Just Effing Ask Julie Gray: Action Lines – Less is More

Script consultant Julie Gray is a veteran story analyst of some of the biggest production companies in Hollywood. The author of Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas, Julie has taught story at Warner Bros. Studios, The Great American PitchFest and Oxford University. Contact Julie here.

If you have a question you would like to Just Effing Ask Julie Gray, please submit your question HERE. Bribes of cookies, flattery or pictures of cute kitties will definitely move you up in the queue. 🙂

Hi Julie:

I am discombobulated, frustrated, and confused —

— Welcome to my world. Oh wait – you haven’t asked your question yet. Sorry. 

I have been told that there is a strict format for submitted screenplays.  Yet, there are so many different article, websites, books, etc… that seem to approach the process in different ways.

— Lord a’ mercy, don’t I know it.

For example, I have read that you have to keep you action descriptors short in one place, long in another.

— That’s nuts.

One claims you shouldn’t make your dialogue longer than five lines, another says don’t hold back.

Is there one, firm format that must be used or can you expand and expound and still get read?

Thank you for taking the time to answer my desperate inquiry.

Dear Discombobulated,

First of all, yes, there is a lot of information out there that would seem contradictory. Let me say something that is such common sense, that it is almost a let down:

THERE IS NO NEED TO GET YOUR KNICKERS IN A BUNCH ABOUT FORMAT.

Excerpt from ‘Pulp Fiction’

There. I said it. If you use Final Draft or another screenwriting software, your basic format is already covered. What are you talking about seems to be more about style and rules about in particular, action lines.

THERE IS NO NEED TO GET YOUR KNICKERS IN A BUNCH ABOUT THAT EITHER.

Look at it this way. Readers read your script and along with yours, maybe 2 or even 3 others on the same day. Readers are reading and evaluating scripts very quickly and in rapid succession.

The idea is for you to do three things with your action lines:

1) Get across what is happening by showing not telling. (Images, subtext, etc.)

2) And in the doing of that, show off your grasp of screenwriting and your ability to write pithy, cinematic, evocative words that can accomplish so much with so little and in doing so –

3) Make your script a quick, entertaining, easy, entertaining read.

Put yourself in the shoes of a reader. Dense action lines slow down a read dramatically and in general, writers who wind up with copious action lines (too much black, as they say) are, nine times out of ten, simply less talented, or experienced (as the case may be) than writers than those who do not. Ouch.

So here’s the thing – if you have more than four or five lines of action, you are over-writing. Why? Because a really gifted screenwriter just doesn’t need 150 words to set up a scene.

Dense action lines won’t disqualify your script automatically, it won’t get you tazed, but it makes you less competitive than a writer who can do less with more. That’s pretty much the long and short of it. Ha.

Now, if you read produced scripts, you will see all manner of action lines. A common refrain from new writers is well, Quentin Tarantino writes very dense action lines! Hey, guess what? You aren’t Quentin Tarantino. Yet.

In order to be competitive with other writers, you need to pull off maximum entertainment without lapsing into “tell don’t show” prose. The four or five lines of action is a pretty good rule of thumb. You won’t get taken out behind the woodshed if you have – GASP – six or eight lines of action- or even ten. But just remember this – there are many writers out there who could say what you just said in half that. So challenge yourself to the “less is more” rule.

REMINDER: The doors open for one of Moviebytes most anticipated screenwriting competitions, the Just Effing Entertain Me Screenwriting Competition, February 15th to June 15th, 2013.

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