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]:
Never let anything superfluous creep into your plot. Never stop the progress of events to explore blind alleys. You may visualize a wonderful fire scene — perhaps you are a fireman by trade — but if it doesn’t bear on the story, don’t put it in. Perhaps you are tempted to deviate from the plot to develop a humorous or romantic situation. Don’t!
This is fundamental advice that many neophyte screenwriters need to read and heed [and yes, I intended that rhyme scheme]. You may conjure up what you think is a great scene. All sorts of pyrotechnics and bombast. But if it doesn’t advance the plot, you do not have a great scene, you have an unnecessary scene.
A screenplay is written in the present tense, but there is always an implied pull into the future, driving the narrative ahead. That is where your action should be, the actual emergence of the plot through what transpires in each scene. Grounded in the emotional realm of the story, what I call Themeline, those events have meaning. A so-called action scene that is not tied to the emotional life of the story or does not advance the plot is so much noise signifying nothing.
So if you are tempted to write such a scene, heed the memorable words of Loos & Emerson from 92 years ago: Don’t!
Next week, yet more on action 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.