments to keep the viewer guessing. Give the video a watch, and then it’s time to let the fists do the talking. P.S. don’t forget there’s some godforsaken stuntman who’ll be performing everything you write.