Screenwriting : Action Lines by Tray Powell

Tray Powell

Action Lines

Good morning

Does anyone have any advice/video on writing action lines?

Dan Guardino

Describe only the relevant information and only what you can see on screen. Briefly describe the action as it is happening in the present tense. Try to keep descriptions under 3 lines and 4 at the maximum. Don’t try to describe every single detail in the scene. Paint your scene with broad strokes and let the Reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Avoid describing a character’s every movement. Extraneous character movement is distracting. Do not write thoughts or anything intangible such as emotions. You should only write the physical manifestation of their emotions. Keep a single event, shot or sequence within one description. Have the sentences that compose your description all related to one another then if the action changes you should start a new paragraph.

Erick Freitas

Study poetry. One sentence with a few words. Lots of white space. Economical writing.

Barry John Terblanche

Hi Tray. Here is a link where you can read up tons about writing action.

Barry John Terblanche

Actually... ANYTHING you wanna know about screenwriting? Go to

Tray Powell

Thank you all....Great advice Dan. Definitely going to check out those websites Barry....and Erik, I would have never thought about poetry. THANX AGAIN!

Felix Agyeman Boahen

Read scripts and watch the movie...

Pat Savage

Look around in both our screenwriting lounge and the private lounges too. There is so much to be learned right here on the stage! Welcome Tray and happy networking!

Doug Nelson

Tray - Dan G has pretty much said what I would have said. Concentrate on writing present tense visual and make it tight. If I can't see it, I can't film it.

Pablo Diablo

One of my favorite pieces of advice comes from Moira Becket-Walley of "Breaking Bad" when setting up action. What will the audience see first? I find once establishing this initial setup, I am able to pull focus and know what is important in setting up. Any action that follows is keeping active action between characters.

John August has a Youtube channel that shows how to better tone your action post-first-draft. Plus I think they go over action lines in this past week's episode of ScriptNotes.

Good luck!

Tray Powell

Hi Felix..I have been doing that for a while now and it's great, but I'm writing my 1st spec and description is a struggle for me.

Pablo Diablo

Tray, spec for a TV Show?

Felix Agyeman Boahen

The description gives the audience a visual of your imagination...

Just write it like how you picture the scenes on your mind... And the characters too, describe them like how you imagine them in your mind.

But, let your sentences be professional...

Ismael Judá Moraes Reis Dias

Make them part of the story. Something not only to be "cool", but to show character, action and personality in first place. And make it part of the story as a whole.

Dan Guardino


Like Doug said write it tight. Here are a few tips to help you do that.

Unlike most forms of writing screenwriting has a certain cadence which comes from writing economically. Since it is usually the one thing that gives newer screenwriters the most trouble and takes a lot of practice to get over people will assume the writer is inexperienced if their script is overwritten. Also, the script is going to make the reader work twice as hard and if the reader has a pile of scripts to read through the trash can is going to look awfully appealing to them.

Anyway, here are the tips for write more economically.

Avoid large blocks of dialogue. Keep action lines to three lines of under and four at the very most.

Write only what we can see and avoid character’s thoughts. You should only write the physical manifestation of their emotions.

Keep a single event, shot or sequence within one description. Have the sentences that compose your description all related to one another then if the action changes you should start a new paragraph.

Don’t describe every detail in the scene. Avoid describing character’s every movement. Paint your scenes with broad strokes and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest.

Avoid words that can usually be eliminated such as “are”, “and”, “there”, “it is”, “it's”, “to go”, “to say”, “is”, “to be” and words ending in “ly” and “ing” and replace “and” with a coma or start a new sentence when possible.

You can usually eliminate first words of dialogue such as "Well", "No", "Yes", "Of course", "I mean", etc. Eliminate words like "hello", "goodbye", "please", "thank you", and "you're welcome" unless used for irony or emphasis.

Avoid having your character ask questions but when they do don’t have the other character answer if the audience will assume what the answer would be.

Replace the "to be" verbs with an active verb or eliminate them entirely. For example, "She is in uniform" becomes "In uniform.” "It is dark outside" becomes “Dark, " etc.

Hope this helps.

Nick Assunto - Stage32 Script Services Coordinator

Hey Tray, keep it short and simple. Clarity should be your goal. Don't try to be fancy, just try to paint a picture on the page. It should always be active and to the point.

