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Write Compelling Action Lines: Spec Scripts

March 9, 2015

Most screenplays and teleplays that you’ll find online are shooting scripts. Often times you’ll find that shooting script action lines might not have much gripping prose to them. If fact, they can be blunt and to the point, especially teleplays. Why is this? Because scripts go through many changes between being a spec and a shooting script. Many times the action lines will take the hit in order to be more streamlined and easier to read for the staff and actors. Actors tend to skip over those lines anyway. They’re only interested in the dialogue.

That being said, when writing a spec script it’s important for the action lines to be compelling. You want to grip your reader, get them fully invested in the story. So it’s your job to make the action interesting. The most important thing you can remember, is to make sure your sentences use proper grammar. Nothing will turn a reader off more quickly than poor grammar in the action lines.

You must remember that the action lines are to be in present tense and in active voice. Try to avoid using present participle verbs: verbs that end in –ing. It’s the difference between, “Bob is sitting at the table, drinking his coffee,” and, “Bob sits at the table and drinks his coffee.” It isn’t always avoidable; occasionally you’re going to need to use an –ing verb, just try to keep them to a minimum.

You can be descriptive in action lines, in fact, for a spec script, it’s encouraged. Just don’t get long winded. “John’s club of a fist connects with Larry’s face with a sickening THUNK! Larry’s face contorts as it wraps around John’s massive meat hook.” Do you get a good visual from that? Can you hear sound of the punch? Compare it to, “John punches Larry in the face.” Be descriptive, but keep it concise. The reader doesn’t want to get bogged down in line after line of flowery prose that describes every detail of the room and what the characters are wearing. Stick to only the important details. If it’s not relevant to the story, don’t write it.

Action lines (and dialogue lines too, for that matter) should be kept to a maximum of 10 lines. Readers don’t like to see large blocks of text. They tend to skim, or worse, skip over them. It’s good practice to think of blocks of action lines as individual camera angles. This way you can create what you want the camera to show without giving camera direction. You should avoid using camera direction in a spec script. It slows the reader down with technical jargon. You want your spec script to flow and be an easy read. Here’s an example of from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction:

Vincent lifts the needle up above his head in a stabbing motion. He looks down on Mia.

Vincent’s eyes narrow.

Red dot on Mia’s body.

Needle raised, ready to strike.

Vincent brings the needle down hard, stabbing Mia in the chest.

Do you see how breaking up the lines creates specific visuals in your mind’s eye? This is how you create camera angles in your spec script without giving camera direction. The first line is a medium shot of Vincent as he raises the needle. The next line is a close up on Vincent’s face, maybe just his eyes. The next shot is a close up of the dot on Mia’s chest. Finally, we have a wide shot of Vincent swinging the needle down into Mia’s chest. All of this is done without once using camera direction lingo.

Finally, only write what can be seen or heard in the action lines. Remember that film and television are both visual media. If it can’t be seen or heard, it doesn’t belong in the action lines of your spec script. Sometimes in shooting scripts you’ll see that the writer has written the character’s thoughts. Thoughts can’t be seen or heard (unless you’re writing them in the dialogue as voice over) and don’t belong in a spec script. Feelings can’t be seen or heard and don’t belong in a spec script. These are some of the fundamental differences between spec scripts and shooting scripts. You can read about more of the differences between the two in a previous blog.

So let’s recap what we’ve learned. Use proper grammar. It’s okay if you don’t use complete sentences; just make sure it’s grammatically correct. Try to avoid using present participle verbs and keep your sentences in active voice. Don’t use passive voice. Be brilliantly descriptive, but avoid being long winded. Keep your descriptions concise and don’t add details that aren’t pertinent to the story. Break up the action lines into camera angles, but don’t use camera direction lingo such as CLOSE UP, ZOOM IN, ANGLE ON, etc. Leave that jargon for the shooting scripts. And lastly don’t write anything that can’t be seen or heard. Until next week, happy writing.

If you have any specific topics you’d like me to cover, please feel free to post them in the comments below.

  1. Great advice. Good read. I was asked to re-write about 4 pages on a spec script. Couldn’t make heads or tails of what I was reading. This a good read. Blessings.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is excellent. I’ve copied my students and urged them to join your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I would love to know more about story plots/ arcs – to learn about all the different types please.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Be Sure Your Spec Script Gets Read: Don’t Make These Mistakes | The Dialogue Architect
  2. Show, Don’t Tell | The Dialogue Architect

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