The Magic Bullet: Action Lines

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I hate rules. I’ve hated them since birth. And screenwriting rules? Screw’em. My film school teachers couldn’t pay me to follow any of their “stupid” and endless parade of do’s and don’ts.

But, after years of being in the industry and reading thousands (and thousands) of scripts, I’ve discovered which specific rules a script needs to follow in order to make it great – and separate it from the throwaway pile.

Thelma and Louise, Yo

Thelma and Louise perform their signature move “The Evel Knievel”

The saying goes that rules were meant to be broken. Well, if you want your work to be relegated to the trash bin, then jump in that Thunderbird with Thelma and Louise and follow them off the cliff.

Now, I’m going to make a psychic prediction. I sense that while reading this article you’ll be thinking to yourself,  “I’ve read movie scripts by Shane Black and Charlie Kaufman and they don’t follow these rules. You must be wrong, Michael Ferris!”. Well, as the other saying goes, when you’re Shane Black you can write however you damn well please.

Before we go on, let’s break that one down for a second. Why is there a discrepancy between the style and technical aspects of the produced scripts you read online and what I am about to tell you?

Basically, until you are a KNOWN quantity in Hollywood, with a reputation for being a great writer, you are assumed to be Just Another Crappy One.  So until the day comes when you’re recognized for your genius, you have to write better than the professionals. And that means you have to follow a few rules in order to help make your script a fast, crisp, easy read.

If your script is lucky enough to land in an agent’s (or producer’s) take home pile, and you’re just another random writer, you’ve got about 5 pages to prove you can actually write.  And for an unknown, that means they want a quick read. If you can deliver that – even if other aspects are less than stellar – you will have a huge leg up on the competition.

Ready to get started? Here’s how you’re going to do it:

Rule #1: Every paragraph of action lines should be 3 lines or less.

Below you will find an excellent example and one you should study: the first two pages of the script for Saving Private Ryan.

SPR – first 2 pages

Entire scripts, as a rule, are like poems. If I were to write the previous sentence as a line of action in a script, it would read simply “Scripts are like poems.”

As such, you use the least amount of words possible, and don’t spend any time describing action or setting than we need to understand story, character, or to move the plot forward. As well, remember to keep everything in present tense.

The best of the best keep it at two lines per paragraph throughout most of the script, while still describing a heck of a lot.

Rule #2: Write Visually!

On the opening page of Saving Private Ryan you will see exactly what I’m talking about. Short sentences. Terse description. Easy to visualize. Evocative verbs.

This is how spec writers need to execute if they are to be taken seriously.

If you can use an arresting verb in place of a ho-hum or standard one, DO IT. For a simple example, it’s much more interesting to read, “The script slides across the table” than “the script gets passed across the table”.

Every single one of those four aspects is important (short sentences, terse description, easy to visualize and evocative verbs), so take each one into account and study how it’s done in these two pages. And though this is an action script, yes, this applies to all genres.

Now, look at the word choices:  SWARM of landing craft. ROAR of naval guns. SNOWSTORM of bullets. We can see the carnage in our heads, and all in very little time and page space.

As well, don’t be afraid of white space on the page. White space is, like, your total BFF, and the key to an easy read. As long as you can balance action lines that only tells us what we need to know with the dialogue, keep that speeding script on full throttle.

Rule #3:  Only write what we can SEE or HEAR on screen – and nothing more.

This is where Shane Black’s word flourishes differ most from what I’m suggesting you do. Remember, you’re not writing a novel – this is a screenplay. If you write wonderful prose, the audience won’t ever know it and the industry reader could give a sh*t. You’re wasting his or her time on things that either won’t end up on screen anyway, or illustrate to them that you obviously don’t know how to properly write in screenplay format.

It’s amusing and it works when it’s Shane Black because we already know he’s a hotshot. No one knows you from Joe Blow (yet).

Screenwriting 101 is about finding ways to convey character’s feelings, emotions, and layers through their actions – what they literally do on screen. This is an example I encountered recently:

She’s hurting inside, and we can see it. She’s a fighter though, so finding her inner composure, she puts the journal down on the table.

That’s lazy, amateurish screenwriting for several reasons:

1: Have the character DO something. Movies are about the external, novels are about the internal. Remember the format, always.

2: This is a character’s turning point, and it’s not only lacking visual dynamics, but even worse, it’s boring.

An example of how this could have read:

She angrily wipes away a tear before slamming the journal down on the table.

This is more visually interesting and tells us much more about her internal feelings – all without dialogue. As I showed in a previous post mentioning THE VERDICT, you can convey so much more about the story, characters, and theme with action lines and what we see a character DO than you can with dialogue. Which is just one more reason why writing great action lines can be your magic bullet.