Tray Powell

Pablo name by the way...feature film.

Craig D Griffiths

Short, sharp and descriptive. You can direct on the page (I am a heretic) and give hints towards performance (mostly attitude).

Don’t be overly clever. Foyer tells a story about this sentence “blade walks in like a living nightmare”.

That got through the entire development process. Finally the director asked Goyer “what does that look like?”.

Zach Tirone

Don't go over four lines max :)

Doug Nelson

There are no hard & fast RULES - nobody's gonna cut your thumbs off if you break a RULE. It may be necessary to be a little more descriptive in your opening setup but strive to keep it as tight as you can. Be very careful to select the best action verb in your text; avoid adverbs.

Dan Guardino

Another thing I do is show what the character is doing before they speak instead of after. That way the reader will subconsciously know who will be talking next which makes the script flow better.

Doug Nelson

Yeah - that works well to 'set' up and help define your character (something I don't often see in spec scripts).

Brian Largo

My advice is "Don't overwrite". It's better to write:

John stands before the wall of pictures, statuesque as he

studies them... unmoving...

And then, he snaps; his hands gnarled into first, roaring

with rage as he punches the pictures, ripping them from the

wall, tossing them aside, eventually collapsing into a heap,

out of breath, his knuckles bleeding.

than writing every punch and every movement.

read action scripts.

Vic Burns

Statuesque, clenched fists - John studies a wall of pictures.

Snap! - He punches the wall...with bleeding knuckles he pulls posters from the wall and collapses on top of them.

Isaac Molina

I think "less is more" and important to keep things simple. Compelling character with a flaw (or two), working to overcome obstacles within himself/herself and outwardly also. Interesting antagonists that are believable and relatable to an audience.

Vic Burns

Write it however you see it in your head. Then, when it's done, condense it - several times.

When orange juice is shipped around the world they remove most of the water to make it more saleable and less costly to make/ship - the buyer knows she's getting good orange juice and buys it.

She'll then re add the water on delivery and sell it to the market.

I think of my scripts like this sometimes. Just good enough to get the eyes falling down the page.

When you get a hook and a deal you can embellish later- as can the producer/director.

Less water - more juice.

Tray Powell

Thanks everyone for taking time outta your day to help me out. I'm still sifting thru the comments and utilizing all the advice given. Thanks again!!!!

Opal Morningstar

Decide if it is high concept first. If not think of another idea and ask others what they think.

C. D-Broughton

read sample screenplays on sites such as Form your own "voice" once you get a feel for what you can/can't do.

Stefano Pavone

Make them work - they HAVE to work narratively and logically, you can't just throw them in for the sheer hell of it.

Phil Clarke

Hey Tray (wow, I'm a poet!) Feel free to message me anytime. Happy to give you some quick advice on writing action.

Tray Powell

I'll give you a minute or two to retract that comment, because I will take you up on it. LoL...Thanx again.

Phil Clarke

Tray Powell The offer won't run out or be retracted. Happy to help. Message me directly or alternatively, contact me via my website.

Tray Powell

Will do

Neal Howard

Hi, Tray. A very big, important question, which as you can see from the responses has many answers with many good points. If you don't mind, let me give you one more that goes a little deeper. Action lines are one of the very limited items a script consists of and one of the very limited means by which to convey the story you really want to tell. They are the the tangible physical and visual choices/details you make that continually move your story from point A to point B to point C and so on. They are related to your plot, which is just another tool writ large to convey the story you really want to tell. So, when you're writing your action lines, think very carefully and very specifically about what it is that each line of action is supposed to be accomplishing. Then convey those lines as simply, efficiently and evocatively as possible. I'll give you two examples from two great movies. One of the essential stories at the heart of The Godfather is that of the prodigal son. Michael Corleone rejects his family and who he is only to return and come to embrace those things. That story then demands that the plot have at least once scene where we can see the protagonist make that critical turn. In The Godfather that first critical scene is the Hospital Scene when Michael saves his his father, Don Vito, from being executed. Every line of action in that scene isn't there just to describe movements or imagery, they're written to convey some aspect of Michael's critical transformation. They are specific, creative choices that demonstrate to us Michael's journey, his return, his cunning, his mettle, etc., etc. The other example is from Lawrence of Arabia. There is a scene early on in the movie and Lawrence's journey at a well in the desert when Sharif Ali first appears. The character and the encounter are critical to the underlying story. In the script the action lines describing that appearance are very few, but it's a long scene on film. The gist of the action lines is that the character appears out of the desert like a "mirage". The choice of that action line, that description, is to convey one of the ideas at the heart of the movie. Lawrence's entire quest is a mirage...a figment of his idealism and desires...that will not come to pass. The point is, know what your action lines are really meant to accomplish. That will make it much easier for you to make the best choices in the fewest words to really bring your scene to cinematic life.

