How to write Action Description
Alex Southey explores five different kinds of action description, and how they dictate tone in a script.
Many people tend to assume that because it doesn’t affect the final film, action description doesn’t matter very much. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth. A script’s first audience is not the same as a final movie audience, it’s a team of readers, producers, directors, and so forth. And they don’t have visuals. All they have is the written word.
Action description is exactly what it sounds like. It is the part of the script the writer uses to describe character action and setting. Every screenplay is different, but no matter how different, action description is fundamental. Writers these days play fast and loose with format, but it is said that even the first silent film screenplay (for A Trip to the Moon in 1902) used the kind of blocks of texts with which we’re familiar.
Screenplay action description is like gravity: it informs everything. Through the use of different writing voices for action description, a writer is able to create a satisfying, complimentary atmosphere and flow in a script, which are make or break elements of a scene and, ultimately, a story.
This makes choosing the style of action description voice (A/D voice) a major decision for a writer, and the kind they choose to use often depends on the genre. So let’s explore five familiar genres, to serve as our guide to A/D voice.
1. Action / Adventure
If you want to learn the basics of how to write a screenplay that entertains its audience and its critics alike, there is no better writer-director than Steven Spielberg. He’s responsible for three of the biggest box office successes in history, all of which are partially or entirely based in the Action / Adventure genre: Jaws, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Jurassic Park. And you could justifiably add a few more of his modern classics to that list, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Saving Private Ryan.
To give credit where credit is due, Spielberg usually works closely with other creative types, such as screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders) and George Lucas.
So let’s consider Kasdan’s Raiders script.
In it, he updates the techniques pioneered by his and Spielberg’s film noir heroes, by devoting a good amount of available page space to action description.
The story opens in the Peruvian jungle. He uses large blocks of terse yet intense language that makes the location seem increasingly foreboding. The tone is clear and written from a distanced point of view, much like a traditional narrator in a novel.
As the story progresses, however, and Indiana Jones and his team move deeper into the jungle and closer to their destination (the cave), Kasdan’s blocks of action description become just a little shorter, and this does two things: It increases the pace in the scene (and ultimately the entire first act), and gives greater importance to the words he keeps. They carry more weight by virtue of the fact that they’re all we have.
An increased pace and a sense of anticipation are extremely important for a successful Action / Adventure film, and one way of achieving this is to establish an atmosphere, and then slowly strip away phrasing to increase tension is what’s necessary.
Once he’s created this sense of what’s to come throughout the rest of the film, a lot of his hard work is over.
EXT. PERU – HIGH JUNGLE – DAY
The dense, lush rain forests of the eastern slopes of the Andes, the place known as “The Eyebrow of the Jungle”. Ragged, jutting canyon walls are half-hidden by the thick mists.
The MAIN TITLE is followed by this:
A narrow trail across the green face of the canyon. A group of men make their way along it. At the head of the party is an American, INDIANA JONES. He wears a short leather jacket, a flapped holster, and a brimmed felt hat with a weird feather stuck in the band. Behind him come two Spanish Peruvians, SATIPO and BARRANCA. Bringing up the rear are five Yagua INDIANS. They act as porters and are wrangling the two heavily-packed llamas. The Indians become increasingly nervous. They speak to each other in bursts of Quechua. The American, who is known to his friends as Indy, glances back at them.
They’re talking about the Curse again!
He turns and yells at the Indians in Quechua, his anger giving an indication of his own fears. The party reaches a break in the canyon wall and takes the trail through it.
When they emerge, their destination is revealed to them in the distance. Beyond a thick stand of trees is the vegetation-enshrouded TEMPLE OF THE CHACHAPOWAN WARRIORS, 2000 years old.
The entire party is struck by the sight. The Indians, terrified now, chatter away. Suddenly the three at the back turn and run, dropping their packs as they go. Barranca yells at the fleeing Indians and pulls his pistol out. He starts to raise his arm to aim but Indy restrains it in a muscular grip.
2. Romantic Comedy
On the flip side, let’s now take a look at a script that takes place not in a foreboding jungle but in warm, Upper West Side New York: When Harry Met Sally.
This is a screenplay classic, especially for the Romantic Comedy genre.
Screenwriter Nora Ephron creates an affectionate and personal yet comedic tone of A/D voice in her action description. She does this is because she’s smart enough to understand that people want to feel included, especially when reading a story about vulnerable subjects like friendship and love.
In order to create this A/D voice, Ephron affords the reader tiny asides, which read like thoughts your real friend might have when you’re both out somewhere. Asides are not always comedic, and they can be an act of betrayal, but here they stay firmly in the realm of humorous quips, harmless opinions that may not affect the outcome of the story, but certainly affect the way we perceive the story.
For example, in the scene below when Harry and Sally’s friends are deciding on furniture, Ephron’s tone becomes conspiratorial, and it makes reading an experience. We are not in a private space scrutinizing a simple black and white page filled with words, we’re a third party in a quaint city apartment staring at the ugliest (and probably only) wagon wheel coffee table and bar stools ever committed to film.
I don’t object to any of your things –
Look, if we had an extra room, you could put it in there with all your things including your bar stools and I would never have to see it –
You don’t like my bar stools.
Marie looks at him. Of course she doesn’t like his bar stools.
By matching A/D voice with story subject – in this case a friendly tone used to guide you through a story about friendship – Ephron generates a feeling that’s intangible, yet memorable.
Consider another classic genre script: Quentin Tarantino’s idiosyncratic Pulp Fiction. It’s a different genre, length, and structure than When Harry Met Sally. But Tarantino, too, writes in a conspiratorial (albeit rambling) A/D voice, which affects his action description, which in turn informs the tone.
