Say you were writing the script to an action flick–LETHAL WEAPON, for instance. When you get to the part where Mel Gibson and Gary Busey are trouncing each other at the end of the movie, do you write a blow-by-blow account of the fight in the stage directions, or do you just write "Gibson and Busey trounce each other for a while, and Mel wins," and let the director/choreographer worry about the details? I’ve always wondered about that concerning the action scenes in movies, like fights and gun battles and car chases and such.
There’s a common misconception that a screenwriter only writes the dialogue, while the director handles the rest. Being a guy who writes a lot of action sequences, I can say definitively that’s not the case — at least not in the 21st century.
Supposedly, when the screenplay for GONE WITH THE WIND got to the climactic fire scene, it stated only this: “Atlanta burns.” Just two words, but in the movie the sequence took several minutes.
In modern screenplays, at least those that make it into production, the action written on the page pretty closely matches the action on-screen. A fight sequence will almost never be written blow-for-blow, but will at the minimum give a sense of the action, the stakes and the most important moments within the battle. If you don’t believe me, flip through the script to THE MATRIX, which you can find in most bookstores. The Wachowski brothers don’t label each punch and kick, but reading the script, you get a very good idea what the fight sequences will look like.
The same holds true with almost any action sequence you can think of. In GO, I spend half a page describing the chase down the alley in Vegas, in which the Riviera gets stuck sideways. Everyone reading the script — producers, the director, studio executives — could see exactly how funny the moment would be, which is how such an expensive and time-consuming stunt stayed in the budget. Otherwise, it would have been the first thing cut.
The danger with properly-described action sequences is that if they’re not written very deftly, they can slow down the read immensely. That’s why I spend at least as much time working on these moments as the dialogue scenes. They’re much less glamorous, and honestly, more difficult to write. But the ability to write interesting and economical scene description is what distinguishes the screenwriter from the playwright.
That, and the weird “gh” in the name. If a playwright writes for plays, shouldn’t a screenwright write for screens?