Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review: Secrets of Action Screenwriting by William C. Martell (Kindle, Nook)

Over a decade ago, William C. Martell published the first edition of Secrets of Action Screenwriting to great success. The book sold out - became a collector's item, even, commanding impressive prices from used book sellers - and was truly innovative. This was the first time a working screenwriter revealed his personal tricks, rules, and insights for writing screenplays in his favorite genre - and in which he had known a lot of success. Never before had a screenwriting manual focused on one genre alone. And never before had a screenwriting manual gone in for a toolbox approach.

When we learned in the past few years that a second edition of Action Screenwriting was in the works, excitement ran high. And around Christmas 2011, the perfect present for screenwriters everywhere was released in electronic book format. Yes, it's too bad we can't hold the second edition in our hands and smother its blue cover with hugs and kisses, but on the positive side, the book is not hindered by page limitations (it's over twice the size of the original) and it can be updated by the author. In fact, it already has been. Your book will only get better and better over the years.

So what riches hide between these electronic covers? I'm not going to do a comparison review, as that's fairly pointless- much of the original material has been revised or tweaked. So we're getting both a thorough revision of the original and a book's worth of new material in one tidy package.

Bill Martell's main emphasis is that action movies are all about characters first, and big set-pieces second. It's something that Hollywood - both big- and low-budget Hollywood - tends to forget to it's own detriment, because all of the classic action movies have a strong emotional/character driven component to put all the pyrotechnics and brawling in context. There are many good examples from the author's own screenplays - many of which unfortunately were cut out by idiot directors, producers and/or actors.

Secondly, the most important thing for an action movie story to work is the villain's plan. Unlike 'normal' screenwriting theory tells us, the villain is the most active character in an action movie and the hero is reactive, trying to stop the villain from achieving his/her dastardly goal. Time spent on devising a good 'bad' plan for an action screenplay is time very well spent.

Apart from the literally hundreds of suggestions and examples for tweaking clich├ęs, piling up the suspense and tension, and getting character across without dialogue (among many, many others), this is also the first time Bill Martell reveals his relatively new concept of 'The thematic'. Useful for every type of screenplay, it's a unifying element of the script and probably the closest Martell has gotten to a 'high concept screenwriting theory', like Field's Paradigm and Snyder's Save The Cat structure. The concept is very well illustrated here in an in-depth examination of Minority Report, but personally I hope it'll be the subject of a future Blue Book, or heck, an entire real-world dead tree book even, as it's a very deep subject which can be explored even further.

The book is extremely up to date, going right up to MI:4 Ghost Protocol, though to be honest many of the best examples come from older films, with Die Hard still taking the top spot.

We're also introduced to a very good technique for understanding screenplay construction: Bill Martell advises the reader to do a timeline for their favourite films. This means dividing the film in 5 minute increments, and noting what story beat occurs on those minutes. In the supplimental section, Martell includes scans of several timelines he made long ago, some of films he analyzed to get a grip on their inner workings, some of his own screenplays. It's extremely rare we get to see actual work-in-progress documents from working screenwriters, so make the most of this golden opportunity.

It should be clear by now that if you're in the least bit interested in writing an action screenplay, you NEED this book. And even if you're not, there's so much good, common sense advice within these pages you'll be glad you read them.
There were quite a few typos when the e-book was first released, but it has been regularly updated since then, so the majority of them - if not all - have already been corrected. In any case: my highest recommendation.

You can get the Kindle version here:

And if you're feeling nostalgic and want to splurge on a collector's item: