Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Action [Part 5]

May 20th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

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. 29]:

Never take your audience off the path of the real plot. Gradually heighten the pathos, the humor, the tragedy of the story until the climax comes. But whether the action be physical or mental, obvious or subtle, a pistol duel or a duel of eyes, never let it die until the final close-up.

There is this thing I call narrative drive, the inner engine of a screenplay that propels the story forward, pushing it from one scene to the next. A good script has it. A poor script does not and comes across as episodic.

One key to establishing and sustaining narrative drive is the use of action. Not every scene has to be a Big “A” Action Scene, but every scene must have at least some small “a” action in it. Even quiet scenes should have some action however subtle.

As a good reference to this point, check out today’s Daily Dialogue scene from The Lover. A teenage girl walks across the street to a car. Exchanges a look with her lover inside. Kisses the window. Then hurries away. Subtle, but given what is going on in the story Internal World, packed with emotional meaning.

The bottom line is this: “Never let it die until the final close-up.” Sustain your story’s narrative drive until the end of its journey through action.

Next week, advice on writing a story synopsis 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.

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