How to write Hollywood-style action lines…

Most people’s attention span is

See what I did there?

Yep, people hate doing… pretty much anything actually. And if they do positively have to do something, they do it with the minimum of effort. Just the natural law of conservation of energy.

Sometimes that means forgetting to read right up to the

See what I did again?

Just checking you’re still with me.

For some writers, that natural laziness takes another form. Spewing forth a torrent of textual diarrhoea without editing it.

Failing to edit action lines is my number one pet hate. When you’re trying to read scripts, several in a day, the last thing you want is to be faced with impenetrable blocks of 10-line textual description of how someone pulls up in their car, gets out of their car, closes the door, locks the door, walks up to a building, searches for his keys, finds his keys, puts them in the lock, opens the door, and goes inside, shutting the door behind him.

Especially when you could just say: “He pulls up in his car, gets out, and enters the house”.

In fact, why do we need to see his car? He could just enter the house.

Yes, you will see huge amounts of text in some celebrated produced screenplays. But when you’ve got that Oscar, then you can afford to be lazy too. Maybe.

In the meantime, your path to success may be much imporved by some judicious editing. Read produced screenplays. When I was starting out I loved Eric Red’s screenplays. I tried to copy their style to get the feel of Hollywood scriptwriting.

Hollywood action lines are…

Punchy.

Confident.

Terse.

Use non-literal verbs to whammy you into a reaction!

Are short.

The emphasis is on the last one. NO MORE THAN 3 LINES IN A PARAGRAPH. There, I said, it. And if you’re realy good, fewer will suffice. For example, here’s the opening scene of “Blade” written by David S Goyer:

INT. HOSPITAL, INNER-CITY TRAUMA WARD – NIGHT

It’s 1967, the Summer of Love and —

BOOM! Entry doors swing open as PARAMEDICS wheel in a FEMALE BLEEDER, VANESSA (20s, black, nine months pregnant). She’s deathly pale, spewing founts of blood from a savagely slashed throat —

A SHOCK-TRAUMA TEAM swarms over her, inserting a vacutainer into an
artery to draw blood, wrapping a blood pressure cuff around her
arm —

NURSE #1
(with stethoscope)
She’s not breathing!

SENIOR RESIDENT
Intubate her!

Goyer is very clever here. He uses very few words to set up a complex, exciting scene. It’s helped by his use of precise medical terms which are nevertheless clear enough so a layman knows what he means. The blood “spews” from her throat. The team of medics “swarm” over her. The non-standard verbs are powerful, descriptive.

So… hone your word count down. Never use two words when one will do. Get rid of redundant words like “down” in “he sits down”. Where else would he sit?

Screenwriting action lines is like crafting scrimshaw. You score away at it until what is left is hopefully beautiful.

Less is definitely more.

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