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Friday, June 29, 2007

Action Lines - Which Tense?

Previously in the Rouge Wave, we have discussed that action lines are a creative opportunity to make your pages come alive with sensory details. The rain can THUNDER down onto the tin roof, the gun can go BLAM!! in the motel room and the apple should be red, crisp and ice cold.

We have also discussed that action lines should be devoid of typos and malapropisms. I think every Rouge Waver knows that the Wave-inatrix goes apoplectic when writers use saddle when they mean sidle or peak when they mean peek.

We have even discussed how some over-enthusiastic writers, in an attempt to keep their action lines brief can sometimes err so far on the side of brevity that the action lines become some sort of pig latin which not only doesn't flow, doesn't make sense. So we might have: Girls in pool. Pool cold, gun POP, man yell.

The Wave-inaxtrix has expounded on how to describe your characters in your action lines and that character's faces never "show" anything - they ARE angry, upset or joyful.

Today we explore a new topic related to action lines and one that frankly, new writers often, understandably struggle with. And that is: which tense to use in action lines. It must have something to do with the alignment of the planets but recently I have read more than a handful of scripts in which action lines are written in what we would technically call the "present continuous tense":

Joseph is wading across the baby pool.

...rather than the proper tense for a script which is the "present simple"

Joseph wades across the baby pool.

Stepping away from grammar labels momentarily, the reason the first example is not appropriate for a script is that it distances the reader from the action in a small but subtle way. So rather than being in the scene with Joseph, in a sensory way, we are distanced because you are telling me what he is doing. I don't watch it myself - you narrate it to me. As if I am a sight-challenged person. Joseph is wading across the baby pool.

When an action line is written properly, I observe the action myself. I watch it happen. Joseph wades across the baby pool. You aren't telling me it's happening, it just IS happening. .

Do Wavers perceive the subtle difference? It's something that newer writers really take a long time to understand but once they do, they never look back. It's like riding a bike; simple and yet initially, as a concept, confusing - won't the bike fall down? In other words, it's counter-intuitive to write in the present simple tense. There are rare occasions when we write this way - in some forms of prose it is acceptable and stylishly so: So I walk down the street and there he is: my childhood nemesis.

But I digress. In an action line do not tell me that "we see" anything - do not tell me what the character is doing - just show them doing it. Millie eats porridge. Luciano cocks his gun. Millie looks up, startled. Luciano shoots his gun.

So just remember, your action lines are not the boring, descriptive laundry list preceding the dialogue - no. Action lines are actually equally as compelling as dialogue. Action lines are where you show off your voice, your panache and your style.

Action lines SHOULD:

Be like haiku: brief, economical and as sensory and colorful as possible

ALL CAP and briefly describe new characters - even extras like the NURSE.

Be written in the present-simple: The Wave-inatrix, in her polka-dot bikini, sips her bourbon and writes her blog.

Action lines SHOULD NOT:

Be dense and long-winded. Try to keep them to about 4 lines. Particularly on your first few pages.

Be so brief that they are choppy and weird sounding. Seriously, don't economize so much you leave out the fundamentals of sentence structure.

Save for few examples, be written in any other tense than the present simple. No "stirring" "dancing" or "murdering". He stirs, she dances, he murders. Keep it in the now.

The absolute best way to build your skill set with action lines is to read produced scripts. Or heck, just a good script, doesn't have to be produced. If you read quite a number of scripts you'll notice that naturally - and thank god - writes have pronounced styles. You'll see every rule broken, you'll swoon when you see Shane Black speak to you, the reader, on the page - (he's just so brilliant). But what you will not see is a screenwriter informing you, the reader, of what you are watching. Action lines should not describe a scene as if we are watching the characters in a diorama: Look, Bob is chopping carrots! Suzy is licking the spatula. The cat is meowing.

Rather, plunk a reader into the middle of the scene and describe what's happening as if it is in surround-sound and 3-D: Bob chops celery while Suzy licks the spatula. The cat meows piteously.

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Elinor said...

Thanks for this. Required reading in my humble opinion. I hate seeing -ing, it throws you out of the story.

Christian M. Howell said...

I feel your pain. I took your advice and visited Absolute Write and reviewed some amateur stuff.

I barely made it out with my sanity. I will continue to visit and give feedback but I now understand why the brass is so picky about solicitation.

I mean I guess I'm lucky in that I seem to have a knack for this, but it seems like new writers try to be TOO clever when they should be doing simple dramas that only require life experiences.

Everyone knows that most specs will only ever be writing samples so I guess some writers aren't doing that research and reading.

That was one of the first things I found out. The second thing and perhaps most important was that comedies always "sell."

Suffice it to say, comedies have moved to the forefront of my efforts.

As far as action lines, I read several action films and dramas, maybe 20 of each and I found some interesting devices show up consistently.

The big one was that you should as you say ALL CAP intros and SOUNDS and ITEMS of interest.

I try to remain grammatically correct but sometimes sentence fragments can be your friend.

I did have the "present continuous" problem but I noticed it when reading aloud and now only use goes, comes, leaves, runs, shouts, fires, etc.

It always good though to hear that you don't totally suck.

BTW, I did post something on the forums there called After School under the name BaronMatrix.

I'm not sure the response cause no one has commented, but I think it's HILARIOUS.

Keep up the great work.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post! Can you clarify with the following example?

Jo saunters through the crowd, humming a tune.

--should be--

Jo HUMS as he saunters through the crowd.

At one point I was cautioned against the word 'as' in action lines. Is that a no-no as well?

Thanks Julie!

Julie Gray said...

Dear Anonymous (IF that's your real name!) both of your examples are fine. It's not that you can never, ever, ever use an "ing". The point is that Jo saunters and hums in the moment; it's clear, I get it and it moves. Both are fine. As for not using "as" I have never heard that in my travels and find that strange and silly. I would disregard it.

Anonymous said...

They say avoid "is, be, are", which the example did.

Ratatouille getting all A's. I'll have to go see this in the theatre. Read a review in New York Times, quoted from the movie
"Not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Good screenwriting motto.

Ernest said...

Fun, thorough post. Of course, since you say there are never any acceptable exceptions, someone's going to find a few. The continuous present ONLY works if the implied we (camera, audience) interrupts something already in progress. Then, there's just no other way without tying yourself into verbal knots.

Here's a line from the selling draft of last year's flavor-of-the-month Alan Loeb's ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK. Notice how it stands out from the surrounding action.


A dinner party in full swing. Thomas sits at the table with around ten other NEW YORKERS, all well heeled.

A heated argument is taking place between GEORGE, an investment banker and a film critic named DAVID.

and here's one from Rian Johnson's THE BROTHERS BLOOM:


They pull up in the car. A tow truck is dropping off a new Lamborghini.

Extremely particular (and rare) use, but it is a tool in the toolbox. And, just to underline, you're only proscribing this usage in action lines -- people talk in all kinds of tenses.

Thanks for the great post!

Julie Gray said...

Actually I said:

Save for few examples, be written in any other tense than the present simple....

So not at all did I say or imply that there are never acceptable exceptions. Quite the opposite. Naturally, one will make exceptions here and there in the script. But this post is primarily for those new writers trying to grasp the concept full-stop.

Laura Reyna said...

I can't decide which sucks harder, my action lines or my dialogue. LOL!

I know the present-simple thing but i still have trouble with it.

This little usage convention is sooo fundamental to screenplay format & language.

Thanks for the reminder.