What’s the worst note you’ve ever received on your screenplay? How about the worst note you’ve ever received multiple times? For me, the answer to both is “write better action lines”. Whenever I got that note, I had no idea what to do with it. Because it’s meaningless, it gives you nothing to work with. All it does is diagnose a problem without doing anything to provide a solution. But just because the note is unhelpful doesn’t mean it isn’t true. People talk a lot about dialogue as being the biggest indicator of a newbie writer, but I think bad action lines are far more of a dead giveaway.
So with that in mind, I thought we’d take a look at some tips on how to write killer action lines (and some ideas for creating awesome character descriptions, too).
Before we get to deep in the weeds, it’s important to go over some general best practices for writing action. If you’ve already written a few screenplays, you can probably skip this part. But for the rest of, us, here are some general rules to follow:
- Read our guide on writing your first screenplay. It covers a lot of the basics that we skip in this article.
- Don’t write dialogue in your action – Any time a character speaks, it should be dialogue. Even little things like “Okay” and “Yeah thanks”. This may seem obvious, but I often see a lot of new writers putting small bits of dialogue into their action lines.
- Present tense – Screenplay action is written in the present tense. That means “does” and “is”, not “did” and “was”.
Okay, onto the fun stuff!
Get to the point already
One of the biggest mistakes new screenwriters make when writing action lines is being too flowery. Especially fresh out of film school, many screenwriters have a tendency to write their screenplay like they write prose. That is to say, chock full of metaphors, similes, and adjectives. Cut it out. Your screenplay is, first and foremost, a blueprint. Your job is, essentially, to relay to a bunch of other people how to put together a film (or TV show). Think about it, somebody is going to have to decipher what your beautiful words mean in order to set up lights, design a car chase, dress the actors, and everything else involved in a production. I’m not saying you should write a dry, lifeless shell of a screenplay, but never let your action lines take over the story.
Here are some examples of action lines that are too flowery:
- Dale looks out over the beautiful dunes, rising out of the pancake-flat desert like two titans frozen in the middle of a battle, ages gone.
- Regina stops, frozen in fear, as her world comes crashing down around her like a thousand tiny needles shredding her skull.
And here’s how to fix them:
- Dale looks out at the majestic dunes across the desert. Awed.
- Regina stands, trembling and afraid, as her world collapses around her.
Show, don’t tell
I know. I know. It’s the biggest cliché in the book, I get it. But it’s a cliché for a reason. And that reason is that it’s just more interesting to see something happening than to hear somebody talking about it. When people watch movies, they want to feel like an active participant in the narrative. They want to piece story beats together themselves. And the easiest way to give them that experience is through your action lines.
Many screenwriters seem to be scared of action, and so resign themselves to writing endless pages of dialogue. While dialogue-heavy movies and TV are great, they’re not the only great type of entertainment. For decades, silent film had to be very deliberate with it’s dialogue and spend most time on action. And, more recently, movies like Gravity prove that you don’t need a ton of dialogue to tell an excellent story.
Here’s a general rule of thumb: Whenever you start explaining something through dialogue, stop and ask yourself: can I convey this through action instead? The answer is usually yes.
Remember, just like a picture is worth a thousand words, so is a look, a nod, or the lack of words.
Leave room for the performance
I do it too, believe me. Whenever I write, I’m trying to convey the best possible version of the story I’m developing. And so I end up adding a bunch of little details that step on the performance. Remember, your screenplay is going to change a lot between now and premiere night, and your actors are getting paid the big bucks to figure out how to turn your words into something that approximates reality. There’s nothing more annoying to an actor than being noted to death within action lines. So just like you shouldn’t be afraid to write action, you shouldn’t be afraid not to, either.
Here are some times when action is important:
- A character is entering or exiting.
- A character is performing some action within the scene that’s important to the narrative (ie: pulling a gun out of their boot under the table. Probably important to show that).
- A character is having an emotion that’s important to the scene (ie: a husband is happy at the news his wife is dead. This is important to mention).
