Why The Action Lines Matter

So I did that “passion polish.” I didn’t change any dialogue, I didn’t change the structure, or what happened in scenes. I just polished the action lines. That was it. It took me maybe a few days.

Why The Action Lines Matter
The late, great William Goldman. The Godfather of using screenplay format however the hell you want.

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I wrote a Medium story a few years back on the philosophy behind the IMPROVING THE READ workshop on April 24th.

It is worth a read, but what I don’t discuss in that story is WHY I am so adamant about teaching this material and why I think it needs to be more widely taught.

I started teaching this workshop after an experience I had when I took a two-year break from writing in the mid-2000s. I had burned more than a few bridges, and work had dried up. After 8 years in the business, it looked like my screenwriting career was probably done. I decided to return to school and finally get my undergraduate degree (Go Coogs!) and figure out what I wanted to do next.

By the time school was done, I missed writing for a living. But I had to find a way back into the business. Executive turnover is notorious in our industry, and I didn’t know as many people as I used to. And while I was sober these days, those I did know didn’t have the best experience with me. So I teamed up with an old producer I used to work with on a spec script to try to remind people I was good at this.

But when Jim (the producer) passed it along to a few folks, it didn’t get much traction. We were both a little stunned. It was a good script, and I knew it. From a story and structure standpoint, some of my best work. So what was going on? Jim pointed out that my writing had become a bit more academic after going back to school. I should just do a quick pass to give it the kind of life he was used to seeing from my work.

I reread the script, and it was suddenly hard to miss. Jim was absolutely right. Back when I first started writing scripts, I had to quit a lot of habits I was taught in school about how to write. Then, when I went back to school and started writing thesis papers again, I had to quit those habits and remember the old ones! Now I was back to writing screenplays, and I had to start the whole cycle all over again.

So I did that “passion polish.” I didn’t change any dialogue, I didn’t change the structure, or what happened in scenes. I just polished the action lines. That was it. It took me maybe a few days.

And you know what? The same people who were lukewarm on the script before just LOVED the rewrites. They loved the new action scenes (there were no new action scenes) and thought it was a much faster read with all the cuts (no scenes or dialogue were cut, just action lines.)

So with that new script, I got a new manager, and I have been working again ever since.

The difference in how the script was received really underlined for me how important every choice was within each and every action line. As a teacher, I wanted to teach these tools to anyone who wanted to make their script a faster, more compelling read. This especially includes getting away from the tyranny of format. Screenwriters take a giant leap when they change their thinking from, “How am I supposed to format this?” to “How do I want to use format to my advantage?”

And thus, the IMPROVING THE READ workshop was born. It is the most hands-on workshop I teach. It is designed to have an immediate and lasting effect on your writing. These are skills every writer should have, and the vast screenwriting “how-to” industry does a huge disservice by not teaching them.

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