My blog has moved!

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

Monday, April 13, 2009

Action Lines: Opportunities Waiting to Happen

One of the weird things about table reads is that the action lines are read aloud along with the dialogue. It's slightly counter-intuitive because in the movie version of your script the action lines are, well, actions that are happening, not words someone is reading aloud. But when your script is read, there's that translation that happens in the mind of the reader - I'm reading your action lines and visualizing the actions you are describing. Right? I mean, we know that.

This is one of the things that makes screenwriting SO unique - action lines are meant to be READ at first, but read in such a way that they paint a picture. Then later, they will be read and interpreted into images and actions. So that, for example:


The icy lake is steel grey, tinged with pale blue. A flock of GEESE flies overhead, HONKING. The sun begins to rise, bathing the lake with a honeyed glow.

....becomes a shot, right? And if this shot makes it into the final draft of your script and everyone loves it, a camera crew will shoot on location - might not be THAT great lake, might be some lake that looks really big and cold and steely. Might not be at dawn, might be at dusk. Might have to CG the geese or might get lucky. "Honeyed glow" might be a real sunrise or it might be done in post production. But you see, this very short, quick description of mine will now require a whole set of filmic actions to bring to life. But in that initial read, the reader is absorbing a mood , and the lake is setting that mood. Does it matter, then, if you wrote the same action line like this:


The sun comes up over the large, cold lake. Geese fly overhead.

Well, no - look, it's the same shot, right? And the second example used way fewer words. But which description was more cinematic, sensory and memorable to you? It's all about finding YOUR voice and YOUR way of describing things, but I promise you that the more cinematic your writing, the more absorbed your reader will be in your script. And the better writer you are (better defined here as: both cinematic AND pithy) the better people will react to your script. Not to mention that an agent or manager will definitely not be impressed by or drawn to utilitarian writing that is there to just get the job done and move on.

Some screenwriters complain - hey, my action lines are just that - they are actions that are happening; camera movements and descriptions of visuals. So why do they have to be written WELL and held up to the same standards as prose? Because they will be READ, that's why. Read and seen and felt by a reader - then later, read, seen, felt and translated into images by the actors and the director.

At table reads, most writers are eager to hear how the dialogue sounds. That is the primary focus, usually. And they get a little yeah yeah, get through the action lines, I want to hear the characters interacting. But. Hearing your action lines read gives you a chance, for one thing, to hear how those action lines are translated by a reader. In other words, if your trusty narrator is stumbling over some of the words in your action lines, or sounds like they are going on and on as they read - it's a reflection upon the action lines themselves.

You might have too much black; you might have chosen alliterative or unnecessarily complicated words. Or you might be over-directing the characters. Take one recent example - a character in the pages is a cigar smoker. And he's veritably always holding onto, sniffing, smoking or otherwise fondling his cigar. So the writer wrote that in the action lines. Throughout the script. So that this character's lines of dialogue were always preceded and peppered with the business with his cigar - which interrupted the flow of the read. Because every single time this character spoke, we first had to read an action line about something he was doing with his cigar. Frustrating for the actor trying to just do his dialogue with flow and emotion and frustrating for the audience having to hear repetitive lines about a cigar.

Now: There are people (and characters) who are always fiddling with something - their hair, cigar, gun, cigarettes - whatever. But in general, if it's just fiddling that we're talking about, set it up early in the script and then leave it out after that. Why? Because the actor gets it already: I'm a cigar-fiddler. Micro-directing how that character is repeating personal gestures takes up space on your script pages and unnecessarily interrupts the flow of the read.


Emil sniffs his cigar appreciatively.

EMIL: Your move, my friend.

He snips the end of his cigar.

FRANK: Ah, so it is.

Emil searches his jacket pocket for a lighter.

FRANK: Check and mate, my friend.

Emil lights his cigar and inhales. The smoke swirls around his face.

EMIL: Fair enough. I suppose you'll want your payment at the usual time?

Emil ashes his cigar.

FRANK: At dawn. By the lake. And bring rope.

AARRHGHGH - we get it with the cigar already! Because something really interesting is happening here; these two men have made a bet and Frank won and holy shit, by the lake with a rope? But the lines about the stupid cigar interrupt the flow of that. And Wavers, I know you think I make up examples to make my point in the most heavy-handed way possible and yet I swear upon my mother's blue eyes that this is the kind of action line writing I have seen many times over.

Remember, when someone is reading your script, they are primarily drawn to the lines of dialogue. Firstly, this is a visual thing - the dialogue is centered on the page. Secondly, the dialogue is where the story moves forward. Right? It is true that readers sometimes skim action lines, particularly if they are a bit dense. I don't mean SKIP - I mean SKIM. Because remember, readers have to time their reads - they have several more scripts to go this week and they just need the UPSHOT of your script. So if your action lines are dense and not particularly entertaining, they start skimming in order to facilitate just getting through the read.

Now - seriously - you don't want your action lines skimmed. So you have to make them melodious and interesting. You have to make them a value-added part of the experience of reading your script - a delightful, cinematic bonus. Just be careful not to overwrite your action lines; your character smokes cigars - we get it. And perhaps more importantly, the actor gets it. Set it up early and leave it alone. Or find another, more clever way of indicating the relationship between this character and his or her cigar, hair, gum, fingernails or zipper.

Try having your own table read. Have a friend or loved one play the narrator and the characters - have them read just a few pages. And listen to the way the action lines sound read aloud. Are they lengthy? Is your friend stumbling through them? Are certain gestures of a character crowding the pages or interrupting dialogue?

Action lines that are o-k-a-y get the job done. Action lines that are exceptional get writers repped and sold. It's pretty simple, Wavers. Interrupting your dialogue with action lines that micro-direct a character and his cigar is unclever-scriptus-interruptus-gimme-a-breakus.

Which is better writing - to show us repetitive details of fidgeting with a cigar or to write a character who is the essence of one who smokes cigars - whether that's expensive cubans or cheap cigarellos? What is the cigar really about, in other words? It's not just a prop; it's a way of being and thinking. So capture THAT rather than leaning on the prop itself.

Yes, action lines are, in part, utilitarian; but a good writer never leaves it at that. Why just state what's going on when you can show the reader your beautiful command of the language and your ability to direct the eye cinematically? Why have a cold lake when you can have a steel grey one with the honking of migrating geese echoing across it as the sun rises? Why do something just all right when you can do it exceptionally?

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


Dave Shepherd said...

Action lines vs. Dialogue, Round 2, FIGHT!

I agreed with most of what you wrote. Action lines are supposed to describe the shot AND give the reader the same experience they'll have if they sit through the movie.

There's one major issue I have with what you wrote though:

"Secondly, the dialogue is where the story moves forward."

I have to think I'm misinterpreting your intention behind that line, because there's no way anyone who has as much knowledge about screenwriting as you do could make that kind of oversight.

Movies are about characters dealing with situations -- characters in action. They're not about people talking. They're about people doing things.

Even the more "talkie" movies -- Juno, Some Like It Hot -- they're still about characters taking action. Sure, they talk a lot while doing it, which is fine, but they're still DOING something.

Dialogue is there to support the character's action, not the other way around. Show, don't tell.

(And yes, as we all know, I seem to be in the minority because I think action is more important than dialogue).

Trina0623 said...

Do you think this skill is one of the hardest to master? It seems like it's a very fine line between writing sparkling poetic action lines and "novelistic overwriting." We know that can lead to dense action lines - the kiss of death.

Luzid said...

@ Dave: Dialogue can reveal just as much as action, especially when it counterpoints it -- e.g., a person claiming to be unafraid in dialogue but shrinking back at the same time reveals character by playing both elements against each other.

@ Trina: it may help to have a personal rule of thumb on action-line length. It forces one to be both evocative and pithy at the same time.

Dave Shepherd said...


I agree with you, and it's a technique I frequently use, putting dialogue against action. However, I think beginning writers (and a lot of pros) use dialogue to completely replace action.

As in:



She slaps him.

Désirée said...

A very interesting article, Julie. And that cigar-scene was spot on what my writing used to be up to recently. I was very concerned about that the it should be a moving image so I added actionlines between almost every piece of dialog. Thank you for reminding me why I shouldn't write like that.

Trina0623 said...

@Luzid - I agree. I have instinctively set a limit already. I never go over 4 lines of action in a row and rarely for dialogue.

Your comment of action lines that go against dialogue reminds me of the trailers I've been seeing for the "Twilight" DVD. The vampire asks Bella if she's afraid of him and she says "No," but her facial expression completely betrays her true feelings. I love that.