How to Write Decision and Action Scenes

The Decision Scene in a story usually follows the Realisation Scene – the subject of last week’s post. The Action Scene, in turn, is most often preceded by the Decision Scene, forming a realisation-decision-action structure. Although this structure varies greatly in stories – other material might intervene – the scenes are causally connected.

Deciding
Deciding
The Decision Scene

In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger cautions that if the Relisation Scene leads directly into action without first showing its motivation, what follows can appear abrupt and forced. Sandwiching a Decision Scene between realisation and action, avoids this error:

In Unforgiven, William Munny (Clint Eastwood) decides to accept the Schofield Kid’s (Jaimz Woolvette) job offer, before embarking on a journey to fulfill the contract. In The Matrix, Neo (Keano Reeves) decides to swallow the red pill, then confronts the world of Agent Smith and the machines. Decision Scenes typically show a character observing, noticing – checking things out, before deciding to act as a result of new information and insight garnered by the Realisation Scene.

Action
Action
The Action Scene

Action Scenes propel the story forward by showing a character engaging in a range of actions: chasing a criminal, climbing a mountain, caring for a family member. In The Matrix, Neo learns how to fight by allowing Morpheus to download a kung-fu program directly into his brain. But in a character-driven film such as You Can Count On Me, the action may be as subdued as showing Samantha (Laura Linney) allowing her brother to stay with her, or having an affair. In each case, however, we notice that character action is a direct result of the decision to act.

Summary

Realisation, Decision, and Action Scenes form a tight dramatic unit that explains, motivates, and directs character action. A character realises a truth about his or her situation, decides to act on it, and does so. Understanding and utilising such patterns in your own writing is a useful way of weaving a tight and cohesive story.

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Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

2 thoughts on “How to Write Decision and Action Scenes”

  1. Good post, I hadn’t looked at it through this lens before, but it seems all checks out in the story I’m working on. It seems these three elements would be present at the minimum during first plot point, the midpoint, and the turn into Act 3.

    As an aside, is it seems like many modern films skip the decision scene when the story turns into Act 3. Vogler describes this scene as the classic campfire scene where the hero and his band are preparing for the final act. What clued me into this was the director’s commentary on Cowboys and Aliens where this exact scene was filmed, but got left out during editing. Jon Favreau says most movies leave it out for a faster pace nowadays.

    In another example, Repo Men turned the realization-decision-action sequence into about a 1 minute process. After the “lowest moment” in the story, the hero takes a walk outside, has a short conversation with the secondary MC, then under a minute he decides to be a martyr, thus leaping into action for Act 3.

    However, it seems the Marvel superhero movies have this decision scene when turning to Act 3 (Captain America in the bar after Bucky’s plunge into the depths, Iron Man having a drink with Loki in the Avengers before war). When writing a novel, it seems critical to include the full realization-decision-action at the major points in the story so the reader can fully empathize why the hero takes the action he does.

    Apologies for the lengthy reply, but the post inspired some musings on the subject.

    1. Thanks for the insightful comments, Mark. It is important to highlight, as you have, that the realisation-decision-acrion cluster often tends to occur around the turning point, although, of course, not necessarily around both such turning points.

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