Welcome to Screenwritersdaily.com!
Member Login
Lost your password?

Action in Scripts by Barbara J. Hunter


Barbara J. Hunter


Action can either make or break a screenplay. Every script needs to have explosive lines of descriptive action. Each group of action should be, on the average, no more than two to three lines. For some that’s not enough to deliver everything that’s in the imagination. Luckily, there is a way to get the most out of every word used in action.
Action has to have pizzazz, because real life is filled with movement and thrills. It needs to mirror real life as much as possible. For starters, all action must be in the present tense. Using words with “ing’s” endings is a huge no, no. One way to clean up a slow script is to eliminate them. Let’s take a look:
Original: Sarah was walking into the room, when she saw a lighted pumpkin.
Changed to: Sarah walks into the room, where she sees a lit pumpkin.
The tense is changed to present and the “ing’s” are eliminated.
The next thing to determine is how your character walks into the room. In the above example does Sarah walk in scared, out of breath, lethargically, blindly? Real people walk into the room a certain way. Think back to those days when your mother walked into the room with that look on her face that meant you did something wrong. Describe action with this in mind and your characters will be real.


Changed to: Cautiously Sarah sneaks into the room, where she sees a lit pumpkin.
In order to give the audience the depth of your imagination when describing the room or area in your script, you need to choose only what is important for the audience to see. In other words, it needs to be relevant to the plot. For instance, it is not important to describe the dust on a window sill unless a maid is cleaning it, or to show the age of the room, or how much time has transpired.


What you choose to describe should define the setting perfectly. If I said the room has a futon, beer cans, and a lava lamp, you might imagine a college dorm room, or a hippie’s chillin’ pad. If I said a stable had one skinny horse, a rickety barn, and an unpainted fence, you could assume this is a poverty stricken farm or stable. On the other hand, if I described the area with hundreds of grazing horses, several sturdy barns, and a never-ending white fence, you would have an idea of the amount of wealth that belongs to a well established horse ranch.
To effectively convey a great scene you need to balance the action of your character with the description of the area you are trying to present. Some screenwriters separate the two by telling first what a room or area looks like, and then secondly, they separately bring the character into the scene. By intertwining the two you will see how your action will come alive. You will have trimmed down what is written, which will in turn speed up the overall reading of the script.


In order to do this pick three to four key objects that are relevant to your story’s plot for the area you want to describe. In the working example I will use, an oil lamp, couch, a coffin, and the pumpkin. The idea of this exercise is to get your character to interact with the objects. Let’s take a look.
Poor example: In a room there is an oil lamp, a coffin, a couch, and a lit pumpkin. Cautiously, Sarah sneaks into the room, where she sees the lit pumpkin.


Good Example:
Cautiously Sarah sneaks toward the oil lamp, and lights it. She weaves around the couch and past a coffin. Next to it rests a lit pumpkin.
Notice the absence of wordy phrases like “the whole room looked like …” or “The character looks around the room and sees …” or even, “she gets on the other side of the room where she sees …” These phrases lack action and that is exactly what you need to be writing. Heavy phrases aren’t necessary if you incorporate action with the character.
There is still more to do. We need to give this action line color. Be as descriptive as possible and say what you really see. But refrain from being long-winded.
Example: Cautiously Sarah sneaks toward the dirty oil lamp, and lights it. She weaves around the velvet couch and past an ominous coffin. Next to it rests a lit jack-o’-lantern.
Just a few words give it a little more realism and description.


I usually start with three to four objects, but on occasion there may be more items that are relevant. I could add a knife, an old clock, and even a corpse. But that doesn’t need to come in the opening sequence. It can be in the next, and will be separated by dialogue.


Good example: Cautiously Sarah sneaks toward the dirty oil lamp, and lights it. She weaves around the velvet couch and past an ominous coffin. Next to it rests a lit jack-o’-lantern.


 SARAH Dave, are you in here?

Sarah backs up slowly into an old clock. Startled, she stumbles to the floor. Beside her a bloody butcher’s knife. Sarah follows the trail of blood to a lifeless corpse.

 SARAH Dave? 

Now it’s your turn. Let’s use the example of the dorm room. The three objects I chose were a futon, beer cans, and a lava lamp. On your own experiment with the “poor example” below by incorporating the character with what is in the room. Then compare it to the “good example.”

Poor Example: Tom walks into a room. There are beer cans, a futon in the middle of the room, and a lava lamp. He goes over to the lava lamp and kneels.
Good Example: Hurriedly, Tom steps over several beer cans, jumps over a beat-up futon, and kneels beside a hot red lava lamp.
Can you see how the line creates motion. It has color, environment, and action.

In conclusion, less is more. When setting up a scene keep it short, colored, exciting, and flowing. The number one reason readers or producers reject a script is because it is flat and slow. There is no need to describe every flower on the wallpaper, nor is there any reason why you can’t have your characters interact with their surroundings. Now practice, and good luck.

Leave a Reply