8 Tips To Writing Great Action Lines

A screenplay needs to be a compelling read before it can become a great film or tv show. Well written action lines are vital to the success of your screenplay; it’s where the action takes place and it’s your chance to tell the reader everything (bar dialogue) that they will see or hear on screen.

words

Action lines are sometimes referred to as scene description but this is a rather unhelpful term and it tends to make us think our job is to describe a static scene or tableau.

What do your action lines do?
1) Describe the actions happening in the scene
2) Describe the location of the scene
3) Describe characters when we first meet them

The second and third of these lack the action element that gives the read its pace and fluidity, so one of your jobs is to make these descriptions as active as possible. More on this later.

1) Brevity

Many scripts suffer from having huge swathes of over-written action lines, making the reading experience frustratingly slow and laborious.

A good rule of thumb is to aim for the reading experience to closely match the viewing experience, so the length of time it takes to read your description should match the length of time that action will last on screen.

A novelist may spend a whole page describing a room but a screenwriter cannot take this long, unless you want the viewer to spend a whole minute looking at a static shot of your room with nothing happening at all!

The aim is to give the reader the experience that the viewer will have. This is why some screenwriters use ALL CAPS to draw the reader’s attention to an action that, on screen, would have a strong impact, like the BANG of a gunshot. As long as it’s used sparingly this can be a very effective tool, particularly when writing in genres like Horror where visual/audio shocks are a significant part of the dramatic viewing experience.

Screenwriting is distilled writing; using the fewest number of words to create the greatest possible impact. In the first draft you may spend a paragraph describing your location but while rewriting you are trying to find the exact word to match the situation.

If you do find yourself with a lot of action lines and no dialogue to break it up, try to make the script an easier read by breaking the action up into smaller discrete chunks. A good rule of thumb is no more than 4 lines in a paragraph of action lines. Easy cuts are ‘and’ and ‘but’.

2) Make it evocative

Some scripts suffer from being under-written, making it hard for the reader to clearly visualise the scene playing out. Brevity alone is not enough if the few words you use are too bland and generic. You’re searching for evocative verbs.

For example, ‘walk’ is too generic so it’s time to search for the perfect synonym; saunters, strides, struts, strolls, marches, bounces, tiptoes.

Your thesaurus will likely be well-used!

3) Make it immediate

Screenplays always take place in the present tense; ‘Sarah is running down the street’. The action is happening now, not in the past. The most visceral action lines use the absolute present tense ‘Sarah runs down the street’.

4) Set the scene

Your slugline is the first element that creates a visual image of our location, and sometimes it’s enough.

INT. JOANNE’S BEDROOM. DAY

That simple scene header implies lots of details that I’m already picturing; a bed, wardrobe, etc.

But that’s probably too generic and you’ll want to create a more vivid picture of this particular bedroom. You can do that by adding a detail that implies lots of other details; “Clothes litter the floor”, or by describing the character of the room; “Uptight and immaculate.”

The best way to describe a location is through action. We want people and objects moving, not a still life picture – describe not things but things happening. Why waste a sentence describing a static scene when we could sneak a description into our action? “Joanne rushes in and frantically searches through the scattered clothes”.

5) Create atmosphere

Action lines are also where the tone, pace, visual and visceral experiences of your screenplay are established. They can be used to create atmosphere, for example, through location or the use of natural elements.

For this we want to describe not how something looks but how it should make us feel. An old house could be described in many ways; rickety, run-down, fragile, dilapidated. But if you want your screenplay to evoke a sense of menace, you might describe the house as ‘sinister’.

Your job is the convey the impression or feeling the location evokes. It’s up to the Production Designer to find the details that will create your intended impression.

6) Direct the camera

The extraordinary access we now have to the scripts of our favourite films is greatly enhancing people’s ability to study the craft of screenwriting. However, many of the scripts you read will be the final shooting script, which almost always means that it’s been through a rewrite by the Director, who may have added into the action lines their intended camera angles and shots.

Screenwriters (unless you’re directing the film as well) should never put explicit camera directions in their script, not even a sneaky little ‘close up on the knife’.

But you may have a really clear picture in your head of how the scene would be cut together and the good news is that you can imply camera directions by using action. For example “the knife glints in the moonlight” draws our attention to this object, thereby suggesting a close-up of the knife.

