My blog has moved!

You will be automatically redirected to the new address. If that does not occur, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Get Your Action On

As promised, this week on the Rouge Wave, we're recapping some discussions we've had of some of the basic elements of screenwriting. With the strike giving the appearance of possibly ending soon and with competition season arriving shortly, it's time to fire up your engines, Wavers. So I've compiled and compressed Rouge Wave blog posts from various points in time to create a sort of brief "best-of" on each element.


Action lines are not just paragraphs which describe the building, or the car or the dusty street the character is walking down. They aren't just to tell us the character is wearing "khaki pants, a white shirt and dress shoes". Action lines are like paintings. They should be kinetic, pithy and evocative. What do I mean by that? If a writer is describing a mid-19th century street in Nevada and the day is hot and the bad guy is about to gallop up on his horse, then focus on using that action line to really convey all of that. Let us hear a carriage creaking by. Let us feel the hot sun. Let us choke on the dust and hear the sound of the boots over the wooden walkways. Choose words, in other words, that match the mood of the scene and the tone of the script overall. Read produced scripts and notice the way a horror script will use dark, scary words in the action lines. Notice the way a romantic comedy will use lighter, funnier, bouncier words in the action lines. Make the scene come alive. Don't be afraid to sound like you, not some pedantic machine who's read a how-to screenwriting book one too many times.

Here's a little secret: most readers, and by extension, executives and producers, skim over action lines quickly. Particularly if they are dense. We are only looking for key words so we can orient ourselves. The dialogue is the primary place where the plot is going to play out.

Don't tell us things we cannot see. Action lines are not subtitled. For example, do not say "the viewer will notice immediately how rich with silver money Nevada has grown." Huh? Oh - you mean there's a lot of silver being gambled on the tables? Okay, so just say that. Describe the saloon then. What kind of music is playing? Is the money clinking? Are people shouting when they win and groaning when they lose? Is it a bunch of miners and roughnecks or guys in cravats and monocles? We've all seen movies - describe the scene as if it's a movie. I know that sounds stupid but scripts are not just blueprints of movies, they are facsimiles of movies. We should read them and almost see the scenes recreated in our minds. When in doubt, challenge yourself to cut your action line down by fully half. Review it for words that are adding to the mood and feel you want to evoke.

Which Tense?

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.

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.

ShowHype: hype it up!

If you enjoyed this post, follow me on Twitter or subscribe via RSS.

No comments: