Magic Bullet: Action Lines Part 2

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Readers send me questions all the time, and every now and again I like to share them with the rest of the blog as there is some valuable information contained therein (I’m biased, of course). These questions came in from Molly L. who is currently studying screenwriting in Canada. As always, my recommendations are based on what I read from professional writers everyday, as well as from writers who sell their first script or get major representation:

Hi Michael.

I’ve just discovered your articles (“Magic Bullet,” “How to Write ….”) and was wondering if you have anything online that addresses these two burning questions?

I’ve taken a number of university-level screenwriting courses, and what one teaches, the next refutes. The lessons are so contradictory sometimes that I’m desperate for some clarity.

Introductions: Major Character

1)      Write a sentence, preferably two, and be sure to include at least one piece of significant detail. Do it all at once so that the reader knows the character is a major one. There’s no reason to hide (that s/he has a limp) even if the character is  currently in a coma. Helps the reader/actor know immediately what’s required of the character.

2)      Keep it brief, and space it out. Dole out information as it comes up. If the person is in a coma, don’t mention a limp, since it won’t be seen in this scene. Mention the limp when the actor needs to, you know, limp.

1)      Give the name FIRST, then the description. BIG FRED hurls his empty mug across the bar. Big Fred is a (big man, extra description).

2)      BIG FRED, a (big man, extra description), hurls his empty mug across the bar.

3)      Shake it up. Paint the picture, then write “This is (NAME HERE).” A (big man, description) hurls his empty mug across the bar. This is BIG FRED.

When is narrative useful for spicing up the action and when it is just so much blather?

1)      In one assignment, I was asked to write some dialogue. So I did. The context was four people sitting in a diner having burgers. I served them burgers, and mentioned the people digging in. Then did the dialogue. I expected the actors would know when to take a bite. I lost 10% because I didn’t intersperse “Joe took a bite and sat munching for a while” between lines of dialogue. Apparently such narrative “moves the action along” (per instructor).

2)      In the next course, I was faced with another restaurant scene.  I triumphantly added the action lines. And lost 10% for bogging down the scene with unnecessary detail.

Sentence fragments in narrative.

And one more thing – we students are told over and over to use full sentences. Sentence fragments are frowned upon as they indicate an amateurish lack of basic grammar. I noticed you say keep it short, and the examples you offer are full of incomplete sentences. Personally, I prefer the shorter ones, otherwise it tends to read like an academic treatise sometimes. Is that a fair assessment?

Any chance of a reply email or online article? I’m sure there are others out there who would benefit from your response, too.

Most grateful for your time and wisdom. I’ve already gained much from your advice.

Molly

professor

Apparently, this is what Google spits back out when you image search “professor”

Introductions: Major Characters

It’s kind of a mixture of both — the best writers convey significant detail(s) in one sentence, and let us know what we need to do to “get” their character enough to understand where they are coming from with what they say and do. Obviously, you’ll reveal more sides to the character as the plot unfolds, but if you can give us something up front, we can start to get a CLEAR picture (rather than a vague picture) of them from the first description and first few dialogue lines. As well, if we don’t SEE something on screen (like a limp, because they are bed bound), you shouldn’t mention it in the initial description. If it’s important to the story that he has a limp, then SHOW it to us as soon as you can, but don’t tell us about it. Also, we’ll get that a character is a major one if you give them an actual name. You shouldn’t make it a common practice (there are exceptions) to name any characters in the first few pages who have only a line or two — again, to delineate who is major and who is not.

You can definitely do #3 every now and again when describing a character, as that does shake things up in an interesting way, but I wouldn’t do it for every character. I recommend “NAME HERE, (age), description of character and their current action” for most of your descriptions. It’s bland, and boring, but it’s what’s expected.

When is narrative useful for spicing up action?