7) Convey character

Here again we’re after brevity, action and evocation of feeling. The first time we meet a character you’ll want to describe them (after you’ve put their name in ALL CAPS of course) to give the reader a visual impression of them. Way too many spec scripts give a detailed description of how their characters look but, as with location, what we need is just an impression – the Costume Designer will do the rest. Think of it as an essence statement about your character – can you sum up their personality/attitude in a few words? What impression do they give when they walk in a room? Uptight, relaxed, confident, nervous?

Better still, as we did with location, can you sneak that description into action? “Joanna strides into the room, ignoring the turning heads and making a bee-line for the bar”. Try to give your characters an active first-meet which shows us their personality.

8) Direct performances

There is a tricky balance to be struck here, as with all action-line elements; too much detail slows the story down while not enough detail leaves us without any idea of what characters are thinking and feeling.

The first thing to remember is that you cannot write in an action line what we cannot see or hear – a director cannot capture “Joanne gazes out the window, thinking about last night’s fight with Alex”. Again, your job is to imply meaning through action. You can show “Joanne gazes out the window” and we can guess that she is thinking about her fight last night if you showed us that fight in a previous scene.

The trick is to learn how to externalise internal thoughts and feelings through people’s actions; she angrily wipes away a tear, he paces the room, her eyes dart around the room full of strangers.

Be wary also of over-directing the performance. You could choreograph every tiny movement and gesture of every character through every scene, but again you’re in danger of slowing the story down. The trick is to give us one key gesture or action that implies others and leave the actors and directors to do the rest.

Like all aspects of the craft of screenwriting, great action-line writing is something that can be practised. The more you do it, the better at it you’ll get and the more instinctive it will be become. Screenwriting is a very specialised form of writing, but it’s still writing and words are your greatest tool, so use them wisely!

 

Book Review: The Art of Script Editing by Karol Griffiths

This insight into the art of script editing is a must-read not just for aspiring script readers and script editors, but also for emerging screenwriters as they master the skills of rewriting and working with notes. In her hugely informative book, experienced script editor Karol Griffiths guides you through the world of script analysis and script editing.

the art of script editing

The book is that perfect blend of truth-telling and encouragement, walking you through the practical analytical skills you’ll need to determine what is and isn’t working in a script, whilst always keeping one eye on the writer who might be in receipt of your analysis.

There is a lot of information out there about script analysis and identifying weaknesses in the various script elements, from genre and story structure to theme and dialogue. While Karol’s book covers all of these, what makes it unique is her emphasis on diplomacy and delivery – essential skills for the script editor who must work with a writer to help them produce the strongest possible script.

While many people claim to know how to give script notes, too many have only ever had to write a written report and then walk away from the project and/or writer. What sets script editors (like Karol and myself) apart is having the skills and experience of delivering notes in a way that allows the writer to feel positive about the rewrite and turn in a much improved next draft. Her sections on how to prioritise notes and take a first meeting with a writer are hugely informative and give an insight into the real development process which is mostly hidden from emerging writers.

There are also fantastically helpful sections that are a valuable resource for the new script editor, including how to prepare a script for production, the reality of script editing on a fast-turnaround television show and what to do when your producer and writer don’t agree.

Whether you’re an emerging screenwriter curious about the professional script development process, or an aspiring script reader/analyst or script editor, this book is a valuable resource.

Karol Griffiths is a film and television script editor, providing script development support through her own script consultancy and at Script Angel, where she offers both a 3-Month Script Development Service and a 6-Month Screenwriter Mentoring Service.

 

Time To Write

We all lead busy lives and feel the pressure to cram every waking moment with useful activity. But sometimes, to really think deeply about our writing, what we most need is time without distractions.

We’ve all become adept at multi-tasking, but when we cram every hour with multiple tasks we can tick off our ‘to-do’ list, we’re not multi-tasking at all, we’re simply snatching tiny bits of time for each task.

nature - blue sky with cloud

Fitting your writing around a day-job is a challenge faced by almost all screenwriters in their early days. And while having a routine and writing a little bit every day is crucial if you want to get two spec scripts completed every year, sometimes you need more than that. You need time away.

You might be able to use your annual holiday to focus on your writing, although family and friends might have other ideas! Or you might decide to really get away from it all and go on a screenwriting retreat.

Escaping from work, chores, family and friends will help you to reconnect with your writing, whether you’re exploring new ideas, struggling with a knotty story problem or trying to find your characters. Sometimes you need to give yourself the time and space to nurture yourself and your writing.