Here are some action lines you don’t need to write:
- Every little movement a character makes in a scene, especially when it’s not pertinent to the story.
- A character dialing a number on their phone (I usually just say “she places a call” or “she answers”. It accomplishes three lines of action in one).
- Every tiny emotion the character has (that takes all the fun away from the actors).
Of course, don’t be afraid to show some emotion in your screenplays. Emotion is important. But try to keep your action lines to only the most important beats of the story.
Take a beat
This is sort of an offshoot of the “Leaving room for the performance”. A beat is typically a pause in the story. It tends to be a quiet moment before, after, or during a line of dialogue. It’s usually used to show subtext, something NOT being said. And I love beats. Many writers do. Remember what I said above about Showing, Not Telling? Beats convey so much because they’re about what the character isn’t saying. Some of my scripts are absolutely riddled with beats. So I’m not exactly following my own advice here. Because, in general, you should use beats during only the most important moments of your script. Just like action lines in general, an actor is perfectly capable of deciding where to takes pauses in your dialogue.
Write in real time
Each scene should happen in real time. You should never have a single action line that tries to describe a number of different things happening over a period of time. Here’s an example of the wrong way to handle elapsed time:
Jamie walks over to her friend Melissa, gets some beer, and peer pressures Melissa into drinking it. Melissa gets drunk.
That is actually better served as several different, unique action lines. So let’s see how to fix it. Some of this can be fixed by simply hitting the magical ENTER button. For instance:
Jamie walks over to Melissa, then pauses.
She doubles back, heads for a cooler. She grabs a few beers and heads back over to Melissa.
We watch through the window as Jamie holds out the beer. Melissa declines. Jamie doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and keeps trying to get Melissa to take the beer. Finally. Melissa relents and takes a swig.
See what I did there? By adding a few lines, you can give the impression of real time and successfully account for how long it will take an actor to perform the scene. Also, since peer-pressuring would usually require dialogue, I cheated and specified that we’re outside the window, looking in. That way, we don’t need to deal with dialogue.
NOTE: Some people will tell you not to use “we see”. Those people aren’t writers.
There are some other issues, however, with the action line above that can’t be fixed by hitting ENTER and adding a window.
The line specifying that Melissa “gets drunk”, however, requires a more thorough reworking. There’s two ways to accomplish an action line like this. We can either, (A), create a new scene that picks up after some time has elapsed, or (B), we can use a montage. Here’s what that would look like.
Melissa relents and takes a swig.
We begin a SERIES OF SHOTS:
-Melissa finishes her beer.
-Jamie opens another one.
-Melissa dances while drinking. Loosening up.
-Melissa stumbles over to the cooler for another beer.
-Jamie looks a little worried as Melissa drinks.
-Melissa downs another beer.
That montage more accurately conveys the amount of screen time needed to accurately portray the sequence of Melissa “getting drunk”. Which brings me to the next tip…
1 Minute = 1 Page
Use a screenwriting software when you write, because screenplay formatting rules aren’t arbitrary: they’re formatted so that every page of script roughly equals one minute of screen time. So if you have a 120 page script, you’re looking at a two-hour movie. This is yet another reason to avoid the dreaded flowery action.
Here are some other things that throw a wrench in the timing works timing:
- Action lines like “Melissa gets drunk” used to convey half-page sequences.
- Not using Slug Lines to show the passage of time.
- Adding lots of jokes and meta references for the reader in the action.
- Adding symbols or pictures (or links, yeesh) in the action.
The action IS the tone
The last and most important tip for writing killer action lines is to remember that your script (especially if you’re trying to convince someone reading it to pay to make it into a movie or TV show), has to convey what’s happening onscreen. This may sound contradictory to my earlier “your script is a blueprint” tip, and in a way it is. But you have to figure out how to do both at the same time. Here are some great ways to convey the tone of the finished project in the action:
- Use sentence fragments during particularly intense sequences (things like “She ducks. Gets up. Runs for cover.”)
- Reserve longer, more thoughtful sentences for slower, more character driven sequences.
