Screenwriting: Punching Up Action

Osiyo. Dohiju? Hey welcome back.

I wanted to take some time to go through some script reviews. Different elements of scripts that really make them more interesting and compelling for a reader. I’m going to cover some of my techniques that I use to accomplish just that. I’ll cover my process for outlining, tweaking, story, plot, all of it. They will not be in any kind of order. I’ll just cover each part as I work on it. We’ll take a new script idea and cover the entire process from beginning to end. Until then I’ll cover individual aspects. I’ll also compare the four different types of writing I do: blogs, vlogs, feature length screeplays (and shorts), and sitcom scripts.

I thought I’d take a moment to evaluate some scripts. Some of my favorite scripts to read are The Game, Armageddon, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, The Martian, and Deadpool. There are others, we’ll stick with those for the moment. I’m going to use some of my own first draft scenes and show how I punch them up to make them more interesting to read.

If you’ve not read screenplays before there are differences from novel writing. Screenplays are all in the present tense with active writing. That means instead of: “Hal walked along the corridor wondering if this was the right choice. He felt uneasy and pensive not knowing what was around the corner.” You would write something more like: “HAL creeps down the CORRIDOR. Is this the right choice? He pauses at the CORNER taking a labored BREATH quietly sighing. His heart pounds as he PUSHES himself into the wall. His PISTOL is ready to encounter whatever is on the other side.”

When you read the first description it’s in the past tense. It’s passive, not active. The second description, the action, is active. It creates more suspense and thrill when reading. The first description isn’t bad. The second description simply punches up the action. Punching up is the process of making the read more exciting for the reader. When I punch up a script I work with one section at a time. I take the lines I wrote replacing passive words with more active ones. I write what I see in my head. That means I also capitalize words for actions or objects that I focus on when I see them.

I take care to ensure that the concept of the action isn’t changed. That means, in this case, that I still want Hal to walk down a corridor, unsure of what’s coming, apprehensive, but ready to find out. The action has to propel the reader forward and also propel the story. For someone to want to read your story you have to captivate them, engage with them in a way that will come across on screen. The script contains elements that the viewer won’t read or know, however, the actors and cinematography will come across on screen.

Let’s take one of the scripts I listed and see how the action propels the reader.

DEADPOOL, in full DRESS REDS and MASK, quietly FIDGETS in the BACK SEAT of a TAXI CAB as it proceeds along a CITY FREEWAY.

Deadpool adjusts the two KATANAS strapped to his back. Rolls the WINDOWS up, down, up. Tries futilely to untwist the seatbelt, then LUNGES forward, locking it up. Rifles through a tourist booklet and tears out a HAUNTED SEGWAY TOUR coupon. The CABBIE, young, thin, brown, glances back and forth from the rear view to the road to the rear view.

As you read you are given information about the opening scene. We’re introduced to Deadpool, what he’s wearing, where he is, who he’s with, and what he’s doing, and his mindset. We’re given some minor comedic moments that come across on screen and give us a little chuckle along the way.

CLOSE ON ASTRONAUT MARK WATNEY. He’s in the middle of an EVA experiment. He chips at a section of rocks and records his observations on his ARM COMPUTER.

Bright-eyed and optimistic. Another day at the office.

This simple introduction of Mark Watney in The Martian tells us most of the same elements as the opening section of Deadpool. There are more elements before and after this section that introduce Mars as the location, other crew members, and more.

Let’s take a section from my most recent screenplay and punch it up a bit. I start by writing something general with details I see in my head as a guideline for what I’m going to work with later. This action is just for me, at this point. The final write up will be how I engage my audience to grip them and pull them into the story.

A slightly blurred man and a woman are screaming at each other. We don’t know who they are. We can’t hear them. It’s intense. Both are crying. They’re trying to console each other. Both are very hurt, sulking, as one flops onto a couch and the other puts their hands on their hips and turns around raising one hand to their forehead.

NARRATOR
We didn’t expect our lives to be like this. Yelling. Screaming. Near hatred of the person we love. Notice I didn’t say our life end like this. There’s a semicolon here to continue the story not a period that would end it. Our lives aren’t over. They’ve just begun.

This isn’t a horrible section. It’s not the best, though. Let’s start by analyzing the scene and what I want to convey. I want to show a couple arguing. We don’t know who they are or how they relate to the story. Are they the main characters? Are they related to the main characters? What is their purpose?

In this case, this opening section is to provide those questions for the reader and viewer. To introduce the tension that grips the reader and brings them into the story. I don’t like slow introductions or long introductions. I like to have the reader gripped in a relatable sequence. Something that they might be able to relate to even if it’s uncomfortable. Something emotional that they get invested in. Let’s punch this up a bit.

INT. SUBURBAN HOME LIVING ROOM — DAY

Out of focus and off-kilter, a COUPLE, early 30s, is SCREAMING at each other. Their voices UNHEARD.

TEARS falling down their FACES.

They move to CONSOLE each other as best they can.

He REACHES OUT to touch her SHOULDER. He STOPS short of touching HER.

She FLOPS onto the COUCH.

Both are HURTING, sulking, EXHAUSTED.

He throws his HANDS on his hips TURNING AWAY from her raising one HAND to his FOREHEAD. He’s frustrated and in pain. He doesn’t want this pain anymore.

She SLUMPS deeper into the COUCH grieving, too exhausted for anger anymore. She’s given up for the moment.

NARRATOR (V.O.)
We didn’t expect our lives to be like this. The yelling. The screaming. An almost hatred of the person we love the most in this world. I didn’t say our lives end like this. There’s not a period ending the the story. There’s a semicolon here to continue the story. Our lives aren’t over. They’ve just begun.

This is a minor rewrite that adds a bit more punch. We can feel their pain as we read. We can understand what they’re going through either with sympathy or empathy. We feel sorry for them and also feel that pain. The narration then brings us into the why we’re seeing this. It’s just the beginning of this story. We still don’t know if these are the main characters or just a metaphorical analog for the main characters. We can imply much of that from this opening. Are we correct? Do we want to know more? I think we do. It could probably be punched up a bit more. Maybe some additional work done to clean up some of the description. All-in-all I like where it is and where it’s going.

Once I’ve done the punching up for all of the scenes in the script. I’ll continue with the other items on my list for reviewing the script. The last thing I’ll do is read each scene again aloud, possibly acting them out or hiring people to act them out so I can see and feel what’s going on. I just need the read through and possibly some acting so that I can read the script at the same time and maybe punch it up a bit more or find any dialog I don’t like. By this point I’ll have already read it through on my own or had Adobe read it through and made notes. This final step will be to add my final touches. I’ll outline more of my writing process in this series. It’s an intense process that I think makes my scripts a bit better in engaging the reader.

I hope you all enjoyed this post and learned something from it. I look forward to writing future posts about my process.

Until next time, dodadagohvi.

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