Writing action in a screenplay involves three decisions: what to write, how to write it, and how to format it. I'll deal with each in turn.
What to Write
Consider the following example of action writing from a student script:
"WE HEAR CLASSICAL MUSIC being PLAYED on a PIANO. WE SEE a PAINTING on a wall of a little blond girl holding a doll and sitting on a gold chair. WE SEE VARIOUS ART OBJECTS on tables and SEVERAL CANES against the wall. Next to a FIREPLACE leans a very exquisite DIAMOND-STUDDED and RUBY WALKING STICK. At the opposite end of the room is a HIGH-BACK LEATHER CHAIR next to a SMALL TABLE.
"A very thin, distinguished gray-haired servant named NIGEL ENTERS CARRYING A TRAY with a TEAPOT, CUP AND SAUCER, PITCHER, and SEVERAL PINE CONES on it with a NEWSPAPER UNDER HIS ARM. He walks over to the piano."
There are so many things wrong with this, I hardly know where to begin. For the moment, let's set aside the issues of rhetoric (how this is written) and format (the over-use of capitalization) and just consider what is said.
This is written with the eye of the fiction writer, not the screenwriter. Fiction writers describe everything in detail in order to create a specific image in the eye of the reader. This is not the job of the screenwriter. I repeat, this is not the job of the screenwriter.
The screenwriter tells the story, directly and simply. Yes, this involves visual storytelling but to a screenwriter this means something quite different from what it means to a fiction writer. A screenwriter is a collaborator. He is neither the costume designer nor the set designer of the production, and the writing above invades the territory of each.
Here is how a screenwriter might write the scene above:
"The room is large, expensively decorated, with a fireplace. Someone is playing classical music on a piano.
"NIGEL, a servant, enters with a tray for tea-time. He marches to the piano."
What an incredible difference! This is direct, barebones writing, which is the style usually most appropriate for screenwriting. Granted, there may be dramatic reasons to include some of the details I've omitted. Let's say the walking stick is going to be stolen. In this case, it would be appropriate to mention it.
But the point is this: the screenwriter is not the set designer and not the costume designer and not the director, so s/he merely suggests what is appropriate to the story in these areas: "large, expensively decorated" is enough to say about the room. Where the fiction writer writes great detail, the screenwriter writes general suggestions for his or her collaborators.
The job of the screenwriter is to tell the story, and s/he does this in two ways: by telling us what we see on the screen and by telling us what we hear in dialogue (and other major sounds important to the story: explosions, whatever). In telling what we see on the screen, the screenwriter focuses on story movement and does not include detail that is the major responsibility of a collaborator such as a costume designer or set designer. The screenwriter doesn't write descriptive detail that just slows up the forward movement of the STORY.
Consider how characters are described in a screenplay. In fiction, of course, characters are usually described in great detial. But look at these character descriptions from produced screenplays:
CITIZEN RUTH: "She is around 30." That's it!
BIG NIGHT: "PRIMO, the chef, is at the stove. Brooding, intense, he is in his late 30s but seems older than his years." "His younger brother, SECONDO - early 30s, handsome, charming but high strung."
LONE STAR: "We see SAM DEEDS, the sheriff, driving. Sam is 40, quietly competent to the point of seeming moody."
GET SHORTY: "CHILI PALMER, late 30s, sits in a booth with TOMMY CARLO, a low-level mob type."
QUIZ SHOW: "The hand belongs to DICK GOODWIN, late 20s."
Often the only character description we get is the decade of age! There's some room for individual writing style here but no screenwriter writes with the detail of a fiction writer. Here's a detailed character description in a screenplay:
BULL DURHAM: "ANNIE SAVOY, mid 30's, touches up her face. Very pretty, knowing, outwardly confident. Words flow from her Southern lips with ease, but her view of the world crosses Southern, National and International borders. She's cosmic."
Beginning screenwriters also over-write character movement within the scene, which means they usurp the role of the director and choreograph the scene. My students are always writing things like this:
"She walks slowly across the room, her high heels taking small steps on the thick red carpet. Reaching the portable bar, she stops and considers her options. Her left hand picks up the tongs in the ice chest and drops three ice cubes into a glass. She returns the tongs, then picks up the only bottle of Scotch and pours, stopping a quarter inch from the brim of the glass. She sets down the bottle and, still using her left hand, raises the glass. She brings it to her bright red lips and slowly sips."
A screenwriter would write something like this: "She moves across the room and fixes herself a drink."
(to be continued)