Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. In Chapter VII “Action! Camera! Grind!”, the writers take on one of the single most important aspects of movies since their inception: Action [P. 27]:
Action need not be physical. It may be mental. But never allow your audience to cool its heels for lack of action. Keep up the suspense, quicken it, and allow nothing to find its way into the story that may block or deaden its progress.
The actors may walk around engaged in animated conversation, perhaps assault each other, but the only action which counts is that which carries the plot forward. The director must have it in his scene and you must have it in your story.
That, friends, is fundamental advice. Movies are primarily a visual medium. Action is visual. But from a writer’s perspective, it’s not just any action. It’s action that moves the plot forward. Loos and Emerson offer a great metaphor:
Imagine a small boy armed with an elastic slingshot about to plant a pebble in a pedestrian’s silk hat. He slowly draws back his elastic bands and finally lets fly. If his aim is true, the pebble will find its mark and everybody will be cognizant of the fact when the pedestrian recovers his voice.
The rubber band is the mind of your audience. The action progressing constantly through the play increases the strain — heightens the suspense as the critics say. The tenseness of the situation increases until you reach the climax when you let fly your shot. And in that climax, matters are definitely settled — either you hit the mark or you don’t — either the hero triumphs or sinks to eternal disgrace.
It is action tied directly to the Plotline, advancing it tense inch by tense inch until an inevitable Final Struggle and conclusion.
Think Syd Field or Robert McKee came up with their stuff out of whole cloth? No, these principles have been in existence since the very beginning of the filmmaking process.
There is a lot we can learn — and are learning — from this book published 92 years ago!
In fact, there is a whole other level of importance about action, we’ll spend next week digging into that from the book “How to Write Photoplays.”
If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.