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Screenwriting : Action descrptions by Tarus Rhinehart

Tarus Rhinehart

Action descrptions

I hope this question is fairly simple to answer but as I am beginning to learn with this craft, there is hardly EVER a simple answer lol. But when you are waiting actions scenes in a script, especially the beginning of the script or a new scene, is there a limit as far as number of lines and sentences, or is more good. I have seen some pretty long action description in a few scripts and I was just wondering was this an OK practice?

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

The more "white space" the better. It's not a rule, but clean looking scripts usually have 1-3 lines in action. Sometimes 4. And at the most, 5. Again, this definitely is not a rule. I've just read a ton of spec scripts from first time writers, or scripts that have won contests, and that's usually what they look like. I wouldn't take scripts from professional writers into much consideration because they can do whatever the hell they want because they're established. I say in the beginning of your script you should stick with 1-2 lines, and then as you get deeper into the script, your actions can bleed out a little more. But there are always exceptions. Just try to stuck to it as much as possible. Again, these are not rules. Just my personal opinion from reading thousands of scripts throughout the years.

Tarus Rhinehart

I got you. Thanks. Trying to be descriptive without talking or writing too much is a very fine line I'm finding lol.

Richard Allis

I don’t know what anyone else is going to say about this, but in a script about old West emigrants I started it like this. Three lines describing an ordinary house that is representative of the people inhabiting it. Then skip a line. Then, three lines describing how the hired help (extra roles) are coming out to do their chores to prepare the three wagons parked out front for the trip. Then skip a line. Then, four lines describing an unusual wagon that is going to be a factor in the story and what was unusual about it. Then skip a line. Then, two lines describing several wagons approaching and joining the ones already parked in front of the house. Then, the dialogue, which in my case was a voice over introducing the story. I figured each skipped line divided the writing into paragraphs and presumably different shots. If I grouped all that writing into one paragraph, I think it would have made for more tedious reading by forcing the reader to slog through a long paragraph. This way you’re in and out of each paragraph and on to the next one. It “feels” like things are going faster.

Marc W. Johnson

One thing (among many others) that I have learned while writing my first spec and action scenes is to choose power words that make images spring to mind. For instance, instead of writing – Miles grabs Julie by the shoulders while he shuffles her to the door, write – Miles manhandles Julie toward the door. The second, I believe, gives a more powerful image and takes fewer words to convey the emotions in play. However, I am still learning but, a writer should want their action scenes to pop off the page and move quickly so the reader can enjoy it. As writers we must “think” about what the audience is “seeing” and choose the words that best describe it while eliciting emotion. It is a delicate dance, no doubt but, with each incarnation of the scene we rewrite the “visual” should be made clearer in the mind’s eye. I am of the thought that the action lines should be consistent, no more than two to three lines, throughout. You can have several of these under the scene heading to break up the action, but each should relate to a different action, say a car chase. As an example: I/E. MILES'/RICK’S CARS – MOVING FAST - DAY Miles’ car speeds down the freeway. His reckless zigzags between the cars cause several accidents behind him. Rick’s car swerves onto the shoulder to avoid the carnage. He punches the gas pedal; his Mustang’s throaty GROWL mirrors his determination. As I say, I am new at this as well and maybe this isn’t perfectly correct, but I hope you get the idea. Anyway, that’s how I have been approaching it. I hope this helps, somewhat, however, we must all find what works for us. Best of luck, man!!

Doug Nelson

Tarus – When it comes to all the screenwriting rules that you hear – just remember that there are no rules. Over the course of years, I’ve found that my action line blocks generally are 3 to 4 lines – often less. In olden days, it was not uncommon to see larger blocks of exposition; but that’s pretty much fallen out of favor. Keep it short but sufficient to paint the picture.

William Martell

Think paragraphs. Break up long blocks of action into bite sized pieces that are easier to read.

Tarus Rhinehart

Thank you so much for the advice. I actually read someone's script up here and saw where they had broken up larger paragraphs in their action lines and thought that may be best for now while I decide on what I could possibly take out.

Doug Nelson

Lisa that’s one approach. When I work up a shot list, I think of each scene as a chapter in the story and each action as a paragraph. I can shift the camera pov within a scene or action sequence as I block out each movement within that scene. When I strike a set and move – that’s a new scene. Just keep in mind that there are no absolute rules applicable to screenwriting or filmmaking – it’s called art.

Deryn Warren

The least number of lines by which you can convey the action is the best. Read lots of action scripts. See what they do. Lisa might be right as a way to think about it but don't mention and camera and give the director some space to do his thing too. Trust him. Just hit the necessary points. Check out DerynWarren.com and look at my script doctoring.

CJ Walley

It's certainly an art form in itself. I write lots of fast paced action and have found breaking up my shots into separate lines kills my pagecount, looks strange, and really slows down the read. It seems it's a lot harder to read down the page than across. So I've found I need to block my action into something which reads with some rhythm. I've also found I've needed to get very liberal with sluglines. But really the most important factors I've found are efficiency and clarity. For example, if you were writing a scene where a character is playing a wicked drum solo, you wouldn't write out every hit of every drum in detail. It would make a painstaking and confusing read. You'd summarize it all into something more poetic. Something that, while shorter, actually says a lot more, and that brings me onto my next point-- Tone. It's essential we write the attitude into our action, be it cool and calm or desperate and manic. When the chips are down we sometimes need to hustle that keyboard and lay down type which hammers the scene home. POW! POW! POW! Or sometimes we need to creep ever so softly with a light touch that glides lightly and, well, just, eventually, Peters-out. Emotion needs to be there, and personally, I feel it's best to show the action in terms of its emotional impact on those involved. There needs to be beats. There needs to be a point. There needs to be a demonstration of character. But also there needs to jeopardy, surprise, and wit. It also all boils down to our own passion for writing action and who our intended audience is. Not everyone wants to write action in much detail and not everyone wants to read it. Like many facets of writing, we all need to find our own personal place our voice fits.

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

Very, very well said CJ.

Doug Nelson

CJ; you’ve made some valid points that few writers (my observation) understand or even know anything about. Well written tone in action lines that shades a character’s delivery goes a long way toward the audience/reader’s story understanding. The next one is story rhythm (you call it beat.) For a story to become a compelling story, it needs to have a rhythmic ebb and flow which can be composed in the action text blocs. A hundred pages of rockem sockem shoot ‘m up action gets real tiring real fast but your story needs enough action to keep the audience awake.

Doug Doucette

I think it depends on the situation a little bit. If you've ever read the script for the first episode of the walking dead it's like three pages of actions before there's any dialogue at all. For me, no one cares about me or my ideas, so I like to get through the actions especially in the beginning when I'm just trying to set things up to get to the parts that really pop off the page and stick in the mind of the reader(and eventually the viewer). I think most people reading your script will give you ten pages to win them over, so that's the impression I operate under.

Don Thomas

Screenplays, if you have to use a five dollar word, I would suggest that it is in the dialogue.

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