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08/24/2002 - A Little Subtlety Goes A Long Way
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In reviewing some past columns I'm embarrassed to realize how often I contradict myself often in this space. One week I instruct writers to reiterate and layer information throughout their script, the next week I promote the subtle touch. In my defense, I can only insist that a fine dish can be oversalted, undersalted, or just right. Just because too much salt tastes bad doesn't mean that no salt is the answer. There's a balance to be found between elaboration and silence that takes an immense amount of work to find and which the talented and diligent will eventually discover.

That being said, an interesting point was brought up after last week's column in which I worshipped writers who opted for subtle touches in their script. A reader brought up the popular issue of whether or not script readers/executives ever skim through action lines, or ignore them entirely. The reader's question was: if this is true, why put subtlety into a script when no one's going to catch it?

Personally, I don't skip action lines, unless I'm so frustrated by a poor script that I've resorted to skimming through the entire thing (which I'm rarely allowed to do). The only parts of the script I typically gloss over are the slugs, which happens when I'm involved and excited and rushing through the piece to see what happens next. Needless to say I often have to go back and re-read the slugs just to be crystal clear about where the story is happening, or at what time of day. Skimming doesn't save time for me.

Frankly all these rumors about how industry people read ten pages and throw the script away, read only the dialogue, read scripts at stoplights on the drive to work, etc. verge on paranoia. Next we'll hear about covert midnight rallies where execs and agents dance naked around raging bonfires, tossing in unopened script submissions with whooping screams.

Not that some of the above doesn't happen (not sure about the bonfires), but just because somebody has done it doesn't mean that it's the industry standard. From what I've seen most readers read everything on the page. To broaden the discussion, though, I asked a reader friend what he thought of this issue.

He responded that it comes down to two points:

1) With a good writer, the action's usually incidental anyway, and

2) A reader can typically get the gist of what's happening simply by reading the dialogue.

He seems to be saying that the action lines are incidental - to what? The story? The characters? Interesting that he should say this, because most amateur scripts I read do try to embellish the story through direction in the action lines, as opposed to allowing the dialogue or the characters' actions to give the script its "voice".

Also the action lines are often wrongly used as objective, talky footnotes, which pull the reader out of the immediate story. If the characters don't know it or aren't about to know it (or aren't even focusing on it), then info in the action lines can be stylistic or prosaic, which while not incorrect can cost a great number of points with a reader.

Here, read this:
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Ben and Nancy dismount their bikes. She stares at a particularly ramshackle house. Wind whips. Dead leaves blow. A rusting swing-set twists and creaks.

Nancy: "Never thought I'd be back here."

They pass cautiously through the front yard. Nancy's pickup is parked nearby. The front door bangs back and forth. Nancy pulls a revolver from her waist-band.

Ben: "I think they're gone."

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See how Nancy and Ben's dialogue sketch out what's happening? They're back at her old place - an unpleasant place. The place seems deserted. The dialogue gives you an idea of what's going on, and the action lines fully flesh in the scene. This is what my reader friend means, I believe.

Nancy doesn't verbally reiterate her obvious fear, evidenced by the gun she pulls out. Nor is Ben's reaction to her weapon placed both in the action line and in his dialogue. He simply implies that he thinks the weapon is not needed. The lack of unnecessary duplication in dialogue and action line gives the action line momentum. It's a swift read; you don't have to stop to read the action, but even if you do skim you won't lose the story.

In the spirit of blatant contradiction, I simultaneously disagree that action can be skipped over. My company receives quite a bit of action and science fiction scripts that describe places and events not familiar to the average Joe. Care has to be taken to describe the unreal with engaging words.

Like this:
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"Ben sits up. He looks to Donald, TEARS OF FIRE streaming from his eyes. As he stands, his chest wounds ignite, the flames instantly cauterizing the flesh. He's suddenly engulfed in a heat haze. Wood smolders all around him.

Donald backs away, terrified. He FIRES his gun again and again, but the bullets just punch through Ben, creating more flaming holes."

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Not a lot of dialogue, is there? But it's still appealing action that's necessary to the scene and story. If somebody skipped through that they'd miss some pretty cool beats.

My reader friend added that, "When it's a good script, you WANT to read the action. If it's a bad script - non-compelling material - you don't want to read the action." Absolutely. There is a place for screenplays that luxuriate in language and nuance.

Like this:
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"A glittering, glowing, awe-inspiring construction spanning half the sky. Like a giant neon sunflower fifty miles across... with cities for petals and starships for seeds. From all directions, hundreds of tiny glowing blinking shapes stream in and out of its gaping interior. The tiny Space Plane joins the approach pattern."

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That's how to write a compelling action line, full of details that paint a classic panaroma in grand style, a pleasure to read.

The samples I've given above are modified from scripts written over the years by two of my employers (yes, they're copywrited, so hands off). As you can see, two samples stick to an ideal of simplicity and the third demonstrates a more literate, sweeping style. Both writers produce scripts that lead the reader artfully through each beat of every scene. I can attempt a textbook explanation of how they do it, but frankly they're just good.

Maybe it's because each beat they write is needed and perfectly measured. They never lag behind the audience, rush too fast, leave a thread unfollowed or a character unattended. The dialogue in their scripts depends upon the action and the action depends upon the dialogue. Their semantic choices give life and dimension to the central story.

Remember though, the more literate and stylistic you are the riskier it can be. It's safer (and perhaps more "clean" for an amateur scriptor) to avoid details in the action lines that you don't draw attention to with a blurt of dialogue. Action lines shouldn't stop the story to digress from a living moment. They should bring your story to cinematic heights, not bog it down with a textbook style.

Readers skim through screenplays when they're tired of the story or frustrated by the style. Yes, a nuanced beat can be lost by a skimming reader, but most readers stop even looking for subtlety once the central plot has disappointed them. As you've heard a million times before, your story has to ignite interest and keep it or else all the carefully turned phrases are wasted.






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