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Monday, March 2, 2009

Focused Rewriting: Action Lines

You're doing it all the time. Rewriting your script. They say that writing IS rewriting and I think this is self-evident. This is why we must not judge ourselves so harshly. Your writing can always improve. In the early stages of writing your script, mostly you just want to get it down on paper. Just get those pages going.

Rewriting is a necessary, fun and challenging part of improving those pages.

But it's easy to go back over pages and tweak them to death with no actual goal in mind. You start off by thinking - I'll just make this better. In fact, going over previous pages from where you left off can sometimes be a time-wasting way to avoid not writing the new pages you need to write. I know when I sit down to write, even if I left off on page 42, I start back at page one and read/skim the previous pages and of course make a few changes here and there before returning to page 42 and making that turn into page 48. Ain't nothin' wrong with that. But imagine the efficiency of doing a focused rewrite pass.

How about this week Wavers collectively do an Action Line Rewrite Pass?

Start on page one and go through the script with a laser focus and look at every single action line paragraph:

Are your action lines written in the present continuous tense? Harold is walking, is sitting, is loading his gun - NO NO NO - rather, Harold walks, or he sits or he loads his gun. Action lines should be written in the present simple tense.

Are there ANY typos, misspells or homophones? (two, too, they're, their, your, you're)

Are there any DENSE blocks of action lines? Screw up your eyes and look at your pages. Any block-like patterns? Seek out and destroy them.

Are there scattered action lines that interrupt virtually every line of dialogue? Seek and destroy.

Are you action lines as pithy and efficient as possible? REALLY as efficient as possible?

Have you chosen evocative words that suit the mood, tone and genre of your script?

Are there widows (single words occupying one whole line)?

Are characters described briefly yet effectively?

Are there sounds in your script, which help make the read more cinematic?

Is there a minimum of "business" in your script?

Are there repeated words you've used? Is there too much alliteration?

Go ahead. Start on page one and ask yourself if your script has any of these problems within the action lines. And spend a day or two improving upon these issues. It's good for your script, it's great exercise for you as a writer and once you really, really GET how to write great action lines, you'll never have to worry about it again. But it takes practice and repetition. It really does.

You see, your script can and might have any number of problems ranging from global to specific - structure, theme, logic or character issues - but bad action lines really are the KISS OF DEATH. Because when your action lines suck, then it follows, in a reader's mind, that your whole script sucks. Because action lines are the plate upon which your whole script is served up. I read a script the other day with a GREAT core premise - really, really fascinating. But the action lines absolutely blew the concept out of the water because they were so bad. Don't let this happen to you. There's no excuse when you have resources all around you instructing you how to do it right.

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Caitlin said...

I recently finished a first draft of a screenplay, and I know that my next step is to go through and work on my action lines.

I think the action lines that I already have are good, or at least adequate. My issue is that my screenplay is very dialogue-heavy, and I am struggling to make it more visual. You warn against "business" and action lines that interrupt the dialogue too much, but what about the opposite problem? Is some business okay, or even necessary to break up the dialogue? Or would it be better to leave it out?

Third World Girl said...

I did this recently, (an "action line rewrite") and cut three pages from the length of a script.

Great suggestions here Julie...

Two other things that worked for me. They're small but I think they helped the clarity of the read:

1. Paying careful attention to word order. Does the most important part of your sentence come last?

2. Asking if the detail in the action line, even if you love it, is vital to the story. That helped me get rid of novelistic writing and made for a less dense read.

Julie Gray said...

Without having seen your script, Caitlin, it's hard for me to answer your question definitively. However, erring on the side of dialogue is better than having action lines interrupt just to interrupt. That said: are you characters standing or sitting stock still while they're talking? Your comment would seem to indicate that perhaps you need more movement and action in your scenes. You want to avoid monologues and you want to avoid long, play-like scenes as well. This is a moving picture, right? :)

Dave Shepherd said...

The best advice I ever recieved on action lines:

1. Eliminate all words ending in "ing".

2. Replace every "and" with a comma.

Which turns:

John is walking into the room and chatting on his cell phone.


John walks into the room, chats on his cell.

A simple fix, but one that makes a huge difference in my opinion. Very easy to apply.

We Really Didn't Think This Through said...

I loved this posting. It gave me homework.

Bill said...

Julie wrote: "Are there ANY typos, misspells or homophones?"

Does that make writers "homophonic".

E.C. Henry said...

Julie, your SO SEXY when you're instructing me -- what are you wearing?

(playfull tease)

I'm in the middle of writing a draft. Not a good time to act on your advice. But thanks. I do listen to what you have to say and I file it away for later use.

Julie, you rock! You should put out a callendar.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Caitlin said...

Thanks, Julie! I know, you're right, of course... I like monologues and play-like scenes, but I'm working on teaching my brain to think more visually.