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Friday, February 27, 2009

Dense Action Lines = Kiss of Death

For many new screenwriters, action lines seem like the least of their concerns. That's just the part where you download what's happening, describe characters, etc., big deal, how hard can it be? I have seen many an aspiring screenwriter who writes in some other context, sometimes even on a high level of achievement (having been published or otherwise lauded), really take action lines for granted - which honestly, as a person who has written published essays and short fiction as well as scripts, irks me. Don't take action line writing so lightly - give it some respect.

Action lines are in some ways Screenwriting 101: Don't just tell me what's going on, lay it out as if I am watching what's going on. Huge difference. Yes, yes, one can adhere to "rules" like keep action lines to less than four lines in one paragraph but really, what sets action lines in a script apart from any other type of writing is that they are cinematic in nature. They have movement, they guide the eye, they set the tone. They don't just plunk us into the middle of a tableau and describe it to death: They are kinetic and elegant.

Don't ever just toss out action lines to simply describe something. Always take advantage and make them pull two and three times their weight. Don't describe a scene as if it is a static diorama. Remember that action lines are NOT subtitled; don't tell me that this dude is the CEO of Evil Corp. and that he's having an agitated conversation with someone. SHOW me what that looks like. Sorry I'm ranting a little; I read a script yesterday that had a great premise but that was absolutely sunk by action lines that did nothing to service the story and everything to take what should have been exciting and make it a describe-o-rama snorefest.

Let me give you an example that is scrambled for confidentiality's sake. This is an amalgam of every bad action line mistake you could make...but let me also say this is NOT an exaggeration. I repeat - NOT an exaggeration. This is sadly common:

LOUISE GINT is blonde, in her 50s but still looking good. She wears expensive clothing but she is annoyed. She is the president of the Junior Soccer League. She is in a high school gymnasium and stands at a podium set up on a stage and tries to get the crowd to quiet down to listen to her. Her vice president, LOU HALL is in his 30s and is a grumpy type who rarely smiles. All around them a crowd waits to hear the speech. A PHOTOGRAPHER with a beard stands toward the back and begins to snap pictures of the event. He is Louise's ex-husband and there is no love lost between them. Screens are on either side of the podium and the screens play footage of a soccer team in Ireland winning a game. Louise starts her speech.

Do you see how annoying this is? And this example is probably eight lines shorter than I commonly see. It is expository, it is boring, it is overwritten and it just sits there like a lump. It doesn't MOVE.

Now let's try it again:

A high school gym is crowded with SOCCER FANS. Parents, die-hards, teenagers. A bearded PHOTOGRAPHER jostles for position at the back. Suddenly, microphone feedback echoes throughout the gym -

LOUISE (O.S.): Ladies and gentleman! Quiet down please!

The crowd turns its attention to the commanding woman at the podium. LOUISE GINT (50s), blonde and confident in her Donna Karan, looks over the crowd.

LOUISE: Quiet please!

LOU HALL (30s), grim and unsmiling, leans in to Louise.

LOU (under his breath): This isn't going to be easy.

Louise covers the microphone with her hand.

LOUISE: Shut up and roll the footage, dammit!

Two large screens on either side of the podium flicker and come to life. Team Ireland plays a rousing, mud-spattered game.

LOUISE: It is my duty as Junior Soccer League President to present to you the incriminating footage of the game played last year in Dublin Heights.

MAN (O.S.): Miss Gint?! Miss Gint!

Louise swivels her head to someone in the back of the crowd. It's the photographer.

PHOTGRAPHER: Wasn't this footage obtained through illegal means?

The crowd grows silent. Lou leans closer to Louise and whispers.

LOU: Isn't that -

LOUISE: My ex husband. Bastard.


So - you know - this is an example and it really goes nowhere but do Wavers see how both examples basically give out the same information but one does it in a way that is moving along and the other is just an action line DUMP?

Look, writing action lines vis a vis the first example is a natural way for new writers to do it. It's what you are used to; it uses a weird combination of pointillism and paint roller to set up what's going on. But the second example is how scripts (good ones) are actually written - information is doled out on an as-needed basis. As one example, in the first iteration, the writer just informs us that Louise is the president of the junior soccer league and that further, she is annoyed. But in the second example, we just let her BE the junior soccer league president - she tells us that as part of what she's doing. And she SOUNDS annoyed. We don't inform you the photographer is her ex, we discover that in a kinetic way. Louise sees him only after he asks a question. And we find out just who he is in a much more fun way.

It's like the difference between trotting out beauty contest girls and saying: Miss Corona Hills is 27, likes long walks on the beach and really loves puppies! Rather than introducing information as if she walks out onto the stage as an actor in a play - we gather information about her through the way she talks and acts - we gather the information, we look for it, we experience it.

And that sums up the vibe of good action lines, people. Don't information dump but rather, let the information wash over us incrementally. Because when you write that way, you have engaged me, the reader. I am experiencing what I am reading, not being hit over the head with it. This not a manual for a garbage disposal. This is like being led on a garden tour.

And that. Is my rant for the day. Thank you and get back to work.

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Benjamin Ray said...

Hey Julie,
I agree with you.

Since we are on this topic,
what is your opinion of THE LOW DWELLER? Heavy on desc? But sold for big bucks. Is it a texbook script for all to study?

2nd2Nun said...

Great post. It's something I continue to work on and the example you used was really helpful.

One things I'm curious about - from reading other screenplays, I do like how some writer's only provide guidance to an actor. For example an action line could read:

James knew it would happen. He's been caught.

I like it cause it allows the actor to do what they feel necessary to convey that situation.

What are your thoughts on actions lines like this? They don't have action, and yet the reader can picture in their heads what's going on.


Trevor Finn said...

That's one of the things I battle with most, because I'm of the school of thought where you write the first draft as quickly as possible. Which means I always have to do heavy re-writes, and sometimes I think my action lines get pushed to the wayside.

I like your way of describing having action lines as being incremental and elegant. I can go through my scripts and use that litmus test. I guess the re-writing process should have several stages, one for character/dialogue and another completely separate re-write for action, so you can fully concentrate on each aspect.