Bill Martell’s screenwriting classes are on of the highlights of every Raindance Film Festival he attends. With nearly two dozen of his scripts produced, Bill has developed a real knack of telling screenwriters how it actually is in the industry.
Here he discusses how we show pain in the movies:

Bill-MartellWhich hurts more: hitting your elbow on a door frame or getting blasted by a laser? The obvious answer is the laser blast, but it isn’t the correct answer. If I were to show you a film clip where a man hit his elbow on a door frame, you’d go “ouch”. You’d understand the pain and empathize with the man. But if I showed you a “Star Trek” clip where a laser dissolves a man, it wouldn’t effect you. You’ve never been hit by a laser blast, you have no idea what it feels like.

We all know about the evils of abstracts. Mystery novelist and TV writer Joe Gores says in the Mystery Writer’s Handbook, “Don’t indulge in ‘soft’ writing. A street, means any street. A car, means any car. I want to see a specific street, a specific car. Hard detail is what makes a story believable.”

You probably take special care when deciding whether your protagonist drives a sports car or a family sedan, if he wears tennis shoes or spats; but even specifics can be abstracts if the audience hasn’t experienced them personally.

Which takes us back to that laser gun. Even if you actually know how lasers work, create a brand name and specifications, fill in all the knobs and do-dads; the audience still won’t feel the pain along with your laser blastee.

George Lucas figured out a way to by-pass this problem by creating ‘light sabers’, which are basically laser blades. They cut. We all know what it is like to get cut, don’t we?

Using action and violence in your script is meaningless unless your audience can feel it. Remember: Film is communication. Your script must be designed to communicate with the audience (through the medium of the camera and the actors). The difference between effective violence and gratuitous violence is: Gratuitous violence isn’t felt by the audience. Its just exploitation. Spurting blood and exploding heads. Who among us have had our heads explode? (If this HAS happened to you, please don’t write me… I’d rather not know).

So violence must be personalized.

Here are three examples of action scenes which work because the audience understands the results of the violence:

Steven deSouza’s “Die Hard” contains one of the most painful moments on film. John McClane is our barefoot hero, taking on a team of ruthless terrorists. Hans and Karl have cornered McClane in the Computer Room, and the three are involved in a shoot out.

* * *

HANS looks at the glass all around him, gets and idea. He SHOUTS to

The glass! Shoot the glass!

And, saying this, he demonstrates. Karl follows suit.


As glass flies everywhere, McClane sees one option and takes it.
BLASTING a burst to keep their heads down, he WHIRLS, JUMPS on
top of a long counter and RUNS ACROSS THE ROOM. Their BULLETS
follow him, six inches behind his moving form.

McClane reaches the end of the counter, DIVES to the floor:


goes right down on a jagged SHARD. He groans, keeps going.


He’s out, gone, safe.


McClane all but crawls inside. His dragging foot leaving a trail
of blood on the linoleum.

Wincing in pain, McClane washes his foot in a sink basin. He
washes a deep cut, but the pain doesn’t relent.

Read the rest of Bill’s excellent article here: