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.
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.
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!