Paul Peditto gives no-nonsense advice on how to write action lines that are lean, mean and effective. A must-read!
Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago and has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.
Think about this… You’ve got action lines and dialogue. Also sluglines, a transition or two… that is all there is to a screenplay. I touched on action lines before. While it might be argued that dialogue is more important, the ability to write clean, visual, memorable action lines is essential. So what’s the best way to do that?
You hear talk of unfilmables—and how you should never, ever write them. Action is what the camera sees. Who is in the shot and what’s happening. Funny thing is, the pros break that rule all the time. The pro writer formula is more like: What the camera sees—with POV.
What the camera sees … Sounds self-evident. Write what the audience sees, period. To pull this off artfully, though, is deceptively difficult. Why?
Well, just how much should you describe? If you’ve been to www.simplyscripts.com or www.script-o-rama.com you’ll note some of movie scripts have massive action detail, while others are spare. How do you know what’s best for you? Make the script a good read.
You want the reader to read it relentlessly. To push the eye down the page, to give white space, to not have more than five lines in any paragraph. You want to pick strong, active verbs; ditch all weak adverbs and adjectives (Walks slowly) Avoid all unnecessary detail. Get into scenes late, get out early. Accomplish what the scene needs to accomplish, and get out.
This is craftsmanship. But you need to take it further, because with action lines, the key is POV.
You can inject your personality, your voice, your POV. You can also get into the mind of the character with action lines. Tell the story straight-forward where you can; give us poetry and POV when you must. I probably don’t need to be in the protagonist’s head when he’s on line at Starbucks. I might need to be, though, when the protagonist is told his mother is dying of cancer.
- White Space, Get In Late & Get Out Early, Other Stuff
Try to give your action lines “white space” where the camera would naturally cut. Move the reader’s eye vertically down the page. Natural cutaways from character to character make good places to put in spacing.
While you’re at it, dump the passive voice. No “are running,” “is playing,” “are laughing.” Runs, plays, laughs. Active verbs. Sounds simple, but if you practice it, your writing will improve.
Also, try not to repeat yourself:
INT. DUKE’S HOUSE- NIGHT
Duke enters the house.
You told me we’re in the house in the scene heading. While you’re at it, maybe you can explain why I need to see Duke enter the house at all?
Get in late, get out early. This one isn’t mine, but you can use it all day long. Know the purpose of the scene, get into the scene as late as possible, execute the purpose, and get out. Think about the speed of shows like Law And Oder SVU, or CSI Whatever…
INT. PRECINCT HALLWAY- DAY
Ice-T stalks the corridor…
Just got off the phone with Holloway.
Dead guys are Frick and Frack. Frack’s
got a tattoo of Colonel Sanders on
Hanging up the phone…
Dead guy ain’t Frack. Cleo at
the 51st just ran a check. Says
Frack died three years ago. Got
beaned with an A-Rod foul ball
at Yankee Stadium.
Already out the door, joined by Benson…
We’re on it.
EXT. CRIME SCENE- LATER
Stabler and Benson, bent over a body.
There’s the tattoo.
Looks more like… Ivanka Trump.
No niceties here, no intros, “Officer Blah?” “Yes.” “I’m Officer Blah Blah, this is Officer Blah Blah Blah.” “Very nice to meet you, heard a lot about you…” None of that. Get right to the action. Know the purpose of the scene, execute the purpose, and get out.
Terry Rossio & Ted Elliot (yep, T & T of Pirates of the Caribbean) had something to say on this. From their Wordplayer site:
“…you want to get to the heart of a scene quickly; you simply can’t afford to draw filler. Go ahead and cut driving, parking, opening and closing doors, walking up and ringing the doorbell, shaking hands, saying hello, getting invited inside, sitting down… you get the idea.”
Dump the lead-ins and outs, endless introductions, the waiter-speak…all the non-essential stuff that happens in the scene. Sounds like small stuff, but if you do it, it will make your script a better reading experience.
Dump the backstory in action lines:
EXT. PARADE ROUTE- DAY
Under a bright sun, Jillian watches as the pageant parade passes, seeming to remember the day she was crowned Miss Southeast Panhandle State 1956. There was a goldenrod sun that day too, and as she drove along waving from the festooned Wheaties Breakfast of Champions float, all manner of soon-to-be Mickey Mantles followed, hoping she would throw them a souvenir Wheaties box. It was a glorious, glorious day!
All the sadder that Jillian now peels an orange, watching the new beauty queen pass, thinking how unfair life is, wondering if there is indeed a God at all.
Good Reader, don’t do this! The camera can’t see Jillian’s beauty queen past. It can’t see her pondering on Life and Eternity.
How would you change these action lines? Ask yourself: Why am I in the scene? What am I doing here? The whole passage could be boiled down to…
INT. PARADE ROUTE- DAY
Jillian watches the pageant beauty queen pass, her nails grinding the orange she holds into pulp.
The essence of the scene is Jillian’s attempt to cope with sadness and mortality as the parade rolls by. Find the action, the physical equivalent, some business the actor can play, rather than hitting us with backstory that the camera can’t see. If you feel like we must get into her mind her, sure, spice in some POV, but do so only where you feel you need it.
Also, avoid unnecessary details:
INT. CASINO- NIGHT
Pauly Vegas walks in, placing left foot in front of right, making his way to a craps table. He checks the table limit, a 25-dollar game, shakes his head and sighs, on the move again.
Pauly reaches into his pocket, finds some lint, a winter-fresh breath mint, the pink dry-cleaning ticket from his Colombian laundry joint that never has his clothes ready on time, and a single dollar chip. Motioning with his left hand to the waitress for a gin and tonic refill, he smirks as he sees a blue-haired Bayonne lady squeal and scoop up her video poker winnings. Pauly bobs his head, all smiles as he finally spies, yes! A table!
Virtually all of this is unnecessary detail. What are we trying to do here? If Pauly is there to lay down a desperate “all-or-nothing” bet, why tell me he’s got lint in his pockets? Your Nicholl Fellowship reader has read four scripts before yours and has burned out eyes. Believe me, when they read, “walking placing left foot in front of right,” or “he sighs and motions with his left hand for a gin and tonic,” the reader reaction will be: WHAT. THE. FUCK.
Don’t do the production designer’s job either. If you want to tell me about the cat passing the faux 19th Century Ming vase, that vase better be needed to develop character or story. The damn cat too. If in doubt, take it out. If you cut Pauly shaking his head and smiling, or laying down the bet with his left hand at a 75 degree angle, does the scene fall apart? No? Then it’s out.
If you need to cheat with an unfilmable or two, go ahead and do it. Maybe like this…
INT. ROGER’S ROOM- DAY
Roger drags himself out of bed. He looks for his shirt, finds it and throws it on, finds some socks too, but…where are his pants?
Honey, have you seen–
As Roger looks under the bed, something catches his eye. He pulls out– fluorescent green– a man’s cuff link. What the…? Roger has never owned a cuff link, let alone freakin’ fluorescent green.
The part about never owning a cuff link can’t be seen by a camera. What can be seen is Roger’s face, his confusion. This comes from finding another man’s cuff link. Roger just discovered his wife is cheating on him.
This is visualized through an actor’s body language You don’t have to go nuts with POV stuff: Roger is upset because seven years ago his wife had an affair that he still has nightmares about it. He goes to a shrink to this day over it. The shrink’s name is Stanley Gladhands and he lives on…
Finesse action lines, cheat it, but save the cheating for a key moment or scene. Don’t overuse the device, don’t get cute.
More on action lines to follow…