 

Developing Your Ideas

We know that if our script is a confusing mess of half-formed ideas it’s not going to impress anyone. The most compelling scripts are focused. They have their theme, characters and story all working together, and deliver sufficient intrigue and drive to keep the reader reading and ultimately the viewer watching. That might be the goal but great stories don’t (or at least rarely) arrive fully-formed.

script angel - developing ideas - chaos

You might be lucky enough to have come up with a brilliant ‘what if’ premise. Or you might have a few half-ideas that together you think could be the start of something really interesting. So what to do next?

For some writers the temptation is to rush off down the first story-path that they see. While that might get you from a to b pretty swiftly, there is a danger that such a linear, focused approach so early in the development process actually shuts down other possibilities that could have led to somewhere more interesting. Your first idea is rarely the most original. Rather, originality and creativity come from making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas.

If you’re the type of writer who is desperate to get to the end product as fast as possible, try creative writing exercises that force you to play, to be more chaotic and more experimental in your thought processes. For every first idea, try coming up with five alternatives. What if she said no, or said yes but was lying? What if it wasn’t set in contemporary urban London but in the wilds of Scotland in 1850? Does that lead you somewhere more interesting? Get comfortable feeling uncomfortable, not knowing the ‘right’ answer yet. Learn to embrace the chaos.

Other writers love to be in that experimental phase when everything is possible and nothing has to be ruled in or out. Early drafts of the story are full of many interesting half-formed ideas but there is no clarity and any articulation of it (logline, treatment, script) leaves the reader bewildered rather than intrigued.

If you’re the type of writer who loves to play with ideas, you might find it hard even to get to a first draft of your script, let alone a polished version, because narrowing down the myriad of options, having to choose what to focus on and what to leave out, is daunting. Having so many possible paths in front of you can be overwhelming and leave you feeling paralysed with fear that you’ll chose the wrong path. If that’s you, try giving yourself deadlines. Commit to a path, even if to begin with it’s only with regard to one element, for example, your protagonist’s character flaw. You can always turn back later if the path you chose turned out to be a dead-end.

This is the tight-rope we walk; spend too long meandering down every possible path and you’ll get lost and give up, rush too soon to push forward with your first idea and you’ll end up with something that’s been done before.  When one or two of the elements (theme, story, characters, story world) feel not only ‘right’ but exciting, then it’s time to commit and start to form the other elements around them.

Making stories is a messy process, but if you can embrace that and move forward to create a powerful form and structure to express your idea, then you’ll have nailed it – this time around at least!

 

 

Capturing Your Ideas

Most writers I work with worry about their story ideas – are they any good, have they got enough of them, how do they spot the ideas that have the most potential, are they choosing the right ones to develop?

I want to explore the start of that process and look at ways in which you can improve both the quality and quantity of ideas.

ideas - capturing

Firstly, when I talk about ideas I’m not talking about a fully-formed concept or story premise. Here I want to talk about the bit of the creative process that comes before even that; the capturing of the fragments that float into your conscious thoughts then as quickly as they arrived, have gone again.

Those random ideas can be a tiny bit of a conversation you’ve overheard that intrigued you, a location that surprised you, a story you read that sparked a ‘what if?’.

Being alive to the tiniest idea and getting it down before it goes is important. If it is strong enough to register, it’s worth capturing. And making a note of even the smallest idea can help you to build up a substantial collection of small pieces that, when combined, can produce a stunning and original story concept. Think of them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. No single note looks like much on its own but when you put it with other pieces you can begin to build a complete and unique picture.

Chris Chibnall has talked about creating  Broadchurch from a collection of unrelated ideas he’d jotted down over the years;  a sense of community (which he’d enjoyed writing on Born and Bred) but with a dark and contemporary twist, being inspired by the murder mystery of Twin Peaks, and being captivated by a stunning cliff-top location in Dorset.

All of the professional screenwriters I’ve worked with over the years have had some kind of note-collating system; be it a board with post-it notes, a concertina folder for scraps of paper, a notepad, a Word document or something else. Collecting in one place all of these random external observations might seem a bit pointless when you’re in the middle of an exciting new project for which it’s no use, but it’s an important habit to create.

Capturing and organising your ideas is important for generating those external story elements of any new project but it might not give you the kind of depth you need to turn your story into one with real meaning to you.

The theme of your story, the moral message you want audiences to take away from it, often comes from a more inward-looking and more reflective process. Many writers find that journaling is a really useful tool for digging deeper into their own thoughts and feelings. Spending time reflecting on the questions that are troubling you and exploring issues that are making you angry or sad can prove invaluable as you piece together and create meaning from your random fragments.

