Good screenplay action lines are vital to a successful script.
Like most screenwriters, I started out writing short stories and long-form fiction, so I was used to flowery prose and run-on sentences. But with my first few scripts, I learned that less is more when it comes to action lines.
They need to tell us only as much as we need to know to keep the story going, while at the same time, they must be engaging and well-paced. They tell us not only what we see, but if written well, how we see it.
And finally, they need to describe the action as if the reader is watching it unfold in real-time.
- Be Succinct and Clear: Aim for concise, clear action lines and more white space by limiting paragraph lengths.
- Write in the Present Tense: Use present tense and avoid -ED and -ING verb endings.
- Write from a Visual Perspective: Focus on what can be seen and heard – avoid internal thoughts and other senses.
- Show, Don’t Tell: Convey characters’ emotions through actions and reactions for a stronger impact.
- Be Evocative and Atmospheric: Use evocative verbs and creative wording to elicit emotional responses and vivid imagery.
- Use Capitals Sparingly: Capitalize character names initially – use all-CAPS sparingly for emphasis on elements.
- Avoid Camera Directions: Do not explicitly include camera directions, but rather imply focus through descriptions.
What are Screenplay Action Lines?
Action lines are placed directly under scene headings in a screenplay.
They are essential to a good script as they outline all the action in the story, as well as describe the locations, the characters (such as the protagonist and antagonist), and any key items, objects, creatures, machinery and so on that require emphasis.
Simply put, great action lines describe what we see and hear (other than dialogue) in a finished movie.
What are Best Practices when Writing Screenplay Action Lines?
Film executives, agents, actors, and professional readers read many scripts and script synopses. It’s important to help yours stand out among the crowd.
How to do this? Make your script look professional!
Professional screenwriters follow screenwriting rules, such as using industry-standard formatting, spell checkers, and grammar checkers, and they have no widows/orphans. When they write a screenplay, they make their scripts as easy to read as possible.
One way to make a script easy to read is to use these best practices when writing your action lines!
1. Be Succinct and Clear
A script is a document to be turned into a movie, not read on its own, so clarity is king. Department heads will take everything you write literally, so keep that in mind.
Also, keep it as brief as possible. As noted in this article from www.scriptangel.com, many scripts contain action lines that are much too long and detailed.
So, make sure you don’t use flowery language or big words when small ones will do. Be deliberate and precise. Try to aim for the time it takes to read your action lines to match the length of time you think it will play out on screen.
Try to find the balance between letting a director direct the scene (rather than you as the screenwriter doing it for them) and giving the other departments (such as props, wardrobe, set decoration, etc.) enough information to get what you want and what they need.
As a good rule of thumb, think of each paragraph as a new camera setup inside of your mind.
That said, white space is your friend in a script. This is the term for the parts of the page not covered by text. The more white space, the more streamlined the script, and the more visually pleasing to the eye.
So if you have a lot of information to convey, or scenes without much dialogue, the best way to ensure white space is to limit yourself to 2-3 lines per paragraph (with 5 lines maximum).
The last thing you want is for your action lines to look like a novel excerpt. Use the least number of words for the most impact!
2. Write In the Present Tense
Great action lines in a screenplay give information about the action happening in the film! So, don’t use the past or future tense when writing action. Instead, use the present tense only.
Present tense: “Sally leans against a wall.”
Past tense: “Sally leaned against a wall.” “Sally is leaning against a wall.”
Kill the -ED and -ING endings for your verbs!
3. Write from a Visual Perspective
When writing an action line, think of the question “what can I see and hear?” Action lines should not rely on other senses for the most part, and we must frame smell, taste, touch, and thought around sight and sound.
For example, when trying to describe a character’s impression of a bad smell, this sentence:
“John turns his head from the rancid odor”
is more effective than
“John thinks it smells awful.”
The actor playing John can physically portray the former, but not necessarily the latter.
It’s best to leave internal thoughts out of your action scenes.
4. Show, Don’t Tell
Further to the above point, don’t rely on your characters to tell us how they feel or describe what’s happening.
Instead, try writing great action lines that show us!
If you can incorporate a character’s emotional journey through their actions and reactions rather than just their words, then it will be that much stronger, and your audience will connect on a more primal level.
