In my opinion, the art of good action movie writing is the ability to direct the sequences with your words without appearing to 'direct' them.
In my experience however, even though TV series action scenes need to be written out, most often it feels like a bit of a wank. That's because the producer and fight coordinator and stunt coordinator will take away the scene and break it down and budget it and choreograph it and more often than not you'll be presented with how it is going to play out, usually at some point during prep. Once I saw the finished product, most times I felt I could've written: Hero enters alley. Bad guys emerge from shadows. Hero attacked. They fight. Hero wins.
I kid....sort of. But even if you're on a series where action plays an important role, TV is shot on such tight schedules and budgets you really are at the mercy of 'what we are able to do' vs. 'what we or you would like to do.'
But when penning feature scripts, there is the opportunity to really shine when it comes to action screenwriting, especially if speccing an original sample as opposed to writing to budget. The best feature action writers use a combo of style and economy of words...keeping it sparse yet succinct. But there should also be an emotional, almost visceral, response while reading. They not only make you see it, but make you 'feel' it also.
For many years my 'go to' guy to read some good action writing was Shane Black. Lethal Weapon, Lethal Weapon II, and The Last Boy Scout more or less defined crash boom bang for me and I kept copies of the above scripts beside my desk at all times (more recently, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a nice return to form). Black always kept it simple, casual even, sometimes making little asides to you the reader...but boy did he make you see and feel.
Experience this shoot-out sequence from 'The Last Boy Scout'.
EXT. DESERTED CITY STREET - NIGHT
Cory is cut down. Blown backward over the hood of
her Ford. Flung to the street.
Without missing a beat, the Hitmen turn --
And OPEN FIRE on Jimmy.
He takes a running start.
Clears the hood of his Jag in a single leap.
BULLETS DICE the metal behind him.
He lands, hard. Sucks the ground. Huddled behind
his car, as:
move toward him, triggering THREE SHOT BURSTS.
The kid is dead meat. Or so it seems until, without
charges into the intersection. Screaming bloody
murder. He's got a GUN in each fist, and both
One Hitman dies immediately: Dances like a
puppet, racked by gunfire.
Bullets go through him. SHATTER the sedan's WINDSHIELD.
The second Hitman turns and OPENS UP on Hallenbeck.
Too late. Joe rolls behind a mailbox.
BULLETS chase him, blowing apart the metal box.
The Hitman swears. Turns, running for the sedan.
He knows when a getaway is in order.
Just one problem. He forgot about Jimmy Dix.
A SCREECH of TIRES.
As Jimmy's Jag slews around the corner, laying
rubber. Rockets toward the Hitman, pins him in
its headlights --
The Hitman screams as Jimmy plows through him --
And CRUNCHES into the gray sedan.
Shatters the Hitman between the two cars.
And holy Christ, the guy's still alive.
Pinned like a butterfly, legs broken...
He raises his rifle, screaming.
Jimmy dives flat on the front seat.
The WINDSHIELD ERUPTS.
The Hitman. Still pinned. Still screaming.
He FIRES SHOT AFTER SHOT into Jimmy's car.
Hallenbeck walks up behind him.
Puts a BULLET in his head.
He stops screaming.
Wow. I still get jazzed just reading it.
These days my action screenwriter of choice is Tony Gilroy. His scripts for The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy (with Brian Helgeland), The Bourne Ultimatum (with Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi), and Michael Clayton are loaded with brilliantly written action sequences. And even though Gilroy has a tendency to always CAPITALIZE his characters names, and will sometimes go all 'ing' (present participle) with his verbs...his crisp tight writing style more than makes up for my minor personal pet peeves.
Take this sequence from 'Michael Clayton' for example:
INT. ARTHUR’S LOFT -- DAY
ARTHUR heading out -- pulling on his coat --
heading for the door -- checking for keys --
there -- grabbing them off the side table,
as he opens the door and --
A TASER -- 25,000 volts -- from nowhere --
ARTHUR’S BODY clenching as it hits and --
VERNE and IKER -- already flooding in --
gloves -- hairnets -- surgical boots --
like machines --
IKER -- the athlete -- perfect -- hands catching
ARTHUR’S WRITHING BODY before it hits the floor
VERNE -- attack -- gloved hand thrusting down
ARTHUR’S FACE -- AEROSOL CAN -- VERNE’S HAND --
two quick bursts -- point blank -- words --
throat -- everything choked off -- eyes rolling
IKER -- the body drops -- ready for the dead
weight and --
VERNE -- kicking shut the door -- back to the
body and --
ARTHUR -- like a prop -- limp -- effortless --
IKER and VERNE flying him through the space --
this horrifying freight train pas de trois --
and so far this whole thing has taken eighteen
Heading like a freight train for --
THE LOFT BATHROOM -- here they come -- IKER
walking backward holding ARTHUR’S SHOULDERS --
VERNE guiding him --
IKER shifting -- they’re in -- twenty six
VERNE works off Arthur’s coat -- tossing
Let me just...
ARTHUR sprawled across the bathroom floor
(checking his watch)
We’re good. Prep it.
IKER -- like a shot -- unlacing one of Arthur’s
boots and --
VERNE -- backpack off -- digging through it --
coming up with -- A PREPPED SYRINGE and --
IKER -- pulling off Arthur’s sock and --
THE MEDICINE CABINET -- flying open -- VERNE
searching -- knowing right where to look --
bingo -- BOTTLE -- BOTTLE -- BOTTLE --
pulling them down and --
IKER -- foot is bare -- reaching up --
forty-one seconds --
Bag, I need the wipe...
VERNE -- tossing the backpack -- scanning
the pill bottles --
IKER -- coming out of the backpack with a
pint of vodka and a sterile handkerchief and --
forty-nine seconds --
VERNE -- stripping open the syringe -- kneeling
now and --
ARTHUR’S FACE -- gasping back to life -- he’s
coming to -- gagging now as IKER wipes the
aerosol residue away from his mouth -- eyes
twitching, as they start to open and --
Better hit it.
ARTHUR’S BARE FOOT -- THE SYRINGE -- up --
in -- between the toes and --
VERNE -- as he plunges it home -- no hate --
no fear -- no pleasure -- nothing --
sixty-seven seconds and --
ARTHUR’S FACE -- as the eyes open -- just
an instant -- catching the light -- these
strange masked faces -- then gone -- just
like that -- rolling away -- a little sigh --
a puff of air -- tongue thickening -- and
then still and --
(checking the pulse)
I’m gonna get the shoe back on.
And it’s over. Ninety seconds start to finish.
Again. Wow. I saw it, and I felt it.
In both examples, the key appears to be generating flash frames of critical information in the mind of reader using half sentences and fragments instead of overwriting the shit out of it. In fact, choosing to leave a lot out as opposed to putting everything in (again, directing or cutting the sequence with words without appearing to step on the director's toes) seems to be a great trick.
Not to negate their plotting and dialogue writing skills, but when it comes to action Black and Gilroy do it as good or better than anyone. No matter what genre you work in, there's a lot you can takeaway from these masters.
PS Honourable mentions have to go to Michael Mann, James Cameron, Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski, and Christopher Nolan...all excellent action writers in their own right, but all are director writers and their scripts can sometimes read more like a shot list than a screenplay.