Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Victoria Lucia

5 Tips for Writing Action Descriptions in a Traditional Screenplay

Screenplays should be quick, snappy reads with moments of “oohs” and “awws” that grab the reader’s attention. Something that I find myself struggling with, especially in first drafts, is describing the action of what’s going on. Too often I can go overboard, and overly describe what’s happening. I find myself painting the picture of what you’re seeing, and while that works in prose, in screenwriting, it’s just slowing down your readability.

Hold your place in line, screenwriter! We’re getting closer to launching SoCreate Screenwriting Software to a limited number of beta testers. , without leaving this page.

So if you’re like me and find yourself struggling with the snappy quickness of the descriptions in your script here are five tips to help you speed things up!

5 Tips for Writing Action Descriptions in a Traditional Screenplay

  1. The Timing Should Match

    A great piece of advice someone once gave me is to make the amount of time it takes to read something match the amount of time it would take to watch it play out on the screen. 

    So...

Script Snippet

EXT. Lester Holler, West Virginia - 1925 - Night

Two pairs of feet rush through a unkempt field. Sounds of ragged breaths, the swish of the grass, and the rhythmic pounding of their steps echo throughout the night.

Should really be...

Script Snippet

EXT. Lester Holler, West Virginia - 1925 - Night

Two pairs of feet rush through tall grass. Their steps echo in the night.

Trim some of the fat off that description. Whatever you think is the most important part of the action is what should remain. You notice, I still kept some of my fun descriptions to give it some flavor, the key is don’t do too much. Nobody likes an overly seasoned meal. 

  1. Less is Best

    As an exercise, it can be helpful to think, “how can I describe this in the least amount of words possible?” 

    I’ve heard of rules, such as all paragraphs of action description should be around three lines or less. While that can be a good rule of thumb for some, I think it’s more helpful to focus on describing what’s happening in the most concise way possible.

    I don’t like the three lines or less thing because I wouldn’t want anyone to leave out an important part of the description just because they felt like they needed to cut down on what they’re saying to meet that limit.

  2. Write with the visuals in mind!

    Now, this is how we end up with my long, painted descriptions. In reality, we all need to do exactly the opposite of what bogs down my early drafts. 

    Do use: short sentences, brief descriptions, fragments of sentences

    Don’t use: long artfully crafted descriptions, run-on sentences telling us every detail

    Use words that trigger visuals. Break out the thesaurus and find some alternative verbs to the ones that might be your immediate go to’s, for example instead of “walks” try “strides,” “roams,” or “saunters.” 

  3. Don’t be afraid to go bold

    When you’ve got a descriptive word that’s doing a lot of the work in a sentence, for instance, say that you’re talking about the “roar of a cannon” don’t be afraid to bold that word. Emphasize roar, literally make it bold, make it jump out at the reader.

  4. When in doubt, know you’ll edit it down

    You can keep all these things I’ve mentioned in mind, but sometimes when you’re writing, and you feel it flowing through you organically it can be really difficult to focus on obeying rules or standards.

    So if you know that going overboard on describing action is something that you do, then make a whole editing pass dedicated to cleaning it up. 

This is something I’m doing right now with my script. Once I finish writing this article I’m going to go, read through my pilot script and tighten up my action descriptions. Cheers to the other wordy over-writers who, hopefully thanks to this article, are about to do the same! 

You may also be interested in...

Write Character Arcs

Mastering the art of the arc.

How To Write Character Arcs

Having an idea for a main character with a handful of awesome characteristics is unfortunately not enough to transform your script into the next big blockbuster or award-winning TV show. If you really want your screenplay to resonate with readers and eventually viewers, you need to master the art of the character arc. What Is a Character Arc? Okay, so I need a character arc in my story. What on earth IS a character arc? A character arc maps out the journey or transformation that your main character experiences over the course of your story. The plot of your entire story is constructed around...

Use Capitalization in Traditional Screenwriting

6 things to capitalize in your screenplay

How To Use Capitalization In Traditional Screenwriting

Unlike some of the other rules of traditional screenplay formatting, the rules of capitalization are not written in stone. While each writer's unique style will influence their individual use of capitalization, there are 6 general things that you should capitalize in your screenplay. The first time that a character is introduced. Character names above their dialogue. Scene headings and slug lines. Character extensions for "voice-over" and "off-screen." Transitions, including FADE IN, CUT TO, INTERCUT, FADE OUT. Integral sounds, visual effects, or props that need to be captured in a scene. NOTE: Capitalization...

Construct a Killer Logline

Hook your reader in seconds with an unforgettable logline.

How To Construct A Killer Logline

Condensing your 110-page screenplay into one sentence is no walk in the park. Writing a logline for your screenplay can be a daunting task, but a completed, polished logline is one of, if not THE most valuable marketing tool that you have for trying to sell your script. Construct a killer logline and wow those readers with the tips outlined in today's "How To" post! What Is A Logline? Imagine you only had ten seconds to tell someone about your new script. What would you tell them? This quick, simplified explanation of your entire story is your logline. Wikipedia defines a logline as a "A brief...