It’s also worth looking at your own strengths as a writer and making sure you develop your skills in the areas you are weakest. It’s easy to keep doing the stuff that comes naturally, but to grow as a screenwriter you need to work on the areas that aren’t in your comfort zone.

You might be a plot-driven writer, always spotting events that are note-worthy (a tragic accident, a cruel twist of fate) but not really noticing the people those things happen to. Perhaps you are a character-focused writer, always observing people and wondering about the psychology and motivations behind their behaviours.  Or you might be a brilliant story-world builder, always noticing the unique look, feel and atmosphere of a place.

Whatever your strength, keep doing that work but try also to see the world through different eyes, to keep your senses open to things you hadn’t noticed before. And always make a note of it – you never know when it might be the key to unlocking your next brilliant project!

 

 

Character Development – Psychology for Screenwriters

Over recent months screenwriter and business psychologist Phil Lowe (@grumpyrabbit) has been blogging about how different psychology and personality theories can be used by screenwriters to develop characters. Here is a quick run-down of what’s on offer in this series of articles:

Temperament theory goes right back to the ancient Greeks and divides us into four temperaments; The Guardian, The Artisan, The Idealist and the Rational.

Canadian psychoanalyst Eric Berne looked at people’s dominant drivers, dividing them into five primary types; Be Perfect, Please People, Hurry Up, Be Strong or Try Hard.

The Strengths Deployment Inventory assesses people according to their motivational value system; Altruistic-Nurturing, Assertive-Directing or Analytic-Autonomising.

(c) Personal Strengths Publishing, Inc.

(c) Personal Strengths Publishing, Inc.

The FIRO-B theory assesses a character’s preference when interacting with others; their desire for Inclusion, Control or Affection.

When placed in a conflict situation, is your character competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding or accommodating?

Phil rounds up other character starting points here, including a character’s emotional intelligence using the EQ-I, the Enneagram (offering a different selection of personality types) and your character’s basic energy using the Insights Wheel.

Finally, you can find out  how your characters react to change.

If you have any other character development tools based in psychology or personality theories, we’d love to hear about them in the Comments below.

Why hire a script consultant? by Brad Johnson

Why should I get professional feedback on my script? It’s a question I get asked all the time, and the answer can be frustrating if you’re looking for a black and white response. You see, there is no “right answer” to what the benefits of getting professional feedback are; in my experience, every client approaching the process looking to get something different out of it.

hiring a script consultant - Script Angel

Some writers are looking for validation. Often times, they don’t have other friends who are writers, and they just want someone whose taste they trust to tell them whether their script is any good and how to make it even better. Other writers are looking for more of a partnership – someone they can come back to over and over again as they revise their script, moving from draft to draft with the same person by their side. And then there are other writers who want a motivator – someone that will crack the whip occasionally, and make sure they’re staying on course, and on schedule. Maybe they want their script to be ready for a specific contest; they’re working towards that deadline and need someone to help keep them motivated and focused on their writing.

And these are all equally valid reasons. Everyone can identify with the fact that sometimes we are our own worst enemy. Sometimes we’re too close to a situation and can’t see things clearly. Sometimes we get bogged down in the mire and just need a comforting presence to help us through a rough patch.

Sometimes we all need help finding our voice.

And that’s why I love doing what I do. There’s nothing more satisfying than helping a writer discover how to tell their story in a way that is uniquely their own.

But even if you fall into one of the categories I just described, you still might not be sure if hiring a script consultant is the right move for you, and that is completely understandable. Which is why the opportunity coming up at Story Expo (Sept 11-13 in Los Angeles) is so exciting. Script Angel is offering live sessions where you can meet a consultant face-to-face for a quick clinic. You can sign up for either a Script Clinic, a 20 minute session where we will give honest and constructive feedback on the first 10 pages of your script and a 1 page story synopsis, or a Pitch Clinic where we’ll provide feedback on a pitch document or even listen to your pitch and offer advice on your presentation – what better way to work out the kinks and get over your nerves than to practice with Script Angel before heading into the Story Expo Pitching Room?

Either one is a great opportunity to dip your toe in and see if script consultancy might be for you!

Brad Johnson is a US based screenwriter, producer, and script consultant. You can find him here at Script Angel and on his personal website (http://www.ReadWatchWrite.com) or follow him on Twitter @RWWFilm.