A big problem for many novice screenwriters is that they are accustomed to narrative prose in which authors must describe everything. But screenplays are drama. It is important to avoid using description when writing drama. This revelation seems like sacrilege. Writing without description? That can’t possibly be correct! Drama, however, is a different art form. Its needs and requirements are different from novels and short stories. This is especially true in the medium of cinema which stresses visual images above all else, including dialogue.
In a novel or short story, you might see the phrase, “He wonders if he should have stopped for groceries.” Or, “She is thinking that she will be late for her appointment.” Such sentences are description. Narrative prose. They are fine in a novel or short story. But they don’t work as drama. Why not? Well, can an actor perform them? In a film, can a camera photograph them? The answer, of course, is no. Therefore, that kind of writing does not belong in a screenplay. Description is a novelist’s tool. Dramatists need to write action.
Okay, then. What is action? And how does one write it?
Everybody who loves movies is familiar with the director’s clarion call, “Lights! Camera! Action!” Yet action is one of the most misunderstood terms in the screenwriter’s vocabulary. Often when beginners write a screenplay, their characters scramble about, seeming very busy. Yet their story sags. It might even be dull. Why? Because, despite all the activity, there is no action.
In modern English, action and activity are synonyms for physical movement, and we tend to use the terms interchangeably. In drama, activity is indeed physical movement. Beyond mere motion, however, action means human behavior. Including the underlying emotions and mental processes that trigger behavior. To be precise, in drama, action is the manifestation of feelings and thoughts through activity. In screenwriting, the acid test for action will be whether it is behavior that actors can perform and a camera can photograph. Finally, while narrative prose tends to be written in the past tense and the third person, dramatists write action in the present tense and the first person. Characters are always in a state of I do, not I did.
Putting this concept into perspective, first we need to explore motivation. Most human behavior begins with a feeling. The feeling prompts us to want something. Finally, we do it. For example:
1. Jane feels thirsty.
2. She wants water.
3. She goes to the kitchen for a drink.
For the most part, this process happens at the subconscious level. Unless we are lost in the desert, rarely do we waste much time feeling and thinking about getting a drink of water. Still, the steps exist:
Whenever you write action remember that a picture really is worth a thousand words. You need to translate the above steps into activities that visually reveal feeling and wanting as well as doing. Yes, that’s tricky. But the key is to use your imagination and think about the activities people use to express feelings, needs, wants, etc. For example, what activities can you write that show that a character feels thirsty and wants a drink?
INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY
Jane sits reading a book. Suddenly running her tongue over her lips, she swallows hard. She reaches for an empty glass on the table beside her. Rising, she goes into the kitchen.
Jane exhibits behavior that indicates her mouth is dry. (Tongue over the lips. Swallowing.) Then a behavior that indicates she wants water. (Reaching for the glass.) Finding the glass empty prompts another behavior: going into the kitchen. Writing simple, visual images that the audience can identify helps them draw a logical conclusion: Jane wants water. There is no need for further comment or explanation. In particular, try to avoid stating the obvious. For example:
INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY
JANE sits reading a book. Running her tongue over her lips, she swallows hard. She feels thirsty. She reaches for an empty glass on the table beside her. She sees it is empty. Rising, she gets out of the chair, takes the glass, and goes into the kitchen.
Such overwriting is a common problem for new screenwriters. Fortunately, they improve with practice. A major advance comes when they can identify their redundant phrases and have the nerve to cut them.
Of course, getting a glass of water is simple, ordinary behavior. Unless we want the audience to start snoring, we need to charge up the action. But how? What if, when Jane enters her kitchen, she finds a man wearing a ski mask?
1. What will she feel?
2. What will she want?
3. What will she do?
Fear and anger are predictable feelings Jane might have. What kind of behavior could such feelings prompt?
Fear -> I want to escape -> Scream and run.
Anger ->I want to protect myself. -> Grab a rolling pin.
As a rule, the stronger the emotion, the greater the desire, and the bigger the action. Small, quiet actions are fine because they offer clues about the character’s personality. For example:
Jane gasps and stares. (She’s not the type to scream and run.)
For maximum power , however, rely on the strongest emotions.
Teeth clenched, Jane hurls her empty glass at The Man. (She’s a fighter.)
But, you ask, what if Jane simply stands frozen. That, too, is behavior. Sometimes a character doing nothing has a greater impact than when they do something. The writer’s greatest priority is to choose behavior that is appropriate for a specific character in a given situation. Rambo, for example, probably would jump the intruder. Scarlet O’Hara might faint. Having a clear idea of your characters’ personalities helps you write action that suits them.
Okay. In the above examples, we considered Jane’s possible actions. But how might her behavior affect the guy in the ski mask? If she screams and runs, what emotions will it spark in him? What will he want? What behavior will he show? In short, what will be his reaction?
Sir Isaac Newton said it best, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Of course, he was talking about physics. We are talking about drama. Surprisingly, the disciplines have concepts in common, even though they are worlds apart.
Whenever you put two or more people together, one person’s behavior invariably forces others to react. If you doubt this, walk into a crowded room and start laughing. No warning. No explanation. Just laugh. Most of the people will shake their heads, puzzled. Some will be embarrassed and look away. Some people will scowl. Some will get the bug and laugh with you. But, trust me, they will respond.
That response will be dramatic action. In his book, Play Directing: Analysis, Communication, and Style, Francis Hodge wrote that in plays “as in real life, people start doing to each other…” The concept is crucial, so drill it into your brain: Dramatic action is people doing to each other. Dramatic action always comes in two parts: action and reaction. One character’s behavior may be interesting, but, by itself, it contributes little to plot development. Response from other characters, however, will propel the story forward.
If by now you are thinking in terms of the domino effect, you are quite correct. Dramatic action is a point and counterpoint of behavior, one character playing off against another. Whenever one character wants something, no matter how small, and another character wants something different, they will be in conflict. Their interaction, the give-and-take between them, brings your story to life.
That includes whatever they might say to each other. Speech is an essential part of human behavior, and when one person addresses another, typically it prompts the second person to reply. Indeed, dialogue is our most basic form of dramatic action. But what if the second person does not speak? What if she turns her back and walks away? That behavior, too, is dramatic action, because it was prompted by the first person’s speech.
Finally, let’s return to Jane and The Man in her kitchen. As you create behavior early in your screenplay, be careful to consider the kind of movie you want to make. Is it a comedy? An action thriller? A serious drama? In the very first scenes, Jane and The Man’s behavior toward each other will determine the genre of the film.
This guy just scared the socks off Jane, so it’s a safe bet she will do something. Let’s say Jane screams and runs. What might The Masked Man do? In a comedy, he might scream and run the other way. In an action thriller, he might grab Jane and pin her against a wall. In a serious drama, he might make her an offer she can’t refuse. Whatever action they display must be appropriate for the story you want to write.