How to Write Hollywood-Style action lines Part 2!

Here is the second chapter of how to write action lines.

Now, I’m not professing to write like any of the people whose work I’m about to discuss. However, I have noticed certain things which we as writers can do to make our action lines more professional. And this isn’t just for screenwriters, either. I believe that everyone (myself included) would benefit from analysing the style of the masters.

That said, I’m going to begin with a non-screenwriter.

Stan Lee is a comic book legend. The man who invented Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and many many more. Comic book style is even terser than screenwriting. They only have one caption to get across a lot of information.

Here is a passage I read from the Amazing Spider-Man a while ago:

“You’ll see Spidey turning to a psychiatrist for help after he becomes convinced he may be going mad! And wait’ll you learn who the mysterious shrink himself turns out to be. Next, our hero has to a battle a seemingly indestructible robot, and if that isn’t enough, the deadly mechanical marauder is actually controlled by the sneering, leering, J. Jonah Jameson himself!”

Notice anything?

If you’ve ever heard Stan the Man talk, you can probably hear his intonation ringing in your head right now. But let’s boil it down to some simple rules.

Let’s take another look:

“You’ll see Spidey turning to a psychiatrist for help after he becomes convinced he may be going mad! And wait’ll you learn who the mysterious shrink himself turns out to be. Next, our hero has to a battle a seemingly indestructible robot, and if that isn’t enough, the deadly mechanical marauder is actually controlled by the sneering, leering, J. Jonah Jameson himself!”

Lee’s style is so bold that generations of comic writers have mimicked him. Here we see several of Stan’s tell-tale traits at work. And if that isn’t a clue, nothing is!

Notice the sentence structure contains adjectives before most of the nouns (except for the proper noun ‘Spidey’, which is really a name). You have a “mysterious shrink”, a “seemingly indestructible robot”, and a “deadly mechanical marauder”.

Which brings us to our next Stan Lee trait: alliteration (words that begin with the same letter for those without an English degree). Phrases like: “Mechanical marauder”, and of course J. Jonah Jameson himself. Many more Stan Lee heroes are alliterative, too. Like Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, and Matt Murdock. Lee once said he did that on purpose so he could remember the names, but whatever the reason, it makes the phrases have even more impact.

There you go, two simple ways to make your action lines stand out: alliteration and adjectives.

However…

Just remember that screenplays are also sparse. They are images. Easy to follow. Easy to read. Mainly written in high school English. So do don’t go jumping for your Thesaurus just yet.

Consider this passage:

“The front of the Opera House is open only to foot traffic these days. A bizarre place on a Friday night, hawkers and whores, the rabble, the poor and the curious mill around the crudely built platforms and brightly lit stands. Zhora, in just a translucent raincoat, is not out of place in this flea market atmosphere. Trying not to run, she slices through the mob as quickly as she can. Deckard is not far behind, dodging and side-stepping, trying to move against the tide of people scurrying for shelter

She comes to an intersection and turns out of the mall onto a less crowded street. She glances over her shoulder as she breaks into a run and runs right into a couple of pedestrians. All three go down.

Deckard comes out of the crowd in time to spot her getting to her feet. She sees him and runs. The two pedestrians are in his line of fire. He runs past them and drops to one knee, leveling his blaster

DECKARD

Stop or you’re dead!

She doesn’t.”

 

That’s an excerpt from the screenplay “Bladerunnner” by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based (very loosely) on the novel by Phillip K Dick.

Let’s take a closer look:

The first paragraph sets the scene with a beautiful description that is little more than implied. But there are those adjectives again: “crudely-built”, “translucent”. However, as the action builds momentum, the prose becomes sparser and leaner. The sentences grow short. Simple. Fast. The pace builds until the climax…

Here, the screenwriters use sentence structure to create a sense of energy and pace. The action-filled nature of the scene is also emphasized by the strong verbs and tenses. Zhora “slices through the mob” Notice, she “slices”. She doesn’t just run or walk through them. This creates a feeling that she is powerful and determined. Meanwhile Deckard dodges and side-steps. He has to get out of people’s way. He is her physical inferior.

As the pace quickens, the verbs become even leaner: Zhora turns, glances, runs,  until she collides with more pedestrians.

A useful rule is to try to get rid of any “is” verbs. Is running. Is walking. Is grabbing. Is talking. These are static words that slow the reader down. Better to say he or she runs, walks, grabs, talks.

Time for a third example:

The granddaddy of all powerful prose has to be Robert E Howard, with his Conan stories. You will see similar patterns to Stan Lee in his work, which is effortless to read. Here is an excerpt from Conan’s battle with a sorcerer in “Black Colossus”:

“He cast his staff and it fell at the feet of Conan, who recoiled with an involuntary cry. For as it fell it altered horribly; its outline melted and writhed, and a hooded cobra reared up hissing before the horrified Cimmerian. With a furious oath, Conan struck, and his sword sheared the horrid shape in half.”

Notice the adjectives (marked in italics). Also notice the strong verbs: “He cast”, Conan “recoiled”, it “fell”, his sword “sheared” it in half.

I’ve found that a simple sentence structure works best:

adjective +subject + verb + adjective + object.

However, as with everything to do with writing, feel free to be as creative as you like.

In pointing out these stylistic devices, I’ve tried not to be prescriptive. However, Howard’s prose is extraordinarily powerful, as is Stan Lee’s, with its jokey, friendly, informal tone. While other screenwriters like David Peoples carve out lean, action-packed sentences to speed up the action.

By far the best way to discover what works is to read screenplays. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. Only then do you get a sense of what a Hollywood script looks like. And then, of course, you can find your own voice as a writer.

But that is a post for another time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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10 thoughts on “How to Write Hollywood-Style action lines Part 2!

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