If you want to become a screenwriter, it’s so important to learn how to write action lines in a script. Action lines take up the bulk of a reader’s attention. It’s where you spell out what’s happening onscreen. It’s your chance to sell your story as a possible film, creatively set your atmosphere, mode, and tone, and impress Hollywood gatekeepers.
But what are the action lines in a screenplay? And how can you write great action lines that stand out? Let’s fade in…
The action lines in a screenplay describe anything we see or hear onscreen. In terms of proper screenplay format, action lines go under the scene heading and are broken up by dialogue.
Action lines include several elements:
- The movements and actions of the characters onscreen
- Visual descriptions of characters, items, and any other important tangible details
- Descriptions of the setting, including notes on atmosphere, aesthetic, and ambiance
Action lines are vital because they allow the reader to picture your movie. Have you ever read a bad screenplay? You know it isn’t up to professional standards within a few pages of poorly written action lines. They’re what give a script a sense of space, pacing, and momentum.
To master the art of writing action lines, remember these key components:
Proper tense: All your action lines should be in the present tense. None of your characters “leaned” on a door—they “lean” on it. The action in your script is playing out before the reader’s eyes (or, at least, in their imagination).
Voice: The concept of a script’s “voice” is something you’ll hear about a lot when studying screenwriting. It refers to the unique way you put the words on the page; it’s a style or approach that sets you apart from other writers. Your voice usually develops from practice and repetition. Keep perfecting your action lines and eventually you’ll find what works best for you.
For an example, check out any of the writer Shane Black’s screenplays—there’s always some wit and jokes to go along with the storytelling. In his screenplay for “The Last Boy Scout,” Black describes Los Angeles this way:
Clarity and brevity: When it comes to writing action lines, your first pass should not be your last. Lay the entire scene out. Write as much as you can. Overexplain. Know the ins and outs of the spacing and all the dimensions of the rooms; visualize the blocking and tell us every last detail.
Then take a step back. What does the audience absolutely need to know? What can you take out? How can you distill what you’ve written into just a few words? When writing action lines, white space on the page is your friend. You want the reader to be able to perfectly visualize the story with as little words as possible.
In the opening page of his screenplay for “Knives Out,” Rian Johnson doesn’t describe every tiny feature and object within the sprawling house. Instead, he draws attention to the details and bits of ambiance that are most important.
This applies to action as much as scene-setting. Only draw attention to the movements, sights, and sounds that enhance the scene’s tone, move the story forward, or reveal something new. In this section from the script for “The Hunger Games,” co-writers Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray describe all-out chaos in a sparse, breakneck style.
Visual language: The phrase “show don’t tell” especially applies to action lines. Film is a visual medium, and as the blueprint, your screenplay shouldn’t contain anything “unfilmable.” Stick to what we can see and hear. Instead of “the room smells awful,” show your character putting a hand over their nose. Don’t write “he’s thinking about his childhood”; have him glance toward a framed photo of his childhood.
Always use evocative, active verbs in your action lines. They get the job done cleaner and clearer. “He walks across the room and out the exit, full of anger” can become “he stomps away.”
However, you should also avoid overly directing on the page. Your screenplay is the first of many steps to a finished film. Eventually, a director will interpret your words into visuals. Don’t add in specific camera angles, transitions, or music cues that aren’t absolutely essential to the plot. It’s okay to write that a character starts to cry, but don’t specify that we see the tear fall in a close-up shot using a 60mm lens.
Atmosphere and tone: Ask yourself: What emotional response do you want from your action? Are you trying to scare people? Make them laugh? Keep them on the edge of their seats? It’s not just about what’s in the scene, but what the scene feels like.
Dig deep into the hallmarks of your preferred genre. If it’s a scary scene, unsettle the reader in the action lines. Build tension. Highlight creeping movements, looming shadows, and unexpected noises, like in the script for “The Conjuring.”
If you’re writing a comedy, remember that jokes aren’t exclusive to dialogue. Make us laugh in the action lines. Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig’s script for “Bridesmaids” invokes Martin Scorsese to describe a particularly intense tennis match.
Now that you know how to write action lines in a script, it’s time to put things to the test. Stop reading and start writing that screenplay.