5. Be Evocative and Atmospheric
Just because they’re brief, doesn’t mean your scene descriptions need to be stale or boring.
Use evocative verbs to describe the actions.
For example, why use “looks”, when “stares”, “squints”, “regards”, “surveys”, “considers” or “glares” can paint a clearer and more dynamic picture?
If ever there was a time to crack open your thesaurus, this is it!
Remember, the goal is not just to describe the action but to elicit an emotional response in the reader whenever possible.
Be creative with your word choices for verbs and phrases in order to evoke the right impression or feeling about the locations and characters, as well as in what they do.
6. Know When to Use Capitals in Your Action Lines
Sometimes you’ll see words capitalized in action lines. The one set rule is to always capitalize character names the first time they appear (and only then).
Beyond that, writers will sometimes capitalize the names of important props, sounds, and other elements that demand attention in the scene. This is optional, but just note that if you do it, don’t go overboard. It’s meant for emphasis, so use sparingly.
As an aside, when introducing characters, try to avoid bland physical descriptions that only serve to limit the movie’s casting choices.
Instead, consider the character’s personality or the impression they make when we first meet them.
Are they nervous, confident, aggressive, the life of the party, or the wallflower? If you can work in the right description into the action the character is performing, even better!
Always strive for dynamic action lines rather than static ones!
7. Don’t Give Camera Directions!
And finally, try not to put in any camera directions, like “medium shot” or “close up”. Those are choices the director will make with his cinematographer and Director of Photography (DOP), so the last thing you want to do is tell them how to do their jobs.
Instead, visualize the camera direction inside of the descriptions.
For example, if you write “A large pimple sprouts on the end of Sam’s nose”, it implies that a close-up will be needed to zoom in on the pimple in question, as it draws attention to it.
But, you should not tell the director to do so explicitly.
When is it Okay To Break the Screenplay Action Lines Rules?
As a novice screenwriter, you will want to follow these screenwriting rules and best practices in your scripts. However, you may read scripts from established screenwriters that break one or more of these rules, and you may wonder if it’s okay for you to do that too.
In a word, NO! Or, at least not yet.
When you have made a place for yourself in the screenwriting world, then it may be appropriate to break these and other rules as a stylistic choice (see examples below).
Until then, you will be taken much more seriously as a screenwriter if you align your action lines to these best practices.
Examples of Effective Screenplay Action Lines
Here are some examples of well-written screenplay action lines taken from various genres of movies.
You’ll note that in each scene, the amount of dialogue is minimal, with an emphasis on the visual components and the action driving the scene.
You should always strive for this, regardless of the genre you are working in.
1. Thriller Example: North By Northwest (1959)
NOTE: You’ll notice a few rules broken in this script, such as camera directions and large blocks of text, as opposed to the maximum of 5 action lines per paragraph.
This can be attributed to the fact that the above example is taken from the Shooting Script, which is somewhat different from a Spec Script in that it may include elements such as camera directions, scene numbers, etc.
Also, Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman wrote the script together and therefore wrote in directions for Hitchcock to use, and to the fact that industry norms have changed over the decades since it was written.
But the point remains that the action lines are written with the visuals in mind, first and foremost, and secondly in a dynamic way so as to elicit an emotional response and paint a clear picture in the mind of the reader.
2. Horror Example: A Quiet Place (2018)
NOTE: While there are marked differences between the same scene in the movie and the screenplay, both manage to create a tense and exciting visual narrative for the viewer and reader, respectively.
It also reinforces the idea that your script will undergo many changes throughout the process, from what’s written on the page and what appears on the screen.
3. Comedy Example: Trainspotting (1996)
4. Sci-Fi Example: Alien (1979)
5. Action Comedy Example: Baby Driver (2017)
Action lines are like any other facet of screenwriting in that they get better with practice.
Study the screenplays for your favorite films and those written by world-class writers.
See how they incorporate atmosphere, nuance, and visual and auditory cues into a dynamic and efficient combination of words for each action line and paragraph.
The more you write, the better you’ll get, and the more your scene descriptions and action lines will improve.
Also, look into using a screenwriting software program to ensure that your action lines are formatted correctly!
So read some scripts and get inspired! Happy writing!