If you can fill the script with those amazing silent moments (check out the VERDICT video in the link above) that bring to life a character and who they are, or those small, brilliant moments that define a great movie – you are two steps ahead of everyone else. One great example of a small, brilliant moment is in the Godfather, when Michael calmly and coldly closes the door in his wife’s face as she lets out a sob. Or, of course, the very last minute of  The Graduate.

Rule #4: Never Use Camera Directions In Your Script

I can already see the hate mail piling up now. I know this one is a particularly controversial rule and there are adamant defenders of having *some* camera directions in a script, but I can tell you from industry experience: people hate that sh*t.

All the way around, really. Directors hate it because they think you’re trying to tell them how to do their job. Actors hate it because “it gets in the way” or they don’t understand it. Execs hate it because they think you’re full of yourself, and Reps and Producers think it’s the sign of an amateur. If any of these types of people see camera directions in the first few pages, it could be the very excuse they need to throw the script away without reading anymore (those tales of tall read piles? Not fictional. We really do look for any reason to stop reading a script).

At the end of the day, that’s really what these rules are all about – protecting yourself and your script. Getting an agent or selling your first script are already uphill battles – don’t make it any harder on yourself than it has to be. Give yourself the best opportunity to get your script read from cover to cover, and write action lines better than a pro so that they can’t use your technical writing skills as an excuse to throw your script away.

Write an easy read, with crisp action that evoke great images while using the least amount of words possible.

In the end, it turned out my screenwriting teachers were right. So don’t take years to learn the hard way like I did – integrate this stuff into your scripts right now. Your work will improve drastically, and you’ll be one step closer to your dream by having a studio ready script.

Good luck and happy writing!

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20 thoughts on “The Magic Bullet: Action Lines

  1. Scott Koban

    Dear Michael,

    Could you please read the first ten pages of my script?

    A story exec (Who was with Paramount for thirty years) says this script is impossible to sell, mostly because there’s not enough dialogue.
    After reading your article, I wanted your opinion. I can email a PDF?

    Thanks,

    Scott Koban

  2. Me so angrily

    “She angrily wipes away a tear before slamming the journal down on the table.”

    Adverbs, yuk. Wouldn’t wiping the tear and slamming the journal be angry enough 😛

  3. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris Post author

    @Development Belle

    Very true – your screenplay will vary based on what genre and tone you are going for. Paragraphs will be much sparser and use more high velocity verbs if you’re writing an action script versus a drama. But in both cases, you don’t want to weight down the page with unnecessary description or long paragraphs. If you can evoke drama and emotion while keeping your action lines at 3 lines or less, than you definitely have a leg up on the competition. A quick read is for the benefit of the industry readers. Which leads me to…

    @Sprocket

    The “gatekeepers”, as you ask, are first and foremost going to be ‘readers’. The interns, assistants, or outsourced professional script readers who go through piles and piles of scripts looking for and rating material. If you can show them that you can write really well on a technical level – ESPECIALLY in the first 10 pages – you will get more leniency than someone with an amazing plot but poor technical skills. Obviously, once it gets passed up the ladder to their bosses, who have even LESS time to read screenplays, it will be just as important to write quick, easy reads (on a technical level). What will most irk “the gatekeepers” is plodding – plodding action lines, plodding dialogue, a plodding plot. And I’ve seen on many occasions the aspect of having too much camera direction cause someone to throw the script out after reading just a page or two. For more information on what your script SHOULD and SHOULDN’T have, I would suggest reading the “Magic Bullet: Dialogue” article as well.

  4. sprocket

    Sage advice.

    Question. Who is the first gatekeeper – the first audience at the ‘studio’ of new screenplays?

    Is that person out most important audience?

    What is that will most ring that person’s bell?

    What is it that will most put that person off?

    Thanks

  5. Vince

    Never direct the actor. Detailed written directions of what the talent is supposed to do with their feet, hands or face (A.) will never further the story, and (B.) won’t be followed anyway. As to Camera directions, they are not only tempting to write but in some instances a writer may visualize the scene so completely that what he wants on the screen simply cannot be conveyed WITHOUT camera directions. Doesn’t matter. Resist the temptation. Your job is not to figure out shot coverage; but rather move the reader. If you got ’em turning pages breathlessly, you’ll get paid for having moved someone to purchase your story. “Making” the movie is another animal.

  6. Development Belle

    It’s important to acknowledge that there are different kinds of screenplays, just as there are many different genres. If you read the script for WITHNAIL & I it is a very different animal from, say, the screenplay for SPEED. It’s important for the writer to understand the genre they are working in.

  7. MG

    Smith,

    1. Makes perfect sense.

    2. That’s pretty much how I treat things now. I was just wondering if, based on Michael’s experience, some readers might simply discard a script when seeing longer blocks of aciion without really giving it a fair chance.

    Thanks!

