Five tips for writing action scenes from "The Fugitive"
Sunday, November 28, 2010 at 1:14PM
Gale Martin / @Gale_Martin in The Fugitive, action scenes, antagonist, climax, fiction, hero, pyrrhic victory, writing fiction


Harrison Ford as Richard Kimball

No matter when it comes on, no matter how late it is, if I'm channel surfing and I find the 1993 film The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford and directed by Andrew Davis, I flip it on. There's only a handful of movies that never bore me--that are like opening gifts each time I stumble upon them--and this is one of those films.


As a rule, I'm not an action movie die-hard (pun totally intended). But there are certain qualities about this movie--the clever screenplay, the acting, the main character's refusal to give up until he discovers who killed his beautiful wife--that impress me each time I watch it.

My newest book culminates in an action scene. I'm on the second revision, and as I tuned in the last twenty minutes of  The Fugitive last night, I was for the first time, watching it as a storyteller, looking for parallels between the conclusion of the movie and the last scene of my book (before the denouement).

Spoiler alert: Yes, I give away the end of the movie. Big deal. If you haven't seen The Fugitive by now, you must've been living on another planet or have lived in a cable-television-free bubble your whole life.

Here's what I learned:

  1. Make your hero heroic. When Harrison Ford's character (Kimball) discovers that his colleague and friend is behind his wife's murder, he doesn't merely pay him a visit at his home or his office. He walks into the lecture hall of the upscale hotel where his friend is delivering a lecture at a conference and confronts him during his speech--something a regular joe would probably never do. Another interesting choice is that as distraught and infuriated as Kimball is, he uses words as his weapons first, then his fists--because it's a much more effective scene if it replicates a playground brawl between childhood friends first. Also, it prolongs the action, giving it a chance to escalate. Think outside the realm of possibility and make your human hero do something you and ten of your friends would never have the guts to do.
  2. Use dialogue, too, not just action. In The Fugitive, you have two highly educated characters, doctors, trying to kill each other. Of course, they're going to have dialogue--and they do until they are hiding from each other in the laundry room. I have two better educated characters fighting each other, too, so dialogue must be deftly incorporated into the scene in addition to the expected action that qualifies it as an action scene.
  3. Give equal literary attention to the antagonist's reaction. Though the story is told from the hero's viewpoint, the camera (and or the screenplay) in the action scene is an equal opportunity device. Give the antagonist's reactions to the hero's actions equal weight. For instance, the hero pushes the villain into a bookcase and books fall on them and all around them. The villain, lacking a conventional weapon, reaches down and picks up a book and hurls at the hero with all the force he can muster. Actions will be strengthened by an equal and opposite literary focus on the reaction.
  4. Allow the scene to escalate--and choose a setting that will let you do that. The fight between the two doctors begins with words and moves to a hotel room where shoves, swings, fists, and furniture are all used (and in some cases destroyed) while they're trying to kill each other. So, the hotel room is completely trashed. Bad enough? Not nearly. The hero and villain end up on the roof (while Chicago police in a helicopter are trying to fatally shoot Kimball), fall through a skylight, landing on the elevator several stories below, which starts off and drops them off in the laundry room of the hotel. Amidst dangerous machinery and overhead girders not to mention the cover provided by the oversized racks and other equipment in a hotel laundry room, they stalk one another. By the time they two characters discover each other in the laundry room, you're as physically exhausted and emotionally spent as they are. The upscale hotel is the ideal choice for this scene--offering so many dramatic possibilities.
  5. Make sure the reader feels the hero suffer and knows that they could die. In the final confrontation with the villain, make sure the hero gets beaten up and battered. They might even need to get stabbed, shot, or suffer a concussion or a fractured skull or lose something or someone important to them. The reader needs to feel that the stakes have never been higher. This is no time to allow your hero an easy victory. Whatever it is that makes your hero vulnerable, make sure your antagonist has discovered that weakness and exploits it. In the end, their victory might have to be pyrrhic, or one with devastating costs to the hero.

As I go back to revise the climactic confrontation between my hero and the story's villain, I intend to keep lessons learned from The Fugitive in mind. Also, I like when good guys win, which is something that makes the movie a favorite, too, and I intend to have a similar, affirming outcome.


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