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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
INT. LIVING ROOM
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.
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.
About Alex Southey: Alex is a freelance writer for Daily Hive TO and BeatRoute. He also works as a freelance screenwriter and script editor.