15 Elements for Writing Action-Adventure Screenplays

Action-adventure scripts seem to always be in demand. They’re big business for Hollywood – making up the industries main tentpole films each year. Let’s look at some of the essential elements of the genre: 

1. The “Big Idea” Premise
Action–adventure films are most often high-concept with a main storyline that involves the hero saving the world from destruction. More frequently action-adventure films have franchise/series potential.

2. The Hero is an “Average Guy” or “Larger than Life” Character
The Average Guy hero (John McClain in Die Hard, Neo in The Matrix) is an unwilling participant who gets himself into a predicament and is forced to take action. The “Larger than Life” hero (such as Batman) is already prepared to fight and save the day and doesn’t usually require any convincing to take action. Sometimes the Action-Adventure hero is an “anti-hero” character (such as Danny Ocean in Ocean’s 11.)

3. High Stakes
The stakes for the hero are often extremely high: the destruction of earth by an asteroid (Armageddon), the death of innocent hostages held in a skyscraper (Die Hard), the annihilation of entire planets by a space-station super-weapon (Star Wars).

4. Plot-Driven
Action-adventure films are plot-driven. The events that make up the story’s plot consist of the hero’s efforts to thwart the villain’s plan.

5. Present a “Good vs. Evil” Theme
The theme of action-adventure stories is basically “good vs. evil”. This theme is often narrowed and personalized based on the hero’s emotional stakes (for instance, Lethal Weapon’s narrowed theme focuses on the importance of family.) The hero almost always reflects and upholds the current morals of society.

6. A Title that Reflects the Action and Content of the Story
A vibrant title that evokes the action, adventure, and premise of the story is a key component to the genre. (Iron Man, Terminator, Lethal Weapon, Braveheart, Die Hard, Armageddon)

7. The Villain Has a Masterful Plan
The villain’s plan provides the catalyst for the hero’s adventure. The villain’s plan sets up the hero’s goal (which is to stop the villain’s plan.)

8. The Villain is More Powerful than the Hero
Creating a villain who is more powerful than the hero forces the protagonist to transform. In action-adventure films where the protagonist is a “Larger than Life” character, the hero often has a weakness the villain can exploit (such as kryptonite against Superman).

9. The Hero and The Villain Do Battle to the “Death”
Though the obligatory scene (the final battle between the protagonist and the antagonist) does not always involve the literal “death” of the villain, the hero always triumphs in some way – even if the hero dies in the battle.

10. Contains Plenty of Action Sequences
The core of an action-adventure film is of course, action: violence, car chases, gun battles, fistfights, explosions, martial arts, and foot pursuits. The average action-adventure film contains nine action sequences that put the hero in physical jeopardy.

11. Big Set Piece(s)
A set piece is a memorable scene that stands alone. In an action-adventure film the big set piece (or set pieces) is an organic extension of the action sequences, such as the train wreck in The Fugitive, the plane crash landing on the Vegas Strip in Con Air, and the famous car chase in the film Bullitt.

12. Snappy Dialogue
Most action-adventure films contain snappy dialogue, especially in stories where the hero has a buddy or ally or mentor to spar with. Another common dialogue element is the hero’s payback line delivered to the bad guy. (“Do you feel lucky? Well, do you punk?”)

13. A Ticking Clock Scenario
Many action-adventure films use a ticking-clock scenario, which creates urgency, heightens tension and increases suspense. Examples include the ticking bomb in Die Hard, the countdown for the ship to explode in Alien, the amount of time available to pull off the heist in Ocean’s 11, the countdown to the asteroid striking Earth in Armageddon, and the deadline for getting a prisoner on a train in 3:10 to Yuma.

14. Incorporates Mythical Story Structure
Campbell’s hero’s journey is often, though not always, used as the foundation for action-adventure films. Star Wars, The Matrix, and Lord of the Rings are a few examples to study.

15. Vertical, Active Writing
Vertical writing creates an immediate, active experience for the reader. Action expressed in few words moves faster. The action-adventure writer leaves plenty of white-space on the page by breaking long sentences or important moments of action into short phrases and presenting them as separate lines of description (instead of paragraphs.) Action scripts use tight writing full of sound elements (BOOM, CRASH, BANG) and active verbs - and avoid adjectives, which stall action.