- Use descriptive words (sparingly, of course).
- Come up with really great character descriptions (see below).
- In emotionally jarring confrontations, stay out of the dialogue’s way. Scale back on your action.
- Crack jokes for the reader in the action (again, very sparingly and only if it makes sense with your tone).
- Use notes – If there’s something really important that you need to say to your reader, and you can’t think of a way to put it into the flow of the story, you can use a note by adding a new action line in Italics and labelling it “NOTE:”.
Your action shouldn’t just convey your voice as a writer, it should convey the voice of the project. What kind of movie are we watching? Your action lines are the key place to show the reader what the finished movie or show will feel like.
And that’s it! Action lines are the best way into your movie or show’s tone, and the best way to show would-be producers what kind of script they’d be buying. It’s a very find line you have to tow, being personal and emotional, while not stifling the story. And, like everything in writing, repetition is everything. The more you write and rewrite, the better your script (and action lines) will come out. I promise.
If you’ve edited your action lines and you think you’re ready to take the next step and actually get your project made, the first step is to get an agent or manager. And the best way to do that is with a subscription to Get Me An Agent. Our plans start at only $19.99/month, and come with unlimited access to contact information for over 400 agents and managers for screenwriting. Plus we have guides and templates, and a team of real entertainment industry professionals standing by 24/7/365 to help you find representation. Like the sound of that? Every plan comes with a free month, and there’s no commitment. Check us out by clicking one of the buttons below:
NOTE: As always, don’t take everything I said as gospel. It’s true that you need to know the rules to break the rules. But you also need to remember to actually, you know, break the rules sometimes.
BONUS: Writing great character description
Character description is one part of action-writing that the screenwriting community is quite split on. I can only give my own personal preference on the matter.
There are some writers who’ll swear up and down that you should NEVER give any information whatsoever about a character within action lines (not even their age), and there are others who like to write entire paragraphs each time a new character is introduced. I fall somewhere in the middle. Here’s my policy regarding character description:
The basic format
Almost everybody agrees on this part. Character description is written in line with action. The first time you meet a character, their name is written in ALL CAPS, followed by their age in parenthesis. This is either followed immediately, or in the next sentence, by an explanation of who they are/what they look like. Here’s an example:
The door bangs open and in walks HERMES (55), the kind of guy who spends his weekends at the shooting range and his weekdays behind the wheel of a semi truck.
JESSICA (35), sits at the table. She wears a bright red dress and an attitude of complete disdain for her surroundings
You can introduce minor characters without much fanfare. Like this:
The WAITER (36) comes over to their table.
As Daryl steps up to the counter, the BANK TELLER hardly glances at him.
For main characters, it’s good to add a little bit of detail to the end of your character description. Something to ground us in the story and make your character feel more real. Even a small anecdote can go a long way towards making us believe in the person you’ve created. Here are some important things to keep in mind when writing detail about your character:
- Make it brief– Don’t give us every your character’s whole life story, just something to make them memorable.
- Make it important – Whatever detail you choose should be integral to what makes your character who they are . Something that’s tied to their wound or past trauma, or seriously informs how they interact with other characters.
- Make it one sentence – Kind of like making it brief, we don’t need a paragraph. One sentence (or, preferably, less)
- Make it recurring – Giving your character a detail that recurs every time we meet them, like an accent, a lisp, or the TAP TAP of a cane will do wonders towards making them feel real.
- Make it memorable – If it’s super important that we remember your protagonists clothes, you should write the description in such a way that it sticks in our mind. Even if the actual detail is boring. For instance. If your hero’s grey suit is constantly mocked by his family for being “too boring”, give him the detail: “GREG (50), with the most boring name and most boring suit in the world.”
Here’s a great video that explains how to write character description (if you’re into videos):
NOTE: This is largely targeted to novelists, but the idea still carries through to screenplays.
And there you have it! Remember, writing character description is the best place to show off those writer flourishes I told you to hide in the rest of this article. Go crazy (for a sentence or two).