I would like to first say that what is marked up or down in the university really has no bearing on what’s in the real world, as unfortunately it’s based on the whims of the professor. Now, on to your answer:

Basically, you want to interject simple short (one sentence) action lines at least once every three lines so that we know what the characters are DOING while they talk. But here’s the key: it’s not just WHAT they are doing that matters (say, like “takes a bite of burger”), it’s what they are doing that has bearing on how they are reacting to what’s being said, preparing for what they are about to say, or conveying an emotion or thought below the surface of what’s being said or about to be said. If you’re just putting an action line in to break up the monotony of dialogue, that’s fine — actors/directors need to know whats going on ON SCREEN. But if you do it in a way that conveys subtext, or emotion, or anything else I mentioned, THAT is great writing. THAT is what you want to aspire to. Let me give you an example:

Michael and Molly sit across from each other in the diner, happily eating burgers.

MICHAEL

How was your day?

MOLLY

Great. Got a lot of work done. Yours?

MICHAEL

I saw Heather today.

Molly stops mid chew. Takes a deep breath.

MOLLY

Yeah?

MICHAEL

It wasn’t that big a deal, Mols.

Molly puts her burger down.

MOLLY

You’re joking, right?

 

As you can see, it’s a small scene with a small moment, but the action lines served to both tell the audience what is physically going on on-screen, AND what’s going on beneath the surface of the conversation. Also, as you can tell from my action description, I’m answering you next question already:

action lines

Really Google? This one was an image search of “action lines”

Sentence fragments in narrative.

Absolutely. Here’s the deal: university is university. It’s not the real world, and they are concerned with grades and grammar. In the real world, the industry cares about one thing — that your script MOVES. Even if it’s a drama, you don’t want to weight down pages with heavy action paragraphs or two characters monologuing at each other, rather than having a back and forth dialogue.

Sentence fragments keep things moving FAST. You convey what you need to, and get out. Every sentence, every scene, every script your motto should be “enter late, leave early.” Movies are about the exciting parts of a person’s life story. We don’t watch Batman go to the bathroom between bouts of fighting crime — you cut all that crap out. (Sorry, had to do it.)

Have your movie, have your scenes, have your sentences be the exciting parts.

I hope all of that was helpful. Please let me know if you have any more questions, or if I can be of further assistance. I’m always happy to help.

As always, happy writing!

ws_actionthriller-500_mediumAward-winning screenwriter Jon James Miller gives tips in is webinar on
How to Write an Action Thriller They Can’t Put Down

8 thoughts on “Magic Bullet: Action Lines Part 2

  1. Dan

    This makes me glad I haven’t done a formal degree in screenwriting.
    Are they all this out of touch with the industry?

    I feel like I’ve learned most of what you advise here from reading books, going to events/conferences/workshops, and paying for coverage.

    It’s encouraging to know this can be learned well without a degree.

  2. Bill Gallagher

    Like Don I started writing late in in life and quickly put together a story relevant to the fifties, my teen years. When putting together some back story I discovered the back story, set in WWII, became better than the main and suddenly I hade a saga in hand with even future direction. Three separate stories all linked to one family. It all became too much, no one these days is interested in another “Gone with the Wind” type movie. So I packed it all away in a box and there it sits. The problem with people my age is we have lived through so many great times in history and have to much material to work with. So I pray for you Don.

  3. doug shear

    This does not speak well of a formal education in screenwriting, if the professors are more concerned with their own subjective prejudices and traditional grammar than the reality of getting a screenplay sold. The damn thing is not supposed to be read!

  4. Donald Sepka

    Great article.
    I’m an old man (74), but I don’t feel that way. I’m just sorry this ambition of mine (the desire was there) didn’t materialize.

    I completed my first screenplay, and I’m working on the second one.
    The one I’m currently writing probably won’t sell. It’s too damn long.
    It’s even got an intermission, like the Ten Commandments. But for some stupid reason, I feel compelled to write it.

    Say a prayer for me.

    Thanks, Don

  5. Kathy Rowe

    Excellent! Just what I wanted to hear! With that, I think I’m in the right place with my script, perhaps just a tad more narrative in the very beginning, but it’s loaded with action, so I kind of had to. Now I just need to finish it.

  6. Mike

    Thank you for the great answers and examples. I’m a new writer and have already written one short script for a webisode and am about to start another for the same project. The desire to create gets a person started and sitting in front of the computer to write the script. Knowing what to do after that is the hard part! (Yes, I actually said that.)

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