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From The Lens: Writing Action Lines

When a screenplay lands on my desk, I spend a lot of my time breaking it down, analyzing it as a whole, and analyzing the individual characters. As you may assume, a major part of my focus is on the action lines, because they give me visual cues I need in order to understand each scene.


From my perspective as a Director of Photography, I’ve seen a lot of approaches to writing action or describing visual scenes. I think it’s important that screenwriters perfect how they describe actions to help productions run smoothly down the line.

My opinion is that films should be highly collaborative experiences. It’s the melting pot of different creative ideas that make films such an artistically rich medium.

Scene descriptions, actions, visuals; they should all allow breathing room. On the other hand, a writer still needs to convey the essentials of the environment, event, or important visual cues within each scene to tell their story effectively.

I can see this must be a tough balance, to walk the line between too descriptive, or too vague. Maybe some of my experience can help you pinpoint your favorite approach.

The central point I’d like to address here, is that screenwriters should avoid writing in a director’s voice, (even if they are one). What I mean is that technical descriptions should be avoided in screenwriting, because while they may be intended to help, they can actually hurt the film in a number of ways.

Very often, I read scripts that are extremely specific about camera work, editing, acting, and other technical decisions-- I advise against this. More often than not, you're setting yourself up for unavoidable script revisions, or you may miss out on somebody else's great idea.

Recently, I read a script that was written (in a nutshell) something like: "The camera moves across a photo on the wall... then we flash-cut to this scene... and then without cutting the camera moves to another photo on the wall."

As a DP, when I see camera directions in a script, I honor them. I honor everything on the page, because that's what I'm hired to do. That isn't to say I won't give suggestions to the director on what might need revisiting, but unless otherwise approved, I stick with the script.

The problem is: This creates a bias, of sorts. Once everyone reads specific instructions on how a scene should be shot, it’s hard to break away from that written idea. It’s easy to assume that’s the best way to accomplish a scene, but what if it’s not? It’s also easy to skip exploring alternative ideas if it seems like the one that's written in works.

Paula O'Neal and Nathan Blair capture a dynamic shot with camera movement, on set of short film, Heritage.

Paula O'Neal and Nathan Blair capture a dynamic shot with camera movement, on set of short film, Heritage.

Screenwriters: Your director and DP live to create dynamic visuals that tell your story effectively. As with any creative process, you've got to leave them some breathing room to do their masterful work. The same applies to actors, editors, and production designers. You might find that they come up with ideas that you like even more than the ones you came up with.

Additionally, without knowing the technical requirements of what you're writing, you may find the script is changed simply due to practical limitations. As an example, how do you as the screenwriter know that a shot of a man, jumping through a window into a building without cutting to another shot is possible given the budget, location, and schedule of the production?

Once a filmmaker takes on the task of making beautiful words into beautiful images, they face the ongoing battle of "theory vs. practice." What might seem completely feasible on paper may translate poorly on screen, or worse, may be impossible with the resources at hand.

As a means to avoid all this, I suggest trying a more impressionistic style.

A screenwriter still needs to be descriptive, just not too technical or specific. Try a writing style that helps readers visualize what you’re seeing in your minds eye, but in their own unique way.

Try writing action more as if you’re a novelist. Ignore the cameras and just describe the action as it would take place in life, without a film crew framing it up.

DO write using a character’s perspective. A point-of-view shot can still be described without addressing the “camera” or by writing “we see this.” For instance, I can describe a bald eagle’s point of view by saying “The world below is small and distant, as whisks of clouds pass by” instead of saying “The camera looks down from an aerial perspective, the eagle’s point of view.”

As difficult as it may be, try letting go of these specifics. Let your movie live a life of it’s own. You might be pleasantly surprised by what results.

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