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How To Write Action In The Middle Of Dialogue Screenplay

Adam Scott

A conversation scene doesn't have to be broken down into dialogue before it begins; it doesn't have to be dialogue before action. All that is needed is clarity in what we want to convey.

But for me, dialogue has always been a lot more complicated than action. It seems more logical to me to write dialogue first, the action second.

And this is where we start to find the problems.

Films often rely on the actor to say too much. But the same applies to dialogue; if an actor says too much, it is much harder to judge the believability of what they are saying.

What would you rather have? A line which conveys the information necessary, but says a lot of unnecessary things in the process?

Or a line that says nothing which is communicated effectively?

Writing action first will help the dialogue director and the actors – as well as give them the opportunity to be more flexible and improvise their performances.

It also gives the writers more control over the script, since it's their content which is being brought to the screen.

I've heard it said that dialogue and action are different: dialogue is about telling a story whereas action is about telling a story we can't see. That's one way of looking at it, but I don't see it that way.

I think there are similarities between them – the same principles apply to both, of course, but I'm talking more about how they work and how they will function in the screenplay.

If you remember that the purpose of a screenplay is to get the best possible result out of your actors – not to tell a story, not to tell an intriguing story, but to provide entertainment for your audience, then the "business" of how you use the dialogue and the "business" of how you use the action will start to make sense.

If you write dialogue first, it doesn't have to be perfect. It's up to the actor to make that decision and interpret it the way they do.

I might have said that it's all right if the actor delivers a line poorly, but I think that's not true – there's something you can do with it. You can show that their problem is not that they have broken the line, it's that they're not sure of what they're saying.

This is why we need to use action to reinforce that character's lineGirl performing ballet dance at a dancing studio

Perhaps you want to show the character is scared, so you have a very specific physical event which corresponds with that emotion – an explosion or the moment they discover there are many creatures under the ground, perhaps. You have done the right thing by using action to support their thought process.

When the dialogue writer knows that the action is there to support what he wants to say – or that the action is there to support the words – the whole script becomes easier to manage.

Another reason why you should write action first, of course, is that when we watch the film, we will immediately start to extrapolate on the actions being shown. When we see a car crash, we can instantly see what happens and we have already developed an expectation of what should happen next – that is, we have already started to tell the story.

So, once again, by writing the action first, you reduce the amount of interpretation you have to put into your characters' actions and you give yourself a chance to write those scenes so that the action supports the dialogue.

Action comes first. Dialogue comes second. In the correct order, of course.

The six basic plot patternsMasks of Light

So, now you know how to work with your actors' dialogue and action in the screenplay, it's time to understand the more technical aspects of screenplay writing.

These six story-first and dialogue-second principles form the basis of every good screenplay – and many bad ones too.

Like dialogue and action, these principles apply equally to screenplays for feature films, TV series, television movies, TV series pilots, TV series, shorts or any other form of filmed entertainment you can think of.

They're not hard and fast rules; there's no point in writing a screenplay in only one way. But there are a few things which we're going to be focusing on in this article.

And to make things clear, we've added a couple of examples to illustrate how we would apply these principles to a real-life screenplay.

BudgetGirl holding American Dollar Bills

As I mentioned, there are a few things we'll be focusing on here:

Writing the six main plot points on a single page. Don't worry about using the "ideal" order of things – just get them down and you can rearrange as you go along.

Most of these points are subplots anyway, so this will help keep the script on target, rather than getting all over the place.

Don't worry about using the "ideal" order of things – just get them down and you can rearrange as you go along. Most of these points are subplots anyway, so this will help keep the script on target, rather than getting all over the place.

To show the number of pages: when we list the six main plot points on a single page, we have two text boxes – one for each major point. The arrow indicates the direction of the text box to the right.

Note that this is not the only way to write a screenplay. But it's the way we are going to talk about it here.

This is just one example of what you might see. The following example from a long-form TV series sets out a number of subplots in the same way.

You can see that the size of the text boxes don't match – the subplots are more widely spread across the page than the story-first points.

Describing the plot points

Describing the six plot points on a single page is good and necessary. But it's also very unlikely to work for most writers. This is partly because of the way we write.

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