We recently went over Action Line POV looking at My Best Friend’s Wedding. How do the pros infuse their own personality into action lines? Remember, action lines are supposed to be what the camera is seeing now. The pros cheat this, big time. They infuse the objective with the subjective–meaning their own writing style. With them, it’s more like: Who’s in the shot and what’s happening–with attitude. Besides the real rule breakers like Tarantino and Shane Black, there are multiple writing samples that can help you, Good Reader, beef up your own screen direction. So read up, and steal well.
INT. BURNING FACTORY – DOWNSTAIRS
It’s only the fire’s ghost here, lazy and slow.
Off the corridor are rooms full of commercial sewing machines.
Brian enters one and drops to his knees.
Looks under a table, flashes his light behind a work stand.
Nothing. He turns to backtrack his way out when A TONGUE OF
FLAME suddenly LEAPS up through the floor in front of him,
cutting off the door. Brian lands on his ass as it hisses
and giggles and dances unreally in front of him.
I never forget a face, kid. — That fire from childhood. He
could maybe force his way through but Jesus, the way it looks
at him —
— Brian ROLLS away from it. Looks for another doorway —
And ends up in thick smoke. He drops to a crawl, stays on
his belly where the air’s clear. When he sees it. Behind
some furniture. Something flesh-colored. Shit. It’s a body.
Shit, it’s a body. Right into the character’s mind. See? It really opens up possibilities aside from the usual bland objective what the camera sees now approach. But, of course, when you do it you risk the standard U N F I L M A B L E note from readers and gurus. It’s a risk and you can’t get cute with it and do it every page, for every action line. Save it for character defining, like here in another passage from Backdraft:
INT. ELEVATED TRAIN – MORNING
A pissed-off Chicago, hauling itself off to work in the
morning snap, passes by Brian’s window. Tough Midwestern
brick. Tough Midwesterners. Heads-down in their 150 year war
with a wind committed to pushing the whole damn thing into
Anybody can write Brian steps on to dull gray depressingly cold EL train… This paragraph puts you into Brian’s head, it opens it up. We can relate (as I write this outside my Chicago window the wind temp is -17 so I can relate!)
where the Leprechaun was locked in. An inch of dust has gathered and the four-leaf clover that was placed on top has now turned brown with age. The CAMERA MOVES IN very tight on top of the crate.
MICRO CLOSE ON A BROWN FOUR LEAF CLOVER, just resting on top. And a LARGE SPIDER crawls across, scuttling over the clover and down the side of the crate.
We PULL BACK slightly, just enough to show the closed door of the basement in the background.
The crate takes up most of the FRAME in the foreground.
And we HEAR something. Someone is rattling the door handle.
The basement door opens, spilling in a shaft of light and a GUST OF WIND…
…that blows the four-leaf clover along the top of the crate and it almost falls off…
But not quite. The brown clover just hangs on the edge of the crate. A little movement, another gust of wind and the clover will surely fall off. And we do not want that clover to fall off the crate.
No, we don’t want the clover to fall off the crate, but I wouldn’t mind if Mark Jones, the screenwriter, stopped throwing in camera directions like MICRO-CLOSE ON THE FOUR LEAF CLOVER…yes, I know he directed and it’s common practice for director’s writing the script to throw in camera direction. Doesn’t mean I have to like the practice. It takes me out of the experience of seeing a movie and takes me back to the clunky screenwriting jargon of reading a script.
Here’s a sequence I like from Kalifornia. While we don’t go straight into the head of the characters, we can see the intention through POV– in other words, we’re given the information, we see connections that the characters themselves don’t. Check this out:
EXT. MOTEL – LATER
Early walks toward the Lincoln. It is parked outside Brian
and Carrie’s room. The front door is ajar, he pushes it open.
He sees Carrie’s reflection in the bathroom mirror, she’s in
her underwear, pulling on her jeans. Early watches her for a
moment. There’s no mistaking what’s on his mind… as his
eyes scan her body. Carrie pulls on her T-shirt, steps out
of the bathroom and sees Early just outside the door.
…Need a hand with those bags?
No, thanks, I can manage.
CARRIE’S POV – EXT. MOTEL
Early places the bags in the Lincoln’s trunk. Adele sees
Early carrying Carrie’s bag, Adele looks jealous.
In two tiny scenes with minimal dialogue you set up all kinds of nastiness that will follow. We can see that jailbird Early (Brad Pitt) has got a thing for Carrie (Michelle Forbes). Carrie doesn’t see that but we do. Then Early comes out with her bags and his own girlfriend Adele (Juliette Lewis) looks at him jealously. Early doesn’t catch that but WE, the audience, do. Great subtext, what’s said and what’s left unsaid. The words here are meaningless. It’s the intention behind them. With this screen direction, we get it.
Wilson’s first impression of Los Angeles was blue. He was in
the sky at the time, so it was a curious reversal, looking
down rather than up at the color he had always felt was
Swimming pools. Hundreds of them. Pockmarking the landscape
like miniature lakes. A flat landscape of straight streets
and square blocks and sparse grass that didn’t look quite
As far as Wilson could remember, he had only ever seen seven
or eight swimming pools in his entire life and they had been
public ones. Here everyone had their own. Marvellous.
There was the one at the Butlin’s holiday camp where he had
enjoyed his last legitimate employment — as driver of a tour
bus. And there was the one at Crystal Palace he had gone to
once or twice when he was younger. He was most familiar,
though, with the Chelsea Baths as he had lived for some time
in a flat nearby in what he now thought of as his good years
— before he’d gone grey, went to prison, and found himself in
a plane over a foreign town arriving to avenge the death of
Am I encouraging you, the Unknown Screenwriter, to write unfilmable backstory events in the PAST tense? Ahhhh, no. However, there’s no denying, IF the story is strong enough, and IF the script finds the right hands, you’ll have a shot at seeing it made despite the rule-breaking. Moving action lines from the objective into the character mind adds an entirely new dimension to the scene, like here:
INT. ED’S CAR. NIGHT.
Ed drives Wilson back to his motel. Wilson silent. Ed still
not quite sure who he’s dealing with. Is this really or
merely a grieving dad?
What you gonna do, man? You gonna go to
Nah, coppers don’t do nothing, do they.
Those streets up in the hills, man.
Gotta be real careful, keep your eye on
the ball. Two o’clock in the morning,
it’s dark, your mind is all agitated,
you’re drivin’ a little too fast …
Those curves don’t kid around.
Could be talking about the girl. Wilson doesn’t move. But
touch him, he’ll explode. Out the window lights are passing,
but no landmarks. He might as well be on the moon.
Let’s stick with the bad ass-theme and finish with the original rule breaker, Shane Black. I’ll do a whole post on the guy shortly but here’s just a taste of don’t give a shit about unfilmables screen direction. This takes us into the mind of Riggs (Mel Gibson). It’s almost impossible to choose a single passage–the whole damn script is a rule-breaker, but this defines character in action.
The one in the middle grabs Riggs by the collar.
Hoists him to his feet. Gulp.
Stands, staring down at Riggs, whose eyes are completely
neutral, like a snake’s.
Buddy, you’re shortening your
He flicks open a mean-looking switchblade.
Riggs is dead meat.
So why then, does he choose this moment to execute a
Three Stooges’ routine, consisting of nose tweak, eye
gouge, and rotating fist that bobs the dock worker on
the head… ?
He’s nuts or something …
Riggs steps back and adopts a neutral fighting stance.
The others begin to circle.
The DOG BARKS. Riggs turns to the dog, but his eyes never
leave his grinning attackers.
(to the collie)
What’s that … ? You want me to
take the knife away… and break
his elbow… ?
Riggs, watching them, his eyes beginning to dance …
Breathing slow and even…
But that would be excruciatingly
Something inside Riggs is gearing up … the others can
perhaps sense it, their smiles falter a bit, they crouch,
combat-ready…Riggs, eyes blazing …
And if I separated the fat one’s
shoulder… he’d probably scream…
No doubt about it. We know from the look in Riggs’ eyes
he’s nuts. He wants the fight, badly, all four of them
at once …
And then Punk #1 springs…Big mistake.
Needless to say, mincemeat is made of the four meddlesome
The beach is littered with their writhing forms as Riggs
does, finally, what he set out to do:
Unties the dog.
Starts to go.
As he does, he pats his shirt …
Pats his jeans … Realizes his wallet has flown free
during the fracas.
Scoops to retrieve it from its resting place on the sand,
where it lies open, and as it lies open, yes, folks, that
is a badge we see.
Riggs, we realize, is an officer of the law.