In this column we'll look at two more aspects of writing action: how to write it and how to format it.
How to Write It
In last month's column I showed how the screenwriter's task is to write what is seen on the screen ("what to write"), simply and directly. But there's another major mistake that many beginners make when writing action: like the fiction writer, they get inside a character's mind.
Consider a scene that starts like this:
INT. APARTMENT - NIGHT
Joe opens the door and turns on the light. He steps into the room. He senses that someone has been here. He wonders if he's been robbed or what. He rushes to the bedroom.
The writing style is simple enough. But "he senses" and "he wonders" take us into the character's mental thoughts, and the screenwriter must approach this same psychology a different way. Here is how an experienced screenwriter might write it:
Joe opens the door and turns on the light. He steps into the room. He looks puzzled and disturbed. He rushes to the bedroom.
The difference is subtle but it is important. There is some flexibility here, to be sure. For example, one might write: "He looks puzzled and disturbed. Has someone been in his apartment? He rushes to the bedroom." The question clarifies the motivation for the previous description and serves as a clue for the actor.
The other thing to avoid is expository information in the action element that will not be communicated on the screen, either through action or dialogue. For example, if you write "Joe was married to Helen for 15 years," but do not communicate this in any other way, then the audience will not know it. YOUR AUDIENCE IS NOT THE READER, in this sense, but the person WATCHING THE MOVIE. You must always be aware that you are writing a blueprint for a movie, not a literary document. You therefore must accept many more writing restrictions than those found in other forms of writing.
How to Format Action
The screenwriter has a very powerful tool in the way he or she places action upon the page. Few beginners write as if they are aware of this and even many experienced screenwriters do not take advantage of this element of screenplay craft. It's called "using white space" to direct the movement, including the visual movement, of your story. The way you define your paragraphs in your action element determines how white space appears on the page, and this has subtle but important consequences.
Again, let's look at an example. Here's an extended action sequence as many beginners would write it.
Sally comes outside onto the porch, closing the door behind her. She tests it to make sure it's locked. She looks in the mailbox and takes out the mail, putting it in her purse. She walks down the steps and to her car in the driveway. She unlocks the door and gets in. She gets out again and goes back up the steps and puts the mail back in the mailbox. Back to the car, where she starts the engine and backs out the driveway.
Many beginners would write this sequence as one paragraph. What experienced screenwriters realize is that a paragraph in a screenplay is like an individual shot set-up. Although screenwriters do not mention the camera in the current fashion of format, nonetheless they can direct the movie in subtle ways by the way they break up their paragraphs. Compare the long action paragraph above to this:
Sally comes onto the porch and closes the door. She checks that it's locked.
She takes the mail out of the mailbox. She puts it in her purse.
She walks to her car in the driveway. She unlocks it and slides in behind the wheel.
She sits. Then she gets out of the car.
She goes back to the mailbox and returns the mail.
She returns to the car and gets in. She starts the engine.
The car backs out of the driveway.
Notice several things: by breaking up the paragraph into seven short paragraphs, we've isolated each of the visual beats of the sequence. We are, in fact, inviting the director how to shoot it.
We've also added considerable white space to the page, making it more inviting and much easier to read. Shane Black has noted that action in a screenplay needs to have a sense of being read vertically, as if film is running down the page, rather than horizontally across the page in the usual fashion of reading.
Example from "Pearl Harbor"
The key to good action writing is clarity and simplicity with strong visual elements. Let me close with a stellar example, from Randall Wallace's celebrated action sequence in "Pearl Harbor":
EXT. PEARL HARBOR - DAY
The harbor lies quiet. It's a sleepy Sunday morning. Children are playing, officers are stepping from their houses in their shorts to get the morning paper...
EXT. MOUNTAINSIDE - OAHU - DAY
Hawaiian Boy Scouts are hiking on a side of one of the mountains overlooking Pearl.
Suddenly booming over the mountain, barely ten feet above the summit, comes a stream of planes.
The boys are awed. What is this?
EXT. PEARL HARBOR - DAY
QUICK INTERCUTS - Between the approach of the Japanese planes, and sleepy Pearl Harbor...
-- The planes, in formation, their propellers spinning, their engines throbbing...
-- Pearl Harbor, with the ships silent, their engines cold, their anchors steady on the harbor bottom.
-- The Japanese submarines heading in.
-- The American destroyers docking, instead of going out to search for them.
-- Another formation of Japanese bombers climbing high, into attack position.
-- The Japanese torpedo planes dropping down to the level of the ocean, their engines beginning to scream.
-- The American planes bunched on the airfields.
-- ON THE JAPANESE CARRIERS, Yamamoto and his staff huddle tensely, over their battle maps.
-- ON THE JAPANESE CARRIER DECKS, the second wave of planes is being brought up and loaded with munitions...the Japanese flag snaps tautly in the wind...
-- ON THE GOLD COURSE NEAR PEARL HARBOR, American officers are laughing on the putting green near the club house, where the American flag droops from the flag pole, limply at peace.
-- The Japanese planes roaring down just over the wave tops of Pearl Harbor itself.
-- Children playing in the early morning sun, looking up as they see the planes flash by. The children look -- they've never seen this many, flying this low...but they are not alarmed, only curious.
The images come faster and faster, the collision of Japan's determination and America's innocence.
This is action writing at its best.