By mixing anachronistic references to his obsessions with absurdly aggressive language and visuals, he builds a world. Once he’s done this, all he has to do is adjust the behaviour we expect from his characters in order to create tension. His A/D voice ends up creating a lighter tone to the story as a whole, all the while retaining the tension and permeating sense of danger vital to a crime film.
A normal Denny’s, Spires-like coffee shop in Los Angeles. It’s about 9:00 in the morning. While the place isn’t jammed, there’s a healthy number of people drinking coffee, munching on bacon and eating eggs.
Two of these people are a YOUNG MAN and a YOUNG WOMAN. The Young Man has a slight working-class English accent and, like his fellow countryman, smokes cigarettes like they’re going out of style.
It is impossible to tell where the Young Woman is from or how old she is; everything she does contradicts something she did. The boy and girl sit in a booth. Their dialogue is to be said in a rapid pace “HIS GIRL FRIDAY” fashion.
The important fact to keep in mind about Tarantino’s personal writing is that all of these references were never to be seen in the finalized movie. Rather they are intended only for us, his readers, so we have a better understanding of the kind of tone he’s trying to create, or the kind of shot, blocking, line delivery, or scoring he wants. Which is all a screenwriter really has: the page, and nothing else. It all starts with the script.
Vince knocks on the door. The front entrance is unlocked, revealing the Dapper Dan fellow on the inside: ENGLISH DAVE. Dave isn’t really English, he’s a young black man from Baldwin Park, who has run a few clubs for Marsellus, including Sally LeRoy’s.
Imagine: Pulp Fiction has yet to be made. Tarantino has no ability to shoot a preview of what the finalized film will look like, nor can he bring pictures, play music, and so on. All he has are his words and his sense of how to use them affectively.
Efficient, basic set description on a page does not necessarily create tone, but when a clear A/D voice or style is used, such as Tarantino’s or Ephron’s, the tone becomes clear.
4. Film Noir
There is the authorial kind of A/D voice, and the conspiratorial voice (both for Crime and Romantic Comedy), but there’s another pillar genre with its own voice, a novelistic voice, as though someone has spent years crafting ornate sentence after ornate sentence, and you are meant to decipher each. This genre is Film Noir.
When I think of Film Noir classics, the ones that come to mind are those that still hold up today, such as Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon. As the legend goes, director of The Maltese Falcon, John Huston had only one weekend to get a draft done, and he’d already made other plans, so he asked his secretary to write it for him. She obtained a copy of the Raymond Chandler short story on which the film was to be based, and transcribed it nearly word for word.
And if you look at the script, this story doesn’t seem far fetched, at least not the final part. The plain, curt, yet longer than average action description bears great resemblance to Chandler’s narration, as well as to his meticulously crafted monologues performed by the many brooding detectives that populate the genre.
Dundy and Polhaus push past him into the passageway. CAMERA TROLLIES after them as they open the door to the living room, enter.
INT. LIVING ROOM
Brigid O’Shaughnessy is huddled in an armchair by the table, her arms over her face. Her eyes are white-circled, terrified. Joel Cairo stands in front of her, bending over her, holding in one hand the flat, black pistol. His other hand is clapped to his forehead. Blood runs through the fingers of that hand and down into his eyes.
Cairo does not heed the detectives. He is glaring at the girl huddled in front of him. His lips are working spasmodically, but no coherent sound comes from between them. Dundy, the first of the three into the living room, moves swiftly to Cairo’s side, puts a hand on his own hip under his overcoat and a hand on Cairo’s wrist.
It is a great example of the tendencies of a genre in novel form informing what would be most effective in the action description in a script. If the characters in Film Noir novels are given to speaking in long monologues, so should the writer in his or her action description. It creates the necessary mood, which in turn informs the characters’ actions, motivations, and consequently the audience’s expectations.
5. Period Drama
This novelistic style has largely fallen out of popular favour for the crime genre, with both writers and audiences tending to prefer a faster pace. But in its place, the Period Drama genre has adopted it.
British screenwriter Nick Hornby utilizes this A/D voice in his award-winning screenplay for the 2009 coming-of-age drama An Education, and it fits. The film takes place in the early 1960s, and the novelistic style suits the period characters because it matches their dialogue. They are from high society and know it, and that means they speak more elegantly than those around them.
This flows directly and seamlessly into Hornby’s A/D voice, which further world-builds and sets the tone of the time, establishing a perspective from which the reader should interpret the rest of the events.
INT. JENNY’S BEDROOM.
Jenny is at her desk in her bedroom, trying to work, but she can’t concentrate. Her hair is tied back in a pony-tail. She gets up, pulls back the curtains, looks out of the window. We see what she sees: a sleepy suburban street at night. She looks back at her desk. It looks even more boring than the street. She looks at her scrubbed seventeen-year-old face in the mirror – so much younger than the Jenny we have seen with David. She makes herself up, and she gets older and more glamorous before our eyes. In her make-up and her school uniform, she’s half-woman, half-child. We hear the noises drifting up from the kitchen: the radio, the washing-up, occasional muffled conversation. Jenny walks out of the bedroom and slips downstairs.
INT. KITCHEN. EVENING
Jenny’s mother and father are doing the washing up and listening to the radio. They have their backs to the door. Jenny enters the room quietly and watches them for a moment.
There are no absolutes when it comes to screenwriting. But you should make an informed choice when it comes to A/D voice, as, together with dialogue, it serves as your main tool for getting your story across to a reader. Ultimately it informs the way you write scenes, and it sets the tone and atmosphere on which every story inevitably hinges.