Experts Weigh In: 8 Tips for Writing Killer Action Lines
All too often, we hear about writers who are great with characters, fantastic with dialogue, strong at world building. But what about writing strong, economical action lines, the sort that move the action and the story along, and never bog down the page?
Take it from someone who reads ALL THE TIME: Effective action lines can mean the difference between a script chugging along and a script feeling laborious. Thoughtful, smart action lines should move the story along almost without the reader feeling it, inform our story without ever feeling as though the writer is directing on the page (though there are, of course, exceptions to this rule).
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But… easier said than done. To help break down how to write powerful action descriptions, I asked my friends in the screenwriting education, reader and consultant space:
If you have a script that includes a lot of action or a lot of visual detail, how do you keep the action moving, rather than bogged down with description?
Below is what they generally shared with me:
Hayley McKenzie, who previously worked as a development exec in the UK for companies including the BBC, and who now offers consulting through her shingle, Script Angel told me:
“My guiding principle is that the time it takes to read a piece of description (scene setting or action sequence) should be the same as you want that action to last on screen. If you spend half a page describing the visual detail of a scene you’re implying that the audience is going to have to sit and watch a static shot of that for half a minute. If that’s the pace you’re aiming for, great! If not, you need to make cuts. As with character description, it’s all about the careful choice of words that are as evocative as possible. More here – http://scriptangel.com/blog/8-tips-to-writing-great-action-lines/“
The formidable Jen Grisanti, a leading consultant in the TV space who also instructs for NBC’s Writers On the Verge said:
“You keep the action moving by having a strong setup. If the setup is down well, the internal and external stakes are set up from the start. The action will elevate these stakes. Some action does take more description. However, you do want to be careful not to have a page full of action lines. I know many executives will put down a script that has too many action lines.”
Script reader Rob Ripley, who previously ran the Cruise/Wagner story department, currently reads for ABC/Disney and is a talented writer in his own right, said:
“Even if it’s all about action and visual detail, I work like crazy to minimize what’s there, making sure that it’s only about focusing on the defined moments being strung together in an escalating line of action that culminates in a major turn. Then, I try to make as much of the remaining action and detail relative to the characters – after all, their emotional ride is THE STORY.”
Danny Manus, who provides his loyal writer customer base notes through his company NoBullScript Consulting, and also worked as a development executive, said:
“If you’re writing an action movie or a story with more action than dialogue, then break it up on the page. You need to stop your script from feeling DENSE. Because that’s when readers stop reading and start skimming. So, be sure to break up your actions lines after 3 lines. Use CAPITALIZATION when necessary, use SFX or VFX on the page to add pacing and voice. Your job is to paint a picture with enough detail to bring out your style and make us understand and picture the action — but you don’t have to bog the script down with every single brush stroke.”
Working writer Tawnya Bhattacharya, who is currently a Supervising Producer on ABC’s A MILLION LITTLE THINGS, and also the woman behind TV writing program Script Anatomy, told me:
“If you have a script that includes a lot of action or a lot of visual detail, how do you keep the action moving, rather than bogged down with description? Efficiency. Usually, the writer doesn’t need as much play-by-play action or visual detail as they think. Write what we need to see or hear on screen. Don’t feel like you have to choreograph an entire fight scene because there will be a person on set who comes and does that. A well-written phrase or line or two will be more memorable and powerful than a detailed paragraph about the setting. We’ve all been places, watched shows, seen pictures on the Internet — our imagination will fill in the gaps.”
Ruth Atkinson, previously a development executive who now consults with Sundance Labs and Film Independent, as well as provides screenwriting consulting services directly to screenwriters, contributed this:
“For action it’s about trying to capture the essence of what’s happening not a play by play of who does what. What feeling is the action meant to convey? It’s also about POV – oftentimes action is written in this overly detailed way that could be from anyone’s perspective which leads to a lack of emotional engagement. This kind of action gets skipped because it’s not interesting to read and really all we want to know is who lives/who dies so readers skip to the end of the sequence to see how it resolves. To keep a reader’s interest writers should use short, brief sentences that convey the essence of the action from the protagonist’s POV wherever possible. For both action and visual detail it’s all about being specific, concise and having lots of white space!”
Finally, talented writer and sought-after script reader Andrew Hilton offered:
“A common pitfall for new action writers is overwriting their set-pieces. Too much detail cripples the pacing and saps the energy of the scene. One studio exec told me they often skim-read action scenes just to see if any characters died. Keep the description short, emotive and punchy. Avoid big chunks of black text because they’ll grind the page-turning to a halt. The director and stunt coordinator can figure out the mechanics, so hit the broad strokes of what’s happening and help us feel the kinetic energy of the scene. “
For me, a strong action line manages to do a lot with very little, packs a big punch with the minimal number of words. Strong action lines steer clear of tracking every motion, choreographing every move, but rather delivers key visual clues to keep us tracking the big picture of what’s happening. Strong action lines can be punchy; they can also be a subtle way to display a writer’s voice without trying too hard. And when done right, they – along with great plot, characters, and dialogue – can make the reading of the script an absolute joy.
Thank you for the look into the minds of the experts.
When I found myself bogged down describing a complex vista on another planet, I decided to see how Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen handled the New York and Fhloston Paradise scenes in Fifth Element. I thought there was no way to condense those scenes into descriptions of 20 words or less. I was wrong:
“…the Megalopolis that is New York City in the 23rd century comes into view. Startling in it’s height, and breath,” and “…Fhloston, the turquoise planet. Crystal blue water, perfect white sand beaches. A true paradise.”
That’s one way, as Danny Manus says, to make your script feel less dense.
Thanks for your input, Lori! Perfectly illustrates what some of those highly regarded experts (including Danny!) were talking about!
Just had an early morning apropos of nothing:
Could it be somehow remotely possible the reason why some people struggle to write good dialogue is because they’re not good conversationalists.
Conversation is one of the two best indoor sports ever invented. If you can’t run off at the mouth; where can you run?