How to Write Screenplay Action Lines [Tips & Examples]

action scene: man with megaphone

Key Takeaways:

  1. Be Succinct and Clear: Aim for concise, clear action lines and more white space by limiting paragraph lengths.
  2. Write in the Present Tense: Use the present tense and avoid -ED and -ING verb endings.
  3. Write from a Visual Perspective: Focus on what can be seen and heard – avoid internal thoughts and other senses.
  4. Show, Don’t Tell: Convey characters’ emotions through actions and reactions for a stronger impact.
  5. Be Evocative and Atmospheric: Use evocative verbs and creative wording to elicit emotional responses and vivid imagery.
  6. Use Capitals Sparingly: Capitalize character names initially – use all-CAPS sparingly to emphasize elements.
  7. Avoid Camera Directions: Do not include camera directions but imply focus through descriptions.

Good screenplay action lines are so important for a successful script!

Action lines are the text in a screenplay that helps the reader see the movie or short film in their mind’s eye. They must be concise and to the point.

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. Let’s start by defining what exactly action lines are!

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.

action lines in a screenplay

How to Write 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, 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.

PRO TIP: 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.”

PRO TIP: Kill the -ED and -ING endings for your verbs in action lines!

screenplay action lines - woman leaning on blue and white wall

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.

screenplay action lines - Expressive angry businessman in formal suit looking at camera and screaming with madness while hitting desk with fist

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?

PRO TIP: 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

Sometimes, you’ll see words capitalized in action lines. The one main rule is always to 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!

screenplay action lines - man in black and white striped long sleeve shirt

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 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 Great Action Lines

Here are some examples of well-written screenplay action lines from various movie genres.

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.

North By Northwest (1959)

Below you’ll find how the action lines for this movie look in the original script:

Watch the above video to see how the action lines translated to the final movie.

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.

A Quiet Place (2018)

Here’s how the action lines look in the script:

Watch the clip above to see how the action lines translated to the finished film.

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 to what appears on the screen.

Trainspotting (1996)

Here’s the excerpt from the script:

Watch the above clip to see the action on-screen.

Alien (1979)

The action lines in the script:

Watch this clip from the movie to see the on-screen action from the action lines in the script above!

Baby Driver (2017)

The action lines in the script:

Watch the above to see how the action lines translated to the movie.

Final Thoughts

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!

how to write action lines in a screenplay

Common Questions (FAQs)

Should action lines be written in the present tense?

Yes, action lines should be written as if the scene is unfolding in real time. This helps create a sense of immediacy.

How long should an action line be?

Most action lines are contained within just a single sentence. They rarely go beyond two sentences. Aim for brevity and clarity.

How can I improve my action lines?

Try reading them out loud and think about what needs to be seen or what needs to happen. Restricting your word count can also help you make them more concise.

Want to learn more about writing screenplays? Check out these helpful articles!

What Is a Logline in Film? 7 Tips for Creating Powerful Loglines for Screenwriters

How to Introduce Characters in a Screenplay: 5 Tips for Character Introductions

25+ Ways to Brainstorm Movie Ideas

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  1. I found this post really helpful in understanding how to write action lines for a screenplay. I often struggle to visualize the action in my scenes, but the examples provided here made it click for me. Definitely bookmarking this post for future reference!

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