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SCRIPT SECRETS: The Drama of Inaction

Screenwriter William Martell explains how sometimes it's more dramatic to have a character do absolutely nothing in a scene. Inaction can speak volumes.

William C. Martell has written 19 produced films for cable and video, including three HBO World Premieres, a pair of Showtime films, the thriller Hard Evidence (Warner Bros.), and the family film Invisible Mom. He is the author of The Secrets of Action Screenwriting. Follow William on Twitter: @wcmartell.

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I'm an action movie guy - I not only like action movies and write action movies, I preach the use of actions to tell your story: "If you don't show it the audience can't know it." Action *is* character. Having a character slap another character is more dramatic than having them say, "I hate you." You want your characters to show us what they're feeling - that way the actors can actually do some acting.

So this article may shock some of you - sometimes it's more dramatic to have a character do absolutely nothing. Just stand there - without any trace of emotions at all. Some of you may be shocked that I'm advocating something that sounds suspiciously like subtlety, but that's exactly what I'm doing. But even when you're being subtle, remember that film is communication - which means we STILL have to get that emotional information to the audience - we're just not going to be using our character to do that. We're going to use the situation which surrounds our character. The *character's reactions* may be subtle, but the *situation the character is in* will have to give the audience all of the necessary information (and probably won't be subtle).

The new MAD MAX movie FURY ROAD with Tom Hardy and an almost unrecognizable Charlize Theron opens this weekend, and it’s getting great reviews. The last time Theron was in a movie about cars was a surprise hit from a few summer's back, the remake of THE ITALIAN JOB written by Donna & Wayne Powers. The original film was a clever caper film about the planning of a robbery - with a swell Cooper Mini car chase at the very end. The new version has an entirely different story - only the Cooper Minis and the title remain.


In the new version, Donald Sutherland leads a team of thieves in a daring gold robbery in Venice Italy. It will be Sutherland's last job - he's handing over the reins to one of his two trusted lieutenants - Marky Mark and Ed Norton. Right away, we have a nice, juicy situation. A father who must choose one son over the other. Sutherland has chosen Marky Mark to run the team after he retires... and Ed Norton is probably not happy about this. Norton is unable to react because they have to pull the robbery... but when they have gotten away with the gold, Norton shows his displeasure with the decision with strong actions - he murders Sutherland, double crosses the rest of the team (leaving them to die) and steals the gold. Of course, Marky Mark and the team survive (or we wouldn't have a movie). They decide to get revenge - to steal the gold back from Ed Norton. To do this, they will need a safe cracker to replace Sutherland... so they go to his daughter Charlize Theron. Would she like to get revenge against the man who murdered her father? Damned right she would!

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The first step in stealing back the gold is to get someone inside Norton's house to case the place. They need someone that Norton has never seen before, someone who is *not* a member of the team. Only one person fits that description - Theron. They give her a uniform, tool belt, and truck and send her in as a technician who can repair Norton's DSL line. Her job is to find out where the gold is being stored, find out what kind of safe it's in and what sort of alarms and safety precautions Norton has...

But like all good scenes, this one does several things at once. Theron is going to come face-to-face with the man who murdered her father. The man she wants to kill. And she has to act like she doesn't know who he is, act like this is all about repairing the DSL line, act bored and unemotional. She wants to slug this guy. She wants to hurt this guy. She wants to perform some violent actions on his face... but she does nothing.

And doing nothing is what makes it a great scene. Her *inaction* is more dramatic than any action could be. We *feel* her rage bubbling below the surface.

Norton is a callous jerk throughout the scene. He keeps hitting on her - pushing her buttons, doing things that would provoke anyone else to slap him. But Theron does *nothing* - she politely flirts back with him. She acts charmed by everything offensive that he does. His arrogance makes us want to punch his lights out, but Theron smiles at him the entire time. We *know* that behind the smile is anger - and that makes this the most dramatic scene in the entire movie. A big, juicy *acting* scene. Subtle, explosive, emotional, gut wrenching. The more she DOESN'T show her emotions, the more emotional the scene becomes.

Theron's goal in the scene is to find out where the gold is hidden and how to steal it. The physical obstacle that gets in the way of that goal is Norton - he follows her around the house as she "looks for the problem". The reason why he follows her - his goal in the scene is to sleep with her. She's a woman, right? Norton is the kind of guy who believes every woman in the world wants to sleep with him. Theron's *emotional obstacle* in the scene is that she hates Norton and really wants to kill him (or at least mess up his face pretty good). All of these goals collide with each other - and the scene ends with Theron finding out the necessary information about the gold... but also agreeing to go on a date with Norton (twist!).


After the scene is over and Theron is safely back with the team, she's able to express her emotions. Now the audience is shown how she feels through an explosion of emotions. A big dramatic *active* scene.

Let's say you want to write a big juicy *subtle* scene like the one in ITALIAN JOB... here are the things to remember:

1) If the character isn't providing the drama, the SITUATION must provide the drama.

2) You must set up the situation so that the audience fully understands what's going on inside the character - we know in advance that Theron wants to kill Ed Norton. We know WHY she wants to kill him. We understand her reasons. We feel her anger. We know that putting these two in the same scene *should* result in violence. We *expect* it to result in violence.

3) There must be a REASON why violence cannot erupt - a reason why the character can NOT show their emotions. Because Theron is undercover, she CAN'T show her emotions. If the character doesn't' have a compelling reason not to show their emotions, they'd react like any normal person would.

4) The scene's antagonist must keep pushing their buttons. Pushing them to react. Every time Norton pushes Theron's buttons we EXPECT a reaction - and that's the only way we can see the *lack* of reaction. If Norton was a polite guy throughout the scene, we would know that Theron wants to kill him, but it would be something in the background of the scene. By making Norton a jerk in the scene who keeps pushing Theron's button's again and again we push her hatred to the foreground of the scene. We create a series of situations where we expect her to react - and when she doesn't, we can "see her lack of reaction." The more you press your character into reacting, the more we can "see" their lack of reaction.

5) The following scene they have to let their emotions go. It's only natural. The great thing about showing the character's fury after the incident is that their fury doesn't resolve the problem. Charlize Theron can explode in front of Marky Mark and it won't help her get revenge against Norton. We know the emotions are there - we know the rage is there... and in the scene where she goes on the date with Norton? We can't help but wonder if she'll kill him before the appetizer comes.

ITALIAN JOB does a great job of creating situations that provide the raw emotions so that the characters can struggle to remain cool... and the car chase really kicks ass. The new MAD MAX: FURY ROAD looks like it also has kick ass car chases and a fantastic performance by Charlize Theron. Between FURIOUS 7 (which is the #4 Box Office movie of all time right now) and FURY ROAD, this looks like the year of car chases! Writing action scenes also utilizes techniques just as writing “inaction” scenes do. You can’t just write “Insert car chase here” because if it ain’t on the page it ain’t on the stage! You need to be able to write a car chase (or any kind of action scene) that’s as exciting to read as it will be to see on the big screen! I look at those techniques in my book on The Secrets of Action Screenwriting and in an upcoming class called FURIOUS WRITING which will cover car chases, shoot outs, fight scenes, battle scenes and more!

William Martell Shares Action Movie Advice in His New Webinar, Furious Writing: Car Chases, Shoot Outs & Action Scene!



At a Glance:

  • Writing an action film or even a comedy or mystery with action scenes?
  • In this live webinar you will learn techniques to make your action scenes more exciting and character oriented.
  • Discover how to make your scenes as exciting to read as the film will be.