Two Things Screenwriters Should Know About Action Lines In A Screenplay – David Wappel
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Two Things Screenwriters Should Know About Action Lines In A Screenplay – David Wappel

March 4, 2020

Film Courage: You had a Tweet recently about action
lines and it got a lot of traction (a lot of people engaged). Can we start with what
action lines are aimed to accomplish? David Wappel, Screenwriter: I think that action lines are aimed to
accomplish two things tell you what is happening but also how we see what is
happening and you can use words to sort of secretly cue your reader into how
they should be seeing what’s happening I think one of the coolest parts of
screenwriting is that we can use words to cue in the readers brain how they see
what’s happening even without telling them how they should see what’s
happening see what kind of an example so if we were to say she entered the room
with a sarcastic grin or she crept in from this I don’t know I’m help me out
yeah I think you can if you want to start a line a toothy grin spreads
across her face as the doorknob clicks and she enters the room the first thing
I’m gonna see is that toothy grin so even though I didn’t say close-up on
mouth the reader will probably just see a mouth grinning because I haven’t told
them yet that this is a room so they’re only thinking in terms of what they’ve
been told because that’s just the way our brain works I’m not gonna imagine
something that no one has queued me to imagine but if I wanted to say the room
sits vacant as a door opens and she enters smiling you’re already in the
room and you’ve I’ve told the reader that there’s a room which a room is
probably going to cue a wide shot and then the door opens and she enters and
she has the grin now it’s the same action in both but I have used different
words to hopefully cue the into how I think they should be seeing
it and I haven’t told the director necessarily how to shoot it but I’ve
suggested what I think might be best for the story and then if a director takes
that and says that’s great that gives me an idea for something even stronger and
they use a wide shot to get what I was trying to achieve even better because
I’m not telling them how to do their job I’m just suggesting it but either way
the director the actress the production designer everyone knows that all we need
to do is just get this actress entering the room smiling I’ve just suggested
what I think is the best way to visually tell that but even if none of that gets
across she’s still entering the room smiling and that’s as far as I need to
take it I think so the one where she’s smiling or the toothy grin which one do
you think is but I like the toothy grin in some sense because that keeps me like
hmm toothy as in showing the canines is it
like a little more mischievous or is it she’s overjoyed I think it would depend
on the context and that those are the kind of choices that you get to make as
a screenwriter when you’re decided on about how to tell the audience how to
see what is in your screenplay so if it’s really important to me that is an
establishing shot of this character and I want the first thing the audience to
see when they first meet his character is her toothy grin then I’m going to
want to cue that with those words but if this is not necessarily that important
or there’s other considerations or other reasons that that’s I don’t want to drop
too much attention to this character and her grin I might not do that and I might
just have her enter the room from the wide because it’s more important that
the room is vacant that’s the creative choice that I want to have in the
screenplay perhaps this is an apartment that this woman is entering where she
lived with her husband and she’s had a good days so she enters smiling but we
already know it’s vacant and we see her face drop so it’s more important that we
see apartment vacant first but I could also
flip that we could be on her with the toothy grin
maybe I just a big smile but I can say big smile she opens the door and finds
an empty apartment her face falls so I can basically even though it’s the same
action I can swap those two visually with my words and actually create
different effects in the audience in one of your tweets you mentioned writing
action lines with special attention paid to word order and what you call
anchoring now mm-hmm what is an anchoring noun and anchoring noun is a
term that I made up because I didn’t know what else to call it but for me
it’s the first noun that you encounter that communicates what sort of shot you
should be seeing the action I’m describing so if I say an orchard
sprawls across the valley I haven’t said wide shot but orchard to
me is the anchoring noun that anchors you visually into a wide shot because
you don’t picture an orchard and close-up because I’ve told you it’s an
orchard it’s a big thing if I say an apple sits on a branch then the
anchoring noun would be Apple and I’ve kind of cued you into a closer shot even
though I haven’t said camera close-up on or anything like that so those nouns and
where you place them are just what I call anchoring downs because it anchors
you to the image that I want you to picture in your head and does that also
kind of correspond with grounded stories grounded cinema in some sense because
it’s sort of I mean maybe there’s no correlation on I’m not sure if it’s all
right well because to me this is like a bit like a it’s just like a little crass
thing and depending on people use it yeah it’s uh it’s a tool in the toolkit
and I think people can employ it to any level of stories it can be an incredibly
heightened not grounded like fun space romp but you can still use anchor nouns
for heightening some of that craziness what is visual writing in a screenplay
to me visual writing is writing with the notion that this is something to be seen
so using words that in my mind are visually sticky so a character walking
across the room doesn’t evoke a very strong visual thing for me but a
character leaping across the room I guess that seems more visual to me
because it’s just more of a specific action so I can picture a leap that’s
very specific and it’s different than a walk okay yeah this walk sort of falls
flat but with leaping there’s more of an
urgency to it whether it’s a positive thing or negative thing mm-hmm okay I
don’t know if there’s more of an urgency to it but there’s a specificity to it a
character that shuffles across the room I can picture that and I can picture
that very differently than a leap but a walk kind of falls flat because we just
see people walk every day so there’s nothing inherently unique about that
action and if the character is just walking and there’s they should not be
doing anything else then I think use walk it’s not that you have to use
something else but if there’s anything you can give me that is just a little
more specific than walk I’m gonna be able to picture it I think a little bit
easier so if you don’t want to call attention to the walk if it’s not really
a major thing in the story then just maybe keep it something like that walk
something more bland but if there’s a point to what you’re trying to make or
this character is going to be doing something or setting it up for something
then that’s where the more the more visual the better yeah I think
the more specific the better every noun and verb in your script is an
opportunity to tell the audience something and the more specific you can
be with your nouns and verbs the less you have to use adjectives and adverbs
which saves you space and so a character reluctantly walks is more words than
saying a character shuffles across the room or a character pads across the room
oh I like where this is going this is great yeah the more specific you can be
with your nouns and your verbs the less adjectives and adverbs you’ll have to
use in your screenplay do you see that a lot with newer writers I think with
newer writers the thing that I see the most is more words rather than less so
over written I think over written might be a way to
put it you

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  1. Oh this was a good one! One major thing he said and I was told early in my career was "don't do the director's job ". Plus in those action lines is where I believe you start to develop your style. Like to wrirte SUPER IMPOSE or SUPER and how you will guide the reader into your vivid imagination.

  2. It seems so obvious now I heard it. But all I have written is more 'flat-descriptive' than action writing. I understand why my readers could sometimes not engage in the screenplay. Great tips, as always in this channel.

  3. I have a question, hoping you can answer me. As beyond dialogue, we must write the feeling that this scene must create. Is it acceptable that some indications are written before the action? For instance: (this place is sacred, intimate, highlight respect.) I'm thinking about the scene in Kill Bill 1, where Beatrix enters Hattori Hanzo's attic

  4. Jenna quickly climbs the flight of stairs with a toothy grin, knocks hastily twice on the bedroom door and enters without waiting for an answer. Her smile goes off seeing the agonizing boy lying on the ground. – Is it descriptive enough?

  5. Thank you guys 🙏🏻 Writing action is one of the things I'm struggling with now. I find it hard to choose the right words when writing an action line as the wrong word could easily lead your reader astray. One of the things that helped me is reading other action screenplays.

  6. Oh My God!!!!! Someone actually addressing action lines!!! I honestly think this is the first time I've seen anything addressing action lines. Why is this not seen as important?
    Thank you. Give us more, please 🙂

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