One of the biggest notes I have for the hundreds of scripts I cover every year, is that the action lines are too ‘novelesque’. I know I am not alone in screenplay advice when I say this and I’m sure, writers trying to express their individual voice feel that every word is precious.
They are absolutely correct – EVERY WORD IS PRECIOUS, and that is precisely why they should be used sparingly to be most effective.
Here are random action lines from some of the screenplays that will most likely be buzzing around today as Oscar contenders:
Lionel holds up a small, folded-up piece of pink stationary. Mrs. Bishop snaps it out of his hand and opens it.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK:
PAT SR. HOLDS A GREEN HANDKERCHIEF IN ONE HAND, FIDGETING
WITH IT. SEVERAL REMOTE CONTROLS ARE ALIGNED PERFECTLY ON THE TABLE NEXT TO HIM.
3 lines that say so much, (could probably be two if it weren’t in all caps and Fidgeting was written as fidgets.
Valjean rushes out of the back door of the house. He crosses the graveyard, scrambles over a back wall, and he’s gone.
RUST AND BONE:
A grim region where the sky hangs low and the wind can knock a man off his feet.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
Hushpuppy dances on the back of the float. Though she’s the tiniest member of this very adult parade, she’s right in the thick of everything. No one is checking I.Ds Here.
Lincoln kneels by Tad and looks down at the map, a topographical and strategic survey of the no-man’s land between Union and Confederate forces at Petersburg. He scrutinizes the precisely drawn blue and grey lines.
Django is dressed in a powder blue satin Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, that wouldn’t be out of place in the court of Marie Antoinette at Versailles.
The paragraphs not only snap, fidget and scramble, they hang low, insinuate, scrutinize and most of all paint a very visual moment in a small amount of space.
But one could argue, some of these screenplays read like novels (indeed some are much longer than normally acceptable) so what’s a writer to do?
Well I found an excellent recap by Novelist Mark Sullivan who in addition to his own work, has co-written two novels with James Patterson, who is no fledgling when it comes to filmic story telling. In Sullivan’s words:
“I’d written eight novels, including Rogue, been published in multiple languages, sold books into movies, and been nominated for and won various awards. In short, I thought I knew what I was doing when it came to commercial fiction. Working with Patterson, however, I discovered quickly that I didn’t.”
What Patterson had to teach him had everything to do with what is preached to screenwriters daily:
- Work it to death in an Outline but allow yourself to sail in other direction as you write, but make sure the change is terrific, fascinating and smart.
- Entertain – don’t preach
- Villains must be worthy opponents.
- Show don’t tell (severely limit exposition)
- Every chapter has to deepen the character, advance the plot or turn the tale on its head
- Begin every scene with the end in mind, and it better blow your mind – if it doesn’t it should be rewritten or tossed
- By limiting details of character or setting to two or three, (vs. some novelist’s 10) you create pace and leave those details solidified in the reader’s mind.
The full article is here.
So you see, even when you have unlimited pages to convey your character’s deepest desires and ramblings – you better think twice if you want to actually see your work produced and possibly make friends with Oscar or Pulitzer.