In Part 2, Paul Peditto gives even more no-nonsense advice on how to write action lines that are lean, mean and effective. A must-read!
Yep, time once again for Actionlineapalooza! Some time ago we went over how the best action lines do two essential things:
1. Add the writer’s voice into the action line itself.
2. Add the character’s voice and mentality into the action line.
With action lines, on the most basic level, what you want is what is the camera seeing now. Who and what are in the shot. That’s pure craftsmanship. But you also want, when appropriate, a little poetry. A bit more. Getting into the head of your character herself, or stylizing the action to hear the attitude of the writer herself. This is adding point of view, injecting it into the action line.
If you read the pilot for A Handmaid’s Tale you'll find the lead character, Offred, is revealed not just in dialogue, but in action lines. We go right into her head. When you can do that, you’ve taken a quantum leap forward as a writer. So, today let's work action lines, starting with a student example and moving toward more professional work. Here we go...
Edna kisses her husband, making sure he’s OK. When she realizes he doesn’t need any help she goes downstairs to put all the clothes in the laundry. A few minutes later the doorbell rings. Edna runs upstairs to see who it is.
So, what are the issues with this passage?
- Camera can’t see “she realizes.”
- We follow her downstairs without a cut? Scorsese does this in Goodfellas (outside club, through kitchen, to front of house table waiting and Franky Valli) or Raging Bull (DeNiro emerges from training room, through crowd, into the ring). Epic filmmaking, but here? To do laundry? Gus Van Sant does it in Elephant for the sake of claustrophobia, for POV. If I need her in the laundry room for story purposes, fine, if not, cut it. Tell the story in the cut.
- “A few minutes later the doorbell rings.” Are you saying we haven’t cut yet? What is the camera seeing for “a few minutes”?
This, ideally, is two scenes, maybe three. Do I need to see her putting clothes in the machine? How does that advance character or story?
Let’s try one more student example…
Edna cleans up Ricky’s room as they talk and he explains to her how he came here. The shot flashes back to a neighborhood where the audience hears the sound of loud music, Ricky and his little brother are in front of the store...it’s his little bro’s birthday. As they come out from the electronics store bullets hit them both. They were in the middle of a drive by the bullet hits Ricky’s neck and he falls. He is dead. The scene cuts to Ricky’s room where he is still with Edna. The wide shot reveals that the room is cleaned and she has been listening to Ricky’s story.
So, what needs work?
- Don’t direct the screenplay. “The shot flashes…” “The scene cuts to…” “The wide shot reveals…” Try not to give camera directions unless we’ve gotta have it.
- Avoid action lines more than five lines. Assuming every word is needed (it’s not) move to a second paragraph. Give white space. Two or three paragraphs here, not one.
- “…as they talk and he explains to her…” If it’s dialogue, write it as dialogue, not in action lines.
- “They were in the middle of a drive by…” Don’t use past tense. The movie (and script) is unfolds now, in present tense.
- Nothing in the head can be seen by the camera. But you can cheat it with a simple FLASH, perhaps like this…
RICKY: Yeah, we were on 4th.
FLASH --4TH & C
Young Ricky and brother look through a video game store window. Ricky points out a Nintendo game.
A slow-moving car stops. A window lowers, two TEC-9 semi-automatic pistols...GUNSHOTS.
Gangbangers fly out of the store, firing back, running by Ricky, who looks down.
His brother, on the pavement, a pool of blood gushing under his head...
BACK TO RICKY
Looking to Edna, and the room, now immaculate.
Check your pages, make sure you don’t fall into any of these traps.
- Writing Vertical
Make it a fast read, drive the reader’s eye down the page. Here’s a great scene that does just that. Bad Santa isn’t an action movie. Great action sequences are found in all genres. Here, there is crosscutting with a frenzy. They put characters on the clock and the stakes are huge. Check out the Teddy Bear moving to beat the store alarm and look at how the countdown numbers drive the eye down the page:
INT. MILWAUKEE DEPARTMENT STORE – SANTA’S WORKSHOP – NIGHT
A large Teddy bear sits under a Christmas tree.