  8. Smith

    And if I could offer my thoughts to MG:

    1. They say that describing specific actions is only viable if those specific actions are dramatically significant. Eg: “She throws the glass of wine in his face” might be dramatically significant because it is a means of getting onto a new beat in the story. Whereas “He scratches the back of his head” or “he shrugs his shoulders” or “he looks around nervously” might NOT be dramatically significant because the actor could be doing any of those actions to communicate that the character is confused and uncertain, and it wouldn’t change the meaning of the scene. Does that make sense?

    2. They say that you should write pacing into your script based on the amount of screen time that you expect the scene to fill. So if there is a full minute of tension in which a character is simply staring at something out a window, write a full page describing the tension (not internally of course, but externally).

    If in doubt, read over the scene and notice how it feels to read. In my opinion, a read-through of the screenplay should make the reader feel what an audience is intended to feel when they’re watching the movie. Therefore, if a scene is supposed to be slow and heavy on screen, it should then also READ slow and heavy.

    This is just my approach based on what I’ve been taught. I’m interested though if anybody agrees with me?

  9. Smith

    You know, I’m personally in favor of the “no camera direction” principle. I did find it funny though that in the example you used from Saving Private Ryan it says within the last quarter of the first page “THE CAMERA MOVES PAST THE FACES OF THE MEN”

  10. MG

    Michael,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. It’s really not so much that I have a problem with ‘rules’ as that I wish the standards were a bit more consistent, but I guess that’s a futile statement. At any rate, if some frustration crept into my earlier post it was definitely not directed at you or at the article, which I truly enjoyed 🙂

    I couldn’t find your email address, so hope you (and other users) wouldn’t mind my throwing a couple of questions right here:

    1. How descriptive should you get with characters’ behavior? Supposed you want to describe someone anxiously waiting for some crucial information, would you simply say something like ‘nervously paces the room’ or would you go through the details of how he might stop by the window, tap his fingers on the sill, bite down his lip, etc?

    I used to do just that, but then came across a few online source that said behavioral cues for actors are considered just as bad as camera cues for directors. So where would you draw the line between describing and micro-managing?

    2. How would you treat a scene intended to have a slower, heavier pace? Would you write longer sentences to convey that feeling, or would you still keep it short and minimal, trusting the director to deduce the right feeling from the context?

    Thanks again!

  11. Shane

    Thanks for the article. The stylistic flourishes you often see in professional screenplays can be a bit intimidating, since you sometimes feel if a screenplay doesn’t have these, it won’t come across as having swagger or a professional “feel”. But I’m a big believer in writing only what you can see and hear, because it involves true craft; showing someone’s inner state through visuals, or a line.

    The article on The Verdict was also very good. What a great film.

  12. M. Berg

    I agree 100%. Though what is your take on the “We see”, “We hear”? John August uses it often, but people like Mystery Man, claim it’s lazy writing.

    I think white space is key to a fast read. Who in their right mind uses camera directions anymore? You can DIRECT the reader and IMPLY shots by simply how you write and when to use a new action line.

    Nice article.

  13. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris

    MG,
    I totally understand where you are coming from, it’s why I opened the column the way I did. Frankly, I think what it boils down to is that you want to have the least amount of “offenses” as possible in order to give yourself a better shot – and I outlined some of the most common ones in the opinion of myself and many of my colleagues.
    At the end of the day, what matters, in order of importance is:
    1.That you write however it takes to get it on the page and finished.
    2.That you make it an easy, crisp read. However you achieve that goal is great – whatever works for you, works. My column was just my top suggestions, but as you say, they may not work for everyone.

    Everything else is just filler.

    I really appreciate your comments, and feel free to email me if you have any questions.

  14. MG

    Thanks for an interesting read.

    However, I find it unfortunate that for every advice or ‘rule’ I’ve read in one place, I’ve also read another that contradicted it elsewhere.

    Some, like the author of this piece, say that you should only ‘write what can be seen on screen’ and hence suggest that you spell-out a character’s every action. Others maintain that you should only give a sense of the emotion and leave the rest up to the actor. Some claim that you should never write ‘we see’ ‘we hear’ etc because it will pull the reader out; others hold that it would draw the reader in. The same goes for camera directions, transitions, etc. While one source will warn that you’re going to vex the director if you do this, another of equal authority would swears that you’re sure to irk the actor/producer/etc by doing that…

    It seems that, in any case, screenwriters are hard-pressed to do anything that won’t set-off somebody somewhere up the ladder, and that ultimately it all comes down to the subjective whims and agenda of the person at the end of that pipeline that is our rainbow.

    So I guess the best we can do is try to distill some kind of truth from the often-contradictory advices we get along the way, write our script as best we can according to that truth, send it out, and hope that whoever sits behind the desk it lands on has had a goodnight’s sleep and a nice cup of coffee before coming to work.

    Happy writing everyone!

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