Screenplays should be quick, snappy reads with moments of “oohs” and “awws” that grab the reader’s attention. Something that I find myself struggling with, especially in first drafts, is describing the action of what’s going on. Too often I can go overboard, and overly describe what’s happening. I find myself painting the picture of what you’re seeing, and while that works in prose, in screenwriting, it’s just slowing down your readability.

So if you’re like me and find yourself struggling with the snappy quickness of the descriptions in your script here are five tips to help you speed things up! 

Tips for Writing Action Description

1) The Timing Should Match

A great piece of advice someone once gave me is to make the amount of time it takes to read something match the amount of time it would take to watch it play out on the screen. 

So...Action Description Sample

Should really be…Better Action Description Sample

Trim some of the fat off that description. Whatever you think is the most important part of the action is what should remain. You notice, I still kept some of my fun descriptions to give it some flavor, the key is don’t do too much. Nobody likes an overly seasoned meal. 

2) Less is Best

As an exercise, it can be helpful to think, “how can I describe this in the least amount of words possible?” 

I’ve heard of rules, such as all paragraphs of action description should be around three lines or less. While that can be a good rule of thumb for some, I think it’s more helpful to focus on describing what’s happening in the most concise way possible.

I don’t like the three lines or less thing because I wouldn’t want anyone to leave out an important part of the description just because they felt like they needed to cut down on what they’re saying to meet that limit.

3) Write with the visuals in mind! 

Now, this is how we end up with my long, painted descriptions. In reality, we all need to do exactly the opposite of what bogs down my early drafts. 

Do use: short sentences, brief descriptions, fragments of sentences

Don’t use: long artfully crafted descriptions, run-on sentences telling us every detail

Use words that trigger visuals. Break out the thesaurus and find some alternative verbs to the ones that might be your immediate go to’s, for example instead of “walks” try “strides,” “roams,” or “saunters.” 

4) Don’t be afraid to go bold

When you’ve got a descriptive word that’s doing a lot of the work in a sentence, for instance, say that you’re talking about the “roar of a cannon” don’t be afraid to bold that word. Emphasize roar, literally make it bold, make it jump out at the reader.

5) When in doubt, know you’ll edit it down

You can keep all these things I’ve mentioned in mind, but sometimes when you’re writing, and you feel it flowing through you organically it can be really difficult to focus on obeying rules or standards.

So if you know that going overboard on describing action is something that you do, then make a whole editing pass dedicated to cleaning it up. 

This is something I’m doing right now with my script. Once I finish writing this article I’m going to go, read through my pilot script and tighten up my action descriptions. Cheers to the other wordy over-writers who, hopefully thanks to this article, are about to do the same!