Suddenly -— it moves, bolting upright and sprinting from the
INT. MILWAUKEE DEPARTMENT STORE – DOWNSTAIRS – NIGHT
The alarm continues to count down — 15… 14…
The Teddy bear slides down the space between the railing of
the escalators. Landing on its feet, it barrels toward the
The Teddy bear scrambles for the door, crashing into
everything in its path.
Running past a clothing display, it rips the arm off a
mannequin without breaking stride.
It skids to a stop at the base of the alarm box, too short
to reach the controls.
It raises the mannequin arm, using the pointed finger on its
hand to press the “CANCEL” key on the keypad.
Mission accomplished, the teddy bear rips off its head to
reveal his true identity: Santa’s Elf — in civilian life
known as MARCUS SKIDMORE. He is covered in sweat and panting
like an asthmatic.
- Unfilmables & Rule Breakers
Ah, the dreaded topic! Dare we talk about unfilmables? Recently we were studying a script in a class at Chicago Filmmakers. The screenplay was riddled with action line stuff like: she realizes and he thinks, which, of course, the camera can’t see, which triggered the unfilmables debate.
Action lines = What the camera is seeing now. Who is in the shot and what is happening. Good luck enforcing that….
As several oh-so high-profile screenwriters and gurus have pointed out, professional screenwriters break the unfilmable rule all the time. It’s kinda cool to be a rule breaker, just look at Tarantino or Shane Black. To which I say, sure hope you have the same writing chops.
At my blog at Script Gods I did a post on action sequences highlighting Tarantino. If we’re doing rule breakers there’s no way I’m leaving out Shane Black. If you’ve read a Shane Black script he comes off as either the most arrogant a**hole in the history of the screenplay word, or a damned genius.
For me, it’s the same deal as Tarantino--I like his screenplays more than his movies. Check out Shane Black's IMDB profile and you can see he’s doing just fine these days. You could argue he’s best known as a writer for Lethal Weapon which, for me, is a just OK flick. It’s not sniffing many Top 100 All-Time lists any time soon (and I’m sure Shane gives a &^% about that.) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang? C’mon. Don’t think I even saw The Last Boy Scout. If I did, I don’t remember it. So what makes this guy so essential?
Nobody writes like him. He so copied that it’s become a cliché. Don’t try to steal the style, it’s owned. There’s a sound his action lines make, like this:
INT. MOTEL ROOM – AKRON, OHIO – NIGHT
A NUDE COUPLE on the bed. They look up, startled — as three
men burst through the door. The LEADER: a haggard-looking
man sporting a soup-stain on his tie, whoops, that’s the
design, sorry. MITCH HENESSEY, private investigator and con
man extraordinaire. He flashes a phony badge…
“Whoops, that’s the design, sorry…” Hey, he just broke the 4th Wall, talking directly to the reader. Hey man, you can’t do that! It’s against the rules! Well, it is, unless you’re good enough to get away it.
If you go for 4th wall breaking and don’t have the chops? A 100-page script filled with lines like that are going to be seriously annoying to the reader you’re going to face at screenwriting contests, production companies, agencies and management companies.
Shane Black’s stuff grabs you and doesn’t let you go. It ain’t Shakespeare, but it’s effective genre writing. Lethal Weapon won’t have the shelf life of Hamlet, but look at page 1 and tell me there isn’t poetry in it:
CITY OF ANGELS
lies spread out beneath us in all its splendor, like a
bargain basement Promised Land.
CAMERA SOARS, DIPS, WINDS its way SLOWLY DOWN, DOWN,
bringing us IN OVER the city as we:
SUPER MAIN TITLES.
TITLES END, as we —
SPIRAL DOWN TOWARD a lush, high-rise apartment complex.
The moon reflected in glass.
CAMERA CONTINUES TO MOVE IN THROUGH billowing curtains,
INTO the inner sanctum of a penthouse apartment, and
here, boys and girls, is where we lose our breath,
spread-eagle on a sumptuous designer sofa lies the
single most beautiful GIRL in the city.
Blonde hair. A satin nightgown that positively glows.
Sam Cooke MUSIC, crooning from five hundred-dollar
PASTEL colors. Window walls. New wave furniture tor-
tured into weird shapes. It looks like robots live here.
On the table next to the sleeping Venus lies an open
bottle of pills … next to that, a mirror dusted with
She rouses herself to smear some powder on her gums.
