Monday, February 23, 2009

Writing action paragraphs

I’ve often felt that one way to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to screenwriters is to examine how they handle their action paragraphs. I’ve read plenty of badly-written scripts with great concepts – that’s nothing new. Even on the rare occasion when I’ve given those scripts a CONSIDER it’s been in the back of my mind that if they don’t improve as writers, they might not have much of a career. However, it’s always interesting for me when I find myself completely uninterested in the screenplay’s story – yet still feel like the writer has talent.

One of the first ways I determine if a script is a PASS or a CONSIDER is if it was an easy read. Did I breeze through these 105 pages quickly and still retain a good sense of what the story was about? Was I turning those pages at a fast rate, eager to see what was on the next page? Or was it a chore to get through each page? Did my mind wander? Was I tempted to check my email, get a sandwich, make sure my DVR was programmed properly for that week’s offerings? Most of the time there’s a correlation between this sort of fast read and a story with a great concept, great characters and a solid structure. In the rare instances when all of those factors are so-so and I still got through the script with ease, it’s clear that the way the action was written played a difference.

Consider this following example:

JAMES BARTON (22) enters his apartment carrying a bundle of mail. He sets it on the table, including a small brown package. He hesitates. Carefully he pulls out a knife and cuts open the packing tape. Reaching inside he pulls out a silver ID bracelet with the name “Carrie” inscribed on it. He impassively stares at it, then tosses it across the room. Moving, he closes all the blinds in the living room. One by one. With the room now dim he goes to a stack of magazines on a bookshelf. Without looking, he plucks a particular one. Playboy. He sits down on the sofa – the magazine in his left hand while his right hand disappears towards his belt, below frame…

How did that read to you? Boring? Did you almost miss the detail about him closing the blinds because it was buried in the middle of the paragraph? Was there any sense of flow or pacing to the scene? Probably not. Now, take a look at how by changing only a few line brakes, we can adjust the pacing and even add some emotion to the moment.

JAMES BARTON (22) enters his apartment carrying a bundle of mail. He sets it on the table, including a small brown package.

He hesitates.

Carefully he pulls out a knife and cuts open the packing tape.

Reaching inside he pulls out a silver ID bracelet with the name “Carrie” inscribed on it. He impassively stares at it, then tosses it across the room.

Moving, he closes all the blinds in the living room. One by one.

With the room now dim he goes to a stack of magazines on a bookshelf. Without looking, he plucks a particular one.

Playboy.

He sits down on the sofa – the magazine in his left hand while his right hand disappears towards his belt, below frame…


Did that read better? It certainly looks better on the page, and it’s a lot easier to skim. That’s the little trick – the easier you make it on your reader, the more likely they are to come away from your script with a favorable impression. When that happens, your odds of getting a consider have just gotten better. Every writer should strive to make their script an “easy read.”

How does one accomplish this? By remembering these little tricks:

White space is your friend. If you’re working on a screenplay, I want you to flip through a few pages of it without reading it. Look at the balance between text and white space. If you know what you’re doing there should be more white space on your page than text. Brevity is essential.

Keep your paragraphs short and break up long blocks of text. I’ve found that four lines seems to be the point where descriptive paragraphs hit critical mass. Any longer than that and it gets hard on a reader’s eyes when they’re trying to skim the page (and they WILL skim – there’s no getting around that.)

Start a new paragraph with every new action. Don’t pile a number of consecutive actions on top of each other. Breaking up long paragraphs into smaller bites is also a good way to control the pace of the scene. In the examples above, the first spacing makes it harder to convey mood. The second one, by breaking up and drawing attention to specific moments and visual beats, probably had an entirely different flow altogether.

Next time, we’ll discuss fight scenes, and how much to choreograph in the descriptive paragraphs.

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