How much should one describe a fight scene in a screenplay? How specific should you get? What do you leave for the director/choreographer to figure out?
Always remember that you’re writing a movie, not a screenplay. Even though you only have words at your disposal, you’re trying to create the experience of watching a movie.
When two characters are talking, that’s easy. Dialogue is straightforward.
When two characters are fighting, that’s hard. Action sequences are the most difficult and least rewarding things a screenwriter writes, but they’re essential to many movies.
I’d direct your attention first to a scriptcast I recorded: Writing better action.
My advice there applies to any situation in which characters are running around, doing things.
Keep sentences short.
Use sluglines to break things up.
Keep our attention so we’re not tempted to skim.
When you have two characters fighting, you’re not going to write every punch. Rather, you need to get specific on how this fight feels different than every other movie fight. What is it about the style, the environment, the stakes and the story that makes this battle unique to this movie and this moment?
The original script for the 2001 Charlie’s Angels sequel (then called Charlie’s Angels Forever) called for Alex (Lucy Liu) and The Thin Man (Crispin Glover) team up in a generic suburban house in Las Vegas.
Here’s what the minimal version of the scene would look like:
INT. HOUSE – DAY
Alex and The Thin Man take on a dozen CARULLO FAMILY THUGS, smashing the house apart in the process.
When every goon is down, Alex disarms The Thin Man. A tense moment, then they suddenly kiss.
Who are you?
It’s short, and you’ll find examples like this in many screenplays, including some that have been produced. But it’s cripplingly unspecific. As readers, we have no idea what we’d actually see on the screen.
Will it be scary? Goofy? Gruesome? Realistic?
The actual scene I wrote was a lot longer:
INT. BEDROOM – DAY
TWO THUGS open the closet doors, pawing through racks of dresses as they look for their prey. But they haven’t yet checked
UNDER THE BED,
where a knife-wielding hand suddenly lashes out, cutting one thug’s Achille’s tendons. The goon SCREAMS as he falls. Gun in hand, his partner flips back the comforter to carefully look underneath.
But there’s no one there.
Confused, he glances up just in time to see the Thin Man kick him across the face.
Hearing the commotion, two more GOONS crowd into the room.
Ripping the clotheshanger pole from the closet, the Thin Man uses it as a quarterstaff. Not only does he take down those two thugs, he also drives it
THROUGH THE WALL
to peg ANOTHER GUY in the hallway.
INT. KITCHEN – DAY
Still holding Chico the Chihuahua, Alex takes on one THUG after another, using all the tools at her disposal. One guy gets hit with the freezer door, while another gets a face full of flour and a frying pan to the head.
Alex may not be much of a cook, but she’s great in the kitchen.
Needing both hands free, Alex puts Chico into a ceramic cookie jar. A beat later, the dog pokes his head out from under the lid, wanting to watch the fight.
Rolling back over the counter, Alex swings a hanging plant to knock out a pursuer. Be it a waffle iron, rolling pin or barbecue tong, anything Alex touches becomes a weapon.
INT. BATHROOM – DAY
A THUG goes flying through the glass shower door, which SHATTERS. Wrapping his hand in a towel, the Thin Man grabs a large shard and uses it as a glass sword.
INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY
On the table, the iMac’s progress bar shows that Betty’s interminable download is nearly complete. Alex faces two more thugs. She kicks one through the wall. Just then we hear...
Alex picks up the iMac and SMASHES it into the second thug, who goes down. Just when she thinks she’s finished, she hears a
behind her. She turns to face one last thug, the LEADER. He keeps both barrels trained on her.
Kung-fu this, bitch.
Alex knows she’s toast. But just then, we hear a THWICK!
The cut was so fast we didn’t really see it, but then the Thug Leader’s head separates from his body. Both parts fall, revealing
THE THIN MAN,
who carries his improvised glass sword, now blood-stained.
Half a beat, then Alex rushes him. She spin-kicks and SHATTERS his sword, which falls to pieces on the floor.
Both unarmed and extremely dangerous, Alex and the Thin Man stare at each other, face-to-face, not sure what happens next.
Suddenly he grabs her, pulling her in for
A PASSIONATE KISS.
She doesn’t fight it -- at least not at first. But then the adrenaline wears off, and she pushes free.
Who are you?
While I’ve included a lot of specific ideas about what kinds of things we’d see (shower doors, closet rods), I’ve left a lot of room for the director and fight choreographer to be creative (“Be it a waffle iron, rolling pin or barbecue tong, anything Alex touches becomes a weapon.”).
The scene as written gives a sense of what the final scene will feel like, even if a lot of the details change. That’s what you should be aiming for in a fight sequence.