As she does, we see from her eyes that she is thoroughly,
completely whacked out of her mind…
She stands, stumbles across the room, pausing to glance
at a photograph on the wall:
Two men. Soldiers. Young, rough-hewn, arms around each
The Girl throws open the glass doors … steps out onto a
balcony, and there, beneath her, lies all of nighttime
L.A. Panoramic splendor. Her hair flies, her expression.
rapt, as she stands against this sea of technology. She
On the balcony railing beside her stand three potted
The Girl sees them, picks one up. Looks over the balcony
railing … It is ten stories down to the parking lot.
she squints, holds the plant over the edge.
Drops the plant. Down it goes, spiraling end over end
— until, finally … BAM — ! SHATTERS. Dirt flies. A
red Chevy is now minus a WINDSHIELD. The Girl takes
She drops it. Green Dodge. Ten stories below, BAM
Impact city. Scratch one paint job. Grabs the final
plant and holds it out, saying:
POW. GLASS SHATTERS. Dirt sprays. A blue BMW this
time. The Girl loves this game … her expression is
slightly crazed. She reaches for another plant —
There aren’t any. Her smile fades — And for a moment,
just a moment, the dullness leaves her eyes and she is
suddenly, incredibly sober. And tears fill her eyes as
she looks over the edge —
And jumps the railing. Plummets, head over heels like a
rag doll. Hits the yellow car spot on. She lies, dead,
like an extinguished dream. Still beautiful.
You tease. You titillate. You present a mystery. You beckon the reader the turn the page. Then you do the same thing on page 2. Force the eye down the page with savage and beautiful description. Don’t over-think it. Screenplays are the writing of dialogue and action lines. If it’s a genre piece you’ll need to know how to write an action sequence that feels like it’s happening now, right before our eyes, what to include or exclude, use of action verbs, spacing words on the page. It’s an art indeed and Shane Black is a rule-breaking Master. Maybe I better check out Last Action Hero or Last Boy Scout after all.
- Other action line styles
Hellboy is no classic but there’s an interesting style here with CAPPING SOUND EFFECTS. This isn’t my thing, but it’s a vivid, don’t-give-a-crap style that flashes on the page and captures the specificity of action…
VON KRUPT shoots wildly, hitting Broom in the leg. But
Whitman’s bullets rip into the old Nazi’s chest.
Leaving a trail of blood, Broom crawls to a dead G.I. and
grabs a grenade from his belt.
TCHKKK!!! Kroenen extends two gleaming blades from twin steel
bands on his wrists and takes on an entire group of soldiers,
mowing through them with swords spinning like deadly rotors.
The steel chops clean through their weapons.
Broom pulls the pin and throws the grenade at the generator.
CLICK-CLACK!! It wedges itself between two moving tie rods.
Kroenen squeals and — retracting his blades — lunges after
it. The gyrating rails slice through his leather jacket. As
his fingers reach the grenade, it EXPLODES!!!
Kroenen flies through the air, hitting a stone wall, where
two long pieces of shrapnel pin him like an insect.
Another rail plunges — FFFFT!!, like a javelin — into the
earth right next to MATLIN.
Another style of writing for action is usingdashes inter-paragraph. Here’s a short passage from Constantine:
John quickly wraps the cloth tight around his hand.
Angela spins, eyes seeing only darkness as the sounds get
CLOSER — ghastly sound of MOVEMENT in the fringes of
The cross now resembles a dying wire filament and with
every second the circle of light gets smaller and those
SOUNDS GET CLOSER. John takes out his special lighter.
Close your eyes.
They are now standing in pitch darkness.
John flicks the lighter and in one powerful motion —
sweeps his arm up as he lights his hand.
Sacred cloth catches fire — then IGNITES with a
brilliant retina-searing FLASH — blinding Angela and
illuminating a –
— CIRCLE OF WINGED DEMONS — a roiling broth of
reptilian death — right there — ready to pounce.
Action verbs, dashes inter-paragraph, specificity of the senses putting us into the heart of the action, life and death stakes, driving the eye down the page….well done, John Constantine!
More Actionlineapalooza, coming soon!
Get your story on the page with the help of Paul Peditto's Screenwriters University class