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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Action Line Interruptus

This is an old Rouge Wave post, Wavers, but it's so relevant and at this point so buried in the archives that I thought it would be a good topic to revisit. Why? Because we have had a massive influx of new Wavers lately and, really, are they supposed to dig through the whole archive for gems like this? I think not. We have better things to do like visit Jesus Christ Superstar Dress Up.

So: here we go. Again. Action Line Interruptus and Why it Sucks:

Open up your script. Turn to a sample page. Stare at it and get a visual. Don't read the words, just observe its appearance. How are those action lines looking? Any dense blocks? That's something that most of us know we should avoid - "too much black". But did you ever think about the fact that you can actually have too many short action lines which interrupt the flow of dialogue? Prodco readers tend to focus on your dialogue. Because it is in dialogue that the story moves forward. And they have to synopsize your script later. Of course they read the action lines too but particularly if the actions within them are stock and descriptive, they read about half the sentence and move on - because they get it, they're not that interested - they want to know what happens next. When readers review your script they are reading it FAST. So action lines don't really "stick" unless they are tremendously entertaining.

Here is an example of the way in which too many short action lines, peppered throughout your page interrupts the flow of dialogue and therefore - plot. It's a little excruciating, but the Wave-inatrix wants to put you through a sample experience. To put you in the shoes of a reader:

***

Henry: I miss the farm, don’t you?

Amos flips the pancakes and looks out the window at the Philly skyline.

Amos: Sure do.

Henry puts the syrup on the table.

Henry: Sometimes I wish we could just go out back and get syrup the way we used to.

Amos plates the pancakes.

Amos: Yeah, those were the days.

Henry looks at the pancakes, licks his lips and puts his napkin on his lap.

Henry: Course, things changed after the avalanche took mom and dad out.

Amos sits down opposite Henry.

Amos: I sure do miss ‘em.

Henry butters his pancakes.

Henry: Probably shouldna set that blast so close to 'em. You knew they were berry picking below the mountain.

Henry wipes his mouth and looks at his brother pointedly. Amos points his fork at his brother.

Amos: It was your idea, remember? You said enough was enough and I guess I just took that literally.

He gestures at their shabby studio apartment.

Amos: And they didn't leave us hardly nothin' in their will.

Henry pushes back from the table.

Henry: Guess we shoulda thoughta that.

Amos: Funeral took up most of it.

Henry: Suppose we should go visit the cemetery this weekend?

Amos digs in to his food.

Amos: We’ll bring their favorite flowers; Arctic Poppies.

*****
In this first example, not only are the characters micro-managed, their dialogue, which is ad hoc, silly, and yet on a certain level, powerful, is not delivered in such a way that we are really taking it in. Because we have interrupted the flow terribly with action lines. These two brothers have parents who died in an avalanche. They miss their old life. And they uh, they did it. This is important information to convey.

Now let’s try that again:

Henry: I miss the farm, don’t you?

Amos flips the pancakes and looks out the window at the Philly skyline.

Amos: Sure do.

Henry: Sometimes I wish we could just go out back and get syrup the way we used to.

Amos: Yeah, those were the days.

Henry: Course, things changed after the avalanche took mom and dad out.

Amos sits down opposite Henry.

Amos: I sure do miss ‘em.

Henry: Probably shouldna set that blast so close to 'em. You knew they were berry picking below the mountain.

Amos: It was your idea, remember? You said enough was enough and I guess I just took that literally.

He gestures at their shabby studio apartment.

Amos: And they didn't leave us hardly nothin' in their will.

Henry: Guess we shoulda thoughta that.

Amos: Funeral took up most of it.

Henry: Suppose we should go visit the cemetery this weekend?

Amos: We’ll bring their favorite flowers; Artic Poppies.

**
So review your scenes and make sure that they flow easily and well. Do not overuse or pepper action lines over your pages such that dialogue is split up and watered down.

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1 comment:

Theresa said...

Just a quick note to encourage my fellow newbie Wavers to go ahead and read through the archives of this blog when you have some time. It is really worth it - chock full of interesting, educational and inspiring posts on writing. Many thanks, Wavenatrix! However, cupcakes to you for reposting some oldies but goodies. I'm a sucker for good information.