Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Action-Series--and Beyond.

Single Actions in a Screenplay Are Meaningless.

I am increasingly convinced that the basic grammar of screenwriting hangs on what I call the action-series.

Namely:  actions are the basis of screenwriting, and they always take place in and through a series.

There are almost no punctual actions in movies--no actions that take place once and only once.

Consider:  a many picks up grains of sand.

What's happening?  What is the action?

He could be obsessive-compulsive.  Or they could be diamond dust that he has spilled and needs to gather up.

A man fills his car's tank with gas.  

What's happening?  It depends on whether he's on he's way to a date, a wedding, a funeral, or a bank hold-up.

The punctual actions--the picking-up-the-grains, the filling-up-the-tank.  These are not actions in the sense that they are not meaningful actions.  They are only meaningful when they become parts of a series.

Actions are spelled out in screenplays through series:  an action-series.

The Basic Grammar of Screenwriting.

This implies that the basic skill of screenwriting is the ability to spell out meanings through series of actions.  It's something like the equivalent of spelling out words in verbal language.  

A screenwriter should be able to spell out any meanings she wishes through a series of actions:
  • preparing for a surprise party;
  • going on a date;
  • falling in love;
  • robbing a bank;
  • moving to a new town;
  • falling out of love;
  • discovering your spouse is unfaithful;
  • stalking someone;
  • buying a gift for a loved one;
  • buying a gift for a coworker;
  • trying to raise some money;
  • etc.
This would be the most basic kind of thing a developing scriptwriter should practice.  It's like a short film:  you take one such idea (a description of an action, really), and you develop the series that spells it out.  

You try it a few different ways, and you work other changes upon it--the way a jazz musician practices playing melodies and scales in different keys.

Developing, Layering, Building a Story.

The writer then works upon these action-series.  There are three main kinds of operations that can be performed upon the action-series.

Particularize.  You make them particular to:  the characters, the settings, the symbolic meanings you wish to spell out.

One of my stock examples is from Million Dollar Baby, because I've been teaching it in my online screenwriting class.

A common action in movies about athletes is:  training.  At some point in a movie about an athlete, he has to train.  

Training is something that's clearly a series of actions--like the tests the hero in a fairy tale goes through.  You lift the same heavy weight a number of times, and over time, it's not so heavy.

We can see the change in the character through the change in the action.

We all remember the training sequences in Rocky, which are about being poor--hitting sides of beef instead of a punching bag.  

It's a different series of actions for a runner, a jumper, a boxer, etc.

In Million Dollar Baby, the athlete is a woman boxer.  She's poor and lives in LA.  
  • She runs on the beach at dawn.  
  • She takes home a leftover steak from work.  
  • She practices her footwork while putting plates on tables.  
  • She uses change from tips to buy boxing equipment.  
This 'spells out':  poor woman waitress training to be a boxer.  The actions and details are particular to the setting and the character.  

A badly-written series would be the same one that any athlete would undertake in any city.  This one's well-written--which means specific to character and place.  

A nice exercise would be taking the same action-series and setting it in a different place, or giving the actions to a different character.  

Set it in the rural south of the 1920's or 1960's.   A black man training on a plantation after the Civil War, for instance.  

Alternate.  First one action, then another, in alternation.  A very old pattern, one identified with the 'