Action lines: How to write action lines in a screenplay?

Action lines section is where the actions are described visually in the screenplay. In this section, the actions that we intend to appear on the screen are written in the present tense.

In a screenplay page, action lines are written under the scene headings with left-justified 12pt Courier New font which looks like this:

action lines
This example is based on Time to Love (1965) by Turkish director Metin Erksan.

Common mistakes in screenplay action lines

Common mistakes made in action lines are including expressions, metaphors, and explanations that cannot be visualized in the text.

Let’s examine this situation. Imagine a father and his son sitting on a bench and the child is angry because his father did not buy ice cream for him. Let’s write this situation in action lines:

A child and his father sits on the bench.

The child is angry with his father because he did not buy ice cream for him.

This example seems to be true at first, but they are completely wrong according to screenplay logic. Even you think that you are portraying a father and his son, you must remove this information from the expression as this relationship of kinship can not appear visually on the screen. That is to say, every information that cannot be expressed visually in the action lines is an excess. In addition, the sex of the child is not stated (that actually could be expressed visually). Let’s describe the situation visually as how a father and son sitting on the bench could look like:

A middle-aged man and a 10-year-old boy sit on the bench.

As you have seen, we have described the characters’ appearance by giving age ranges instead of kinship. Thus, we removed the information provided with a literary expression and updated the sentence by applying only visual information.

But, what if you want to give kinship information to the audience?

You must do this again in a visual or auditory way. Whenever the audience should learn this information visually and audibly in the film, you should express it visually and audibly in the screenplay. For example, in dialogue, if the boy calls the man as ‘dad’, that can be an auditory solution to give kinship information.

Stative details

Stative details like this shouldn’t be indicated in the action lines:

The child is angry with his father because his father did not buy ice cream for him.

If we were just watching two people sitting on the bench and there is no dialogue between them, how do we know that the father did not buy ice cream for the boy? Okay, you may have set the situation this way, but according to the logic of the screenplay, it doesn’t mean anything to us unless you show us that this happened. If you cannot show, it means that such an expression has no place in the action lines.

action lines
In the action lines, you should only describe what we can see on the screen: a bench, a middle-aged man, a 10-year boy, and their actions.

But can we show that the boy is angry?

Could the boy have an angry facial expression on his face? Or could the boy take an action that gives the impression that he is angry, even if he doesn’t exactly indicate anger? Let’s rewrite the sentence according to these queries to make it suitable for screenplay logic:

The boy has an angry expression on his face and avoids eye contact with the man.

As you can see, the expression on the boy’s face and his avoidance of the man’s gaze are completely visual, which can be easily revived in the reader’s imagination. As in these examples, try to express the scenes visually. If something is not fit the action lines but you insist to have mentioned, you can try to add it in the dialogues. However, you should keep in mind that any dialogues between your characters should be built naturally so that you shouldn’t use it only as an informative tool.

Now, let’s briefly discuss the other issues that you need to pay attention to.

Action lines: Description of places

In the action lines, we should describe the place without going into too much details. What is important here is to describe the place with a few expressions and leave the rest to the imagination of the reader. For example, if the scene starts on a spring day in a jungle, you don’t need to mention all the details like tree leaves, birds and clouds. When you use a simple expression as ‘a spring landscape‘, all those spring images will come alive in the reader’s mind.

Action lines: Visual Details

You don’t need to write down your characters’ movements, situations, clothes in fine detail. A single sentence that will activate readers’ imagination is much more effective than depiction by lines. If an event takes place in a little neighborhood grocery store and your character is the owner of this store, writing a statement like ‘a small, messy grocery store’ will give us enough information about the place and the character. We, as readers, can imagine that grocery store, including how the man looks like. This may not be exactly the same as the grocery store and the grocery owner you dream of, but at this stage, we don’t have to see exactly what you have in mind, otherwise, the film wouldn’t have to be shot.

Action lines: Audios

If necessary, you can mention sounds in action lines. But you should keep in mind that what you are supposed to write here is the actions of your characters. Therefore, it is best to express the sounds according to the characters’ actions. For example, instead of an expression like ‘music is heard inside the house’, you can say Meral stops writing and hears the sound of music echoing inside the house’. In this way, you can indicate the sound in a character’s action. Of course, this is not an inextricable rule. If it is important for the scene, you can directly indicate the sounds at a minimum level.

Overall, we recommend avoiding details such as sound effects, camera angles, close and wide shot plans which would be more accurate to mention in the shooting script.

Action lines: Structure

You should divide the lines as much as possible. Although it increases the number of pages, it provides a much smoother reading experience.

action lines

As you can see, dividing lines makes it easier to read. But it doesn’t mean that you have to write each sentence on a separate line. You can combine some of your characters’ unifying actions and write a few sentences in the same line and achieve a balanced form.

You can use two different reference points to balance the structure:

  • Every 1 page on your screenplay is equal to every 1 minute in the film.
  • The total number of pages is between 80 and 120 for feature films and 5 to 20 for short films.

Of course, you don’t have to follow these references. What is important here is to achieve an acceptable balance. Apart from the formal structure, the length of the screenplay is closely related to the writing style, too. So you should try to make your statements shorter and clearer under any circumstances.

How to shorten the action lines?

You can use the ‘enter late, leave early’ method to effectively shorten your scenes. This method is simple: you should start the scenes in the middle of the action and finish the scene before the action is complete.

For example, imagine a scene where two friends sit in a cafe and chat. In this scene, you can skip the details such as choosing a table, sitting and ordering drinks, instead, you can start the scene directly from the middle of the dialogue. So when we meet your characters the table was already selected, drinks were ordered, and the actual conversation already started. You can also end the scene in the same way before the chat is concluded. For example, let’s say one of the characters asks a crucial question to his friend. Ending the scene before his friend’s response shortens the scene and increases the reader’s curiosity as it directs the action (the answer) to the next scenes.

You can apply this method to all situations. For example, if we are going to see your character in a different location in the next scene, you don’t need to show that your character leaves the place. The character’s action at the end of the scene may remain unclear, and when the readers move to the next scene they can find out which decision the character has made. Uncertainty always moves the scene to the next scene and makes the screenplay move forward.

How to mention the characters’ names?

If a character’s name is not mentioned in dialogues, characters should be written in general terms such as man, woman, boy, and girl. However, this rule is often stretched by screenwriters in order to avoid confusion. When the characters are visually depicted for the first time in a screenplay, their names are indicated in capital letters and they are referred with this name in later scenes. For example;

A pretty young woman, BAHAR (22), walk in the courtyard. Bahar approaches the door of the house and knocks the door several times.

We find this exception to be appropriate for the main characters. However, applying this method to each character can cause greater confusion as novels with too many characters do. Therefore, we recommend using character names according to their importance in the story.

Besides that, in some cases, at the beginning of the screenplay, the name of the character can appear in a dialogue so that you do not need to specify the character’s name in the upper case. Because the character is automatically introduced to the reader/viewer.

Screenplay template

In order to better understand the topic, at the end of this series of posts, we will prepare and share a screenplay example.

Next post: How to write dialogue in scriptwriting?

Previous post: Writing a screenplay: Scene headings

Action lines FAQ

What is the action lines?

Action lines is the section where the actions are described visually in the screenplay.

How to write action lines?

In the action lines, you should only describe what we can see on the screen that are characters’ actions or appearance of places and characters.
Example: A middle-aged man and a 10-year-old boy sit on the bench.

How action lines example look like?

Action lines look like this:

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