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Tips for Revising Action in Your Screenplay

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 10/19/2010

Screenplays mix dialogue and exposition, but many people have trouble balancing the two. Here are some screenwriting tips on how to work on your action statements.

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    Screenwriting Action

    For most people who are new to the screenplay format they tend to do a couple things wrong. Before writing screenplay dialogue that is much too long, they also tend to construct the action in their screenplays in ways that are not good for being translated to the screen. Screenwriting format requires specific structural elements and it is not a novel, so the expectations of good writing are going to continue to be much different. Here are some screenwriting tips on how to work with action sections, including a look at the format, size, and how to negotiate it with dialogue.

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    What is Action?

    Action sections in a screenplay are simply areas where you explain physical things that are happening, not just things that are "high action." This is opposed to dialogue in screenwriting, which is people talking and not actually doing anything. The action in your screenwriting may indicate something that is taking place during the dialogue, which means it will become before that segment of dialogue. These lines are, by definition in screenwriting format, short and to the point. They should outline what is going on so that people have a clear idea of what is going to be in the film version of this.

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    Cut it Down

    The most common mistake that new screenwriters make is to make their screenplay action much too long. This descriptive material is not supposed to give you a great deal of insight into the character's mind and motivation, instead the actions themselves need to be described without excessive detail. Part of this is that it is going to be unnecessary to explain much of these more internal aspects, and also it is not going to directly move to the screen. The director needs to be the one to make the decisions as to the actual character of the action listed in the screenplay, and the screenwriting format is supposed to allow them that freedom. The reality is that if you have listed large paragraphs of exposition in your screenplay action, then you should go back and revise it down to just a couple of sentences. This means removing many of the adjectives and adverbs that you have included if they are non-essential, as well as any of the specifics that relate to physicality. Try to think about the simplicity you used in your screenplay outline and apply that to your action sequences.

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    On the Screen

    Another very common misstep is to include information that is either not going to be seen visually in the scene or discussing it in a way that positions the action segments from the audience's point of view. If there is internal struggle in the character this is something that the actors will decide upon along with the director, but it is not going to be visible in the scene in terms of the objective action. You have to only include things in the action that the audience will be seeing in the film. Likewise, this needs to be telling the reader what is happening instead of describing what they will see. For example, you want to avoid phrases like "we will see" or "we will get images of," and instead focus on just explaining that something is happening and give the most important information about it. Screenwriting formatting is really about simplicity, and this applies to action as well as dialogue in screenwriting.