Specs & The City: Action Blocks and Alien (and a few more)

As you may know, action blocks are those pesky bits of description that come between the dialogue in your script. They paint the picture of the world you’re exploring and it’s vital that you get them right. Over the years, there’s been a lot of debate about the appropriate length for an action block with the general consensus coming down to three or four lines maximum.

Anything more than that and your script can start to read like a novel or, worse yet, you can bog down your scripts momentum – both of which are a sure-fire way to get that reader you’re hoping to hook to toss your pages to the side.

But an action block is more than that to me. It’s where a screenwriter gets to truly be an artist within the pages of a script. Don’t get me wrong, dialogue is important, but if you’re doing it well you’re writing in the voice of your characters, not your own – unless you’re Tarantino or Sorkin. You guys feel free to keep doing your thing. It seems to be working for you.

For the rest of us, action blocks are where we get to show off our writing chops.

And to me, the best writers are the ones who are chameleons with their action blocks. They maintain their own voice, but still change their style to fit the story that they’re telling. What do I mean? Glad you asked.

Let’s take a look at…

Action Blocks and Alien (and a few more)

Walter Hill and David Giler’s script for ALIEN is the stuff of legend, and one of the reasons is the way they use their action blocks to enhance their story. A sparse futuristic tale set in emptiness of space, ALIEN works at instilling its characters, and its audience, with an extreme sense of dread and claustrophobia .

It’s an empty world. There’s no help. No escape from this horrible situation. In fact, I’d almost label it as a “man in a box” film – or “woman in a box” in this case. Here’s how Hill and Giler minimize their action blocks to increase that sense of tension and confinement for their readers.

FADE IN

SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE:

INT.  ENGINE ROOM
Empty, cavernous.

INT.  ENGINE CUBICLE
Circular, jammed with instruments.
All of them idle.
Console chairs for two.
Empty.

INT. OILY CORRIDOR – “C” LEVEL
Long, dark.
Empty.
Turbos throbbing.
No other movement.

And then when we meet our first character – Kane.

INT. HYPERSLEEP VAULT
Explosion of escaping gas.
The lid on a freezer pops open.
Slowly, groggily, Kane sits up.
Pale.
Kane rubs the sleep from his eyes.
Stands.
Looks around.
Stretches.
Looks at the other freezer compartments.
Scratches.
Moves off.

You can feel it. The tightness. The sense of being alone. It’s all there. The words not used are just as important as the ones that are. Its style is perfect for this specific story but it wouldn’t work nearly as well for, say, an action comedy like TRUE LIES by James Cameron.

EXT. CANAL AND BOAT HOUSE – NIGHT
A dock extends into the frozen canal, just behind a large
boathouse. There is a faint chirping sound. The ice breaks
quietly, and the pieces are slid back. A head appears, in a
rubber drysuit hood. The DIVER slips the regulator out of his
mouth and turns slowly, scanning… revealing:
HARRY TASKER. Our hero. Harry floats with just his eyes above
the surface, silent as a water snake, as a guard passes on a
footpath nearby.

After a few beats Harry slips out of his tanks and fins,
Letting them sink, and climbs the frozen ladder onto the dock.
He moves like a ninja into the shadows of the boathouse.
Opening a WATERPROOF BAG, he pulls out a walky talky.

HARRY

Honey, I’m home.

Here, the story being told is about a smooth operator – a top of the agency CIA secret operative. Cameron’s  action blocks reflect that. There’s more description and it flows almost without interruption.

Here’s one more. This time from Nick and Ted Griffin’s script for MATCHSTICK MEN.

He raises the blinds, wincing at the floor of sunlight.
He checks the window’s locks, re-locks it for good
measure, then  closes the shade again.

AT NEXT WINDOW

The ritual repeated: blinds up, window’s locked, he re-locks it.

AT THIRD

Repeated.

INT. ROY’S HALLWAY – MORNING
Three doors line the left wall; one divides the right;
All are shut. Roy emerges from the nearest door on the
left (a bedroom) and shuts it behind him. He crosses to
the single door on the right (a bathroom), opens it,
enters, and shuts it behind him. WATER RUNS and a TOILET
FLUSHES.

He reappears, shuts the door behind him, and enters the
middle door on the left (another bedroom, unoccupied).
He re-emerges with a handkerchief in hand, then in
pocket, and a beeper on his belt, and again shuts the
door behind him.

Roy is a conman with OCD, and his action blocks reflect that. The sentences are descriptive, but they’re choppy. Deliberate. Compulsive – like in their description of what’s behind the doors that Roy never goes into during the scene. We’re reading Roy’s story, so it works. The same action blocks written in a different style wouldn’t be nearly as effective. They wouldn’t pull us as deeply into Roy and his world.

Try and keep this is mind when you’re writing. Action blocks are another tool for you to utilize – another way to make your script deeper and more enveloping to your reader.

Remember, it’s not enough to have a strong voice, you have to have the RIGHT voice for each story you decide to tell.

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