What is an action line?
New screenwriters are taught to write action lines as: Who is in the shot and what is happening, now. What is the camera seeing, now. But when you study the pros you’ll find they do more than this. Pros cheat. They do it all the time. How do they do it? When it comes to action lines, they give us: what is the camera seeing now–with attitude.
They impose their own screenwriting style, their writer’s voice, onto the supposed objective action line. They corrupt action lines with POV. And you need to do the same.
That is what will make your script stand out far from the maddening screenwriting crowd. Pour your writer’s voice into action lines. Screenplays, mostly, are just action lines and dialogue. It’s not enough to nail the dialogue. You have to force your personality into the action lines.
The best way to do that is to study how the pros do it. I’ve written a couple of posts on this already, but I want to study it again. Let’s examine perhaps the best example I know, My Best Friend’s Wedding. “A freaking rom-com is the best example you got?” asks Cheese Fry Chicago Joe. Yeah Joe, I’m no rom-com fan either, but this Ron Bass written script goes right into the head of the Julia Roberts protagonist. Here’s the full script. Let’s get going….
Julia Roberts is Julianne, still carrying the torch for Michael (Dermont Mulroney) though of course he can’t see it because he’s about to marry a young (yeah, we’re going back to 1997) Cameron Diaz. Like with most rom coms, we, the audience, get what the characters in the movie don’t, in about two minutes. Reading the script, we get it here in his first phone to tell Julia Roberts he’s getting married. Check out how the action lines put you right in her head:
I called because I met someone.
And her smiles breaks off. Like a spine snapping. Because there is
something in his voice.
Well, that’s great. You haven’t
really had anybody since Dingbat
You don’t understand. I’ve never
felt this way about anybody!
Never. She sits down, hard. Right on the floor.
And she’s all wrong for me!
I mean she’s a junior at Chicago
University, she’s twenty years
old! Like when I first met you.
Like when. Julianne’s mouth is suddenly dry.
And her dad is like this billionaire
who owns the White Sox and some cable
empire, and you know how I’ve always
been miserably awkward around those
kinda stuffed suits…
She’s finally making her mouth work…
But they’re so down to earth, such
You’ve met her parents.
MICHAEL (V.O., quiet)
See. We’re getting married.
There’s a knife in her heart. She can scarcely breathe.
Wow is right. This stylized method won’t be right for every script, but it’s something, Good Reader, you can emulate. You can’t copyright a style. You can’t copyright POV. You can’t copyright how words are laid out on the page. If it works for you, use it.
INT. MICHAEL’S ROOM – TWILIGHT
Julianne alone in his room, looking around frantically. No worries
about this guy making his bed every day, stuff, clothes, strewn
everywhere, the bathroom looks like a cherry bomb just detonated.
She’s tramping through a bachelor’s debris, wearing only her towel,
There it is. The corner of his LAPTOP sticking out from beneath a
discarded bedspread. She SNATCHES it up, OPENS it, sets it on the
cluttered desk, and…
… stops. There are wallet-sized SNAPSHOTS of Kimmy. Some alone.
Some as a little girl. Some with Michael. And next to them…
… the plastic fold-out wallet inset. That he has not yet quite
rearranged. So she picks it up. Leafs through, until she finds
what she was praying would be there…
… Julianne grinning. Michael’s arm around her. On the deck of a
boat. They have drinks in their hands. Happiness in their eyes.
And she stares at it. Jesus, God, how long has he carried this
around? She flips through further, all the rest have her in them.
Maybe half a dozen. Her heart is throbbing. Her eyes are damp.
Back to the one on the boat. She slips it from the plastic window.
Holds it. Then, gently…
… puts it back where it belongs. PUNCHES up the goddamn laptop.
This is it, girl! Do or die.
You wouldn’t change your
password, would you? You
never change anything.
Those words make her bite her lip. Damn, I’m becoming a senti-
mental slob. TYPES in…
Yes! We’re in! Punching keys. Letters flying across the screen.
Okay, we’re ready. Types…
(reads as she types)
Mike. I hate this downsizing
shit as much as you do. But I
know this can’t become as a
This is why screenwriting study is such an incomplete science. There’s no one way to make this work. Ron Bass is a pro who has the chops to pull this off. You adding POV into action lines might be a risk, but in a world of screenwriters just writing what is the camera seeing now maybe it’ll pay off to try to master the with attitude part.
Getting a non-Based On A True Story, Marvel universe, branded tentpole prequel/sequel spec script made is already such a longshot…
What have you got to lose?