Dan MaxXx

I'd start by reading 500 to 1000+ produced screenplays of your favorite filmmakers/screenwriters, discover your own writing style & point of view voice. Also review current scripts peers are passing to their peers. Tracking Board & Black List will be naming their best produced/unproduced scripts/screenwriters by December 2020.

Final Draft's youtube channel is pretty good. Trottier's video on formatting.

Tray Powell

Thank you Neal Howard...That breakdown really helped.

Great advice Dan Maxx.

William Martell

A verb in every sentence. No still lifes - only moving pictures.

Tray Powell

Thanx William.

Brian Butler

Start with the character name, or she/he, then a verb, then finish the sentence. Don't put in adverbs or adjectives. Make it short. If there's a fight or something, paraphrase it down as short as possible and leave the orchestration to the director, the stunt coordinator, and experts.

Brian Butler

And find better words than just Jane "runs" to the fence. How does she run? Make it a more specific verb than "runs". Does she scamper? Does she sprint? Or does she just take off toward the fence?

Tray Powell

Thank you Brian Butler. I've heard it said, many times, 'the thesaurus is the writer's bible'

Jon E Strange

Written action is very specific short bursts of energy..

Brent Bergan

Check script notes, podcast, They have a recent podcast on action, with a PDF with several great examples

Tabitha Baumander

remember what the characters are doing physically. For pacing I would keep all comments short and to the point.

Oscar Ordonez

I've read a lot of scripts that mention you should use sounds like "CRACK!" and preface it with the action line:

The pistol whipped across his scarred face--


Freshly opening his old wounds.

I'm not too sure of that though since I've also heard that it tends to read like a novel and script readers don't seem to want that. Anyone else hear the same?

Bill Albert

If you have a long sequence break it up into several paragraphs instead of one long continuous description. It's easier to read and keep track of.

Debbie Croysdale

Action lines may differ considerably due to available budget. EG Big car chases with weapons for big studio to a character does a simple walk in the park in lower fund Indie. However, money and big props do not necessarily buy audiences feelings. A simple walk can be made more interesting by how character walks, cumbersome gait or sprightly dance up path?Do they stop to pick up an injured bird? Stop to give a tramp a dollar? OR Push someone out of their way on path while jogging? Spit on ground after passing someone they don’t like the look of? Devil is in detail. Character does not need a speeding big car with an AK47 to look bad or save someone from a towering inferno or to look good. Any action line, big or small should move story forward or reveal something in plot. Action for the sake of it happens in some films and it’s then time when most folk to go to the fridge etc.

Debbie Croysdale

Subtle layering of props BEFORE an action line can indicate the frame of mind of character and help audience understand their reason for behavior, providing an intellectual forethought. EG In this scene baby step actions before raising a sword to protagonist, stroking a bottle of whisky and fake film award with a dust of cocaine on fingertip. (The guy's an alcoholic and druggie thinking about his life.) Props never need cost big bucks, I got books and empty bottle from a stockroom, the cocaine is a bag of sugar off a hotel table. (Sorry rambling about film and we are talking script) So, going back to question about video action lines, unless it's a "Random" event eg a thunder storm happens and character runs off park bench, instead the character may find a letter from their husband to another woman and then run off. In some cases an object or another person is a good preemptive strike for an action line, can build up tension in reader so they are excited to find out what character is going to do.

Debbie Croysdale

Re original question "Writing" the action line. I tried to write with screenplay spacing the other night but thread box kept shoving it all into one sentence so I photographed what I was trying to write. As I mentioned in earlier posts, action line can reveal character and not necessarily be a plot mover or spectacular visual show in blockbuster.

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