Okay, let’s just clear the air of so much bad thinking about action lines.
I don’t know how or why this happened, but a lot of newbies seem to think that a scene is comprised of two or three things only.
1) a Master Scene Heading (such as INT. MYSTERY MAN’S KITCHEN – NIGHT) and 2) they should just add some action lines to describe the room, the characters, write a bunch of dialogue, (and quite a few more action lines to describe even the slightest gestures of characters, which we call incidental actions), and 3) move on to the next scene and repeat this process for 120 pages.
How did they get so far away from the core principles of screenwriting? Were they mislead? I don’t know. Even by the very low standards described above, some newbies can’t even get that right and they fill their action lines with what we call unfilmables – sentences in action lines that are not visual, such as backstories of characters, author’s intrusions, inner thoughts, questions to the reader, etc.
We ARE meant to describe the setting,
characters, or actions of those characters,
but these sentences must be very lean and mean.
Now, what do we know about action lines?
With Trottier’s Screenwriter’s Bible, we know that we ARE meant to describe the setting, characters, or actions of those characters, but these sentences must be very lean and mean. We write only what we see on the screen and only the most essential elements using the most minimal words. We have to provide a framework of visuals that tell the story so the reader (and audience) can put two & two together and visualize what’s happening on the screen.
Action paragraphs should be 4 lines or fewer. You typically write one paragraph per beat of action, and they should be important actions. I loved what Trottier said about incidental actions: “If your character raises her cup of coffee to her lips, that’s not important enough to describe… unless there’s poison in the cup.”
Always, always err on the side of brevity.
Screenwriters are filmmakers, too,
and we have to think like filmmakers
and endeavor to render our stories CINEMATICALLY.
Now let’s take it to the next level. The only way you can truly excel at writing cinematic stories (on a par with or surpassing the pros) is to elevate your craft to a level where you can (without using camera angles) WRITE THE SHOTS.
Bwaaah! You’re SO wrong, Mystery Man! Yes, I can hear you balking already and screaming at your monitors that, dammit, man, you can’t describe the shots because it’s up to the director to decide how that scene will be filmed and thus, all you can do is just tell the story – what happens to what character and then move on to the next scene.
That’s completely and absurdly wrong.
This kind of hands-off thinking about filmmaking has harmed more screenplays, prevented more writers from getting sales, and generally lowered the quality of contemporary films.
It’s not enough that we, as screenwriters, must have a god-like knowledge about the story we wrote and about the art of storytelling, characters, dialogue, and structure. Screenwriters are filmmakers, too, and we have to think like filmmakers and endeavor to render our stories CINEMATICALLY, which means that we should write the shots.
This does not, has not, and will not ever offend directors or anyone else. On the contrary, reading a truly visual, cinematic screenplay that really feels like a movie on paper INSPIRES readers, INSPIRES producers, INSPIRES executives, and yes, directors, too, and those are the scripts that GET SALES.
I mean, come on. The way to get a director onboard is to get him/her excited about the story and the visuals. And your screenplay is essentially the first grouping of cinematic ideas, the first shot across the bow about how to render this particular story cinematically. It’s the springboard for what will be many future creative discussions about turning your script into a film.
The way to get a director onboard is
to get him/her excited about the story and the visuals.
Conflicts between screenwriters and directors have more to do with a screenwriter not thinking like a filmmaker (and wanting to tell instead of show) than it is about a director not recognizing how brilliant the dialogue is.
Rules about not writing the shots so as to avoid offending directors are so absurd, because, like everything else in life, this business is about relationships. It’s ALL about the relationships you build with people in the business. Period.
If you walk into a room and say “this is the way it is and to hell with what you think – no one big or small can change one word or comma of my screenplay,” yeah, everyone will hate you. If, on the other hand, you walk into a room and you’re capable of having a creative discourse and engaging people who have different ideas and calmly explaining how and why and what you were trying to accomplish with each moment of your screenplay, you’ll go far.
Like everything else in life,
this business is about relationships.
Establishing good, working, creative relationships with people is, umm, a good thing for your career.
With some directors, that’s impossible, but that’s another article.
– Mystery Man
I’m famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. I’m a homebody who jetsets around the world. I’m brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.
I also write for Script Magazine.