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Writing Effective Action Description (Part II)

In my last post, I talked about some of the reasons one may receive the note that their action description could be more effective.

In today's post, we'll go over some of the ways you can achieve this.

Not literally... But grammatically!

The first and simplest thing a writer can do to instantly make their action description stronger is: use active voice.

In its simplest form, active voice means using only a noun and verb to describe an action, without a linking verb like "is" or "are."

This achieves two things:

1. Keeps the action description in the present moment, making it feel more immediate / as if we're experiencing it in real-time.

  • This allows your reader to become immersed in the story.

2. Tightens your sentences, shortening your action description overall.

  • Sure it's only by a few letters for each use, but if you do this throughout your script, you may find you've trimmed it down a couple pages with this fix alone. When space on the page is so limited, small changes like this matter.

The clearest indication of passive voice is verbs ending in "-ing"

Let's look at an example of passive voice followed by an example of the same action description written in active voice:

Notice how this one change trims off a full line of action while still saying the same exact thing. This gets the information across to the reader quickly and more clearly.

Making it WHAT...?


Although, among other things, if I were line editing this, I'd replace "walks up to" with a stronger, single word like "approaches" to make the sentence even more concise and immediate...

In the above example, you can see how just changing the way the same exact verbs are written has a big impact on how a sentence reads.

And even though it reads much better now, I'd still say this action description needs work.

Why is that?

A lot of what's being described here is implied. Specifically:

Starting with "he wants to watch."

This is implied through the dialogue, you know, where he states what he wants to watch. This part of the action description can be removed entirely.

Next: "on the wall"

This is implied through another word in the sentence: "behind."

When you tell us there are movies listed behind the employee at the box office, we are going to assume based on similar experiences in our lives that they're on the wall somewhere and not just floating in space.

In that same sentence we have: "now playing"

This is implied through other context that's already been established. Because the location is a movie theater, we're going to assume the movies listed are currently playing.

Yes, theaters usually also have posters out front to advertise what movies are coming out soon, but because "now playing" is referring to another object that's established in the scene (the titles listed behind the employee at the box office), it's clear these movies are "now playing"

And of course there's: "to buy a ticket."

Saved this one for last because I'm about to go off.

This is the most common error I see in action description from new through experienced writers.

If someone were telling you they bought a ticket to the Minions movie, you would not need them to explain to you that the reason they went to the box office was so they could buy the ticket.

What other reason would someone be approaching the box office at a movie theater?

I mean, I guess technically there are endless reasons our MAN (30s) could be at the box office.

  • He could've lost his keys in the theater, and he's going to ask if they're in the lost and found.

  • He may be dating the employee at the register and just found out they're cheating on him with one of their coworkers, so he's coming here to confront them! (juicy! 🍿)

  • Maybe he's going to ask for his Minions ticket to be refunded because after act 1 it devolves into a boring plot about a bland supervillain when it could've easily been a way stronger and funnier story if the focus had been placed on the Minions' adventures with the family of villains they met on their way to Villain Con.

But, all those reasons aside, because the box office exists so people can buy tickets to movies, the most likely reason someone would go to the box office is to buy a ticket to a movie.

When something is implied, it doesn't need to be written into the action description.

Now you could stop there and be totally fine.

I mean, look, we cut a 4-line block of action description in half with these changes already!

But if you're a little extra like me 💅 you're gonna want to try cutting this down to a single line.

Because, think about it, how long does it really need to take to explain the information you're trying to convey?

A man buys a movie ticket.

Although it's not exactly screenplay-ready, that right there is only 6 words.

So clearly there's more we can do to make the action description as concise as possible.

This obviously shouldn't be your only goal when writing action description, but when you've got a block of action that's 3 lines long because of ONE WORD (!!! so frustrating !!!), the following tips can be incredibly helpful.

Let's get into it.

Some of the word choices in our action description could be stronger.

If you read my little aside way back near the beginning of this post (if you didn't, you're a big meanie 😤), I explained the first part highlighted here already.

"Walks up to" is three words that explain a single action. When you have something like this in your action description, it's an indication that a stronger word can be used. Like "approaches."

There's no shame in not immediately knowing a more effective way to write something. I frequently look up synonyms for things I'm trying to describe in my action description when I notice it's running long.

The second highlighted section may not seem like there's a better way to describe this. But there actually is one word with a definition that's exactly what's being described here: a marquee.

In this instance, using this specific word works because it's a common word I would assume most people know without having to look up.

If I were writing about something more obscure, like a bone curette, I'd lean towards simpler language to describe it, like: "The surgeon uses a scoop-shaped tool to scrape the bone."

But also, I wouldn't describe what the tool looks like unless it's important to the story.

Which leads to the next point:

There's still some information that isn't necessary to the scene, and actually is even implied.

Can you guess what it is?

It's this:

You may be thinking: "WHAT?! But don't we have to point out all the characters in a scene?"

Unless the character directly interacts with another established character or takes action that's being focused on -- NOPE! No need to include them in the action description.

Additionally, if the location itself implies a certain character would be present, there's no need to point it out -- unless the character takes action that's being focused on or directly interacts with another established character. ;)

Again, you may be thinking: "But the man does interact with the employee by buying a ticket!"

Sure, but... Do we need to see this interaction?

I'd say no. We would only need to see this interaction if you're going to focus on how the employee responds to the man in some way.

For example:

All that being said........

Don't hate me.........

There STILL is some unnecessary information here.

I know, I know........

But when you visualize how the scene would play out on screen (which I'll go over in my next post!), you'll realize what we don't necessarily need to see.

This is entirely subjective, and depends on how YOU want your scene to play out.

The part I'm talking about is:

and look at how that ONE WORD makes this action description two lines when it could easily be one. 🤬

What do we as an audience gain from seeing the man walk up to the box office?

You've probably heard the advice: "get into a scene late and leave early."

This is so we can get the crucial information without the fluff. The same advice can be applied here.

The important information we need in this particular story is that MAN (30s) bought a ticket to see Minions.

So really, that's all we need to see. And we can enter the scene there:

Look at that! We took a 4-line block of action description and condensed it into 1 line without removing any crucial information.

Why didn't I remove the "box office" part if, by being at a movie theater and asking for a ticket, it's implied that MAN is at the box office? Because, in my opinion, when reading just "reads the marquee" I wouldn't be sure if the marquee is above the theater or inside the box office. Sometimes, a little description is necessary. ;)

Here's a comparison between the original description and our revised one:

And what about if we do want to focus on the employee's reaction?

We can still keep the above line exactly as is, but add:

To go even deeper (this is the last point i'll make in this post i swear!), how can we show that the Man did indeed purchase the ticket?

We can show it through his actions and words, and/or showing him enjoying the movie:

Based on what we've learned in this post, you'll realize this can still be more concise! and in this case, the briefer this interaction is, the funnier it will be.

What if, instead of seeing MAN buy the ticket, we just jump to:

By cutting straight to MAN watching the movie, him buying the ticket despite the employee's warning is IMPLIED.

Now that I've exhausted you, I'll leave you with how this scene would actually play out irl:

if you're wondering, i do indeed have a minion cup and yes i was drinking water out of it while writing this post.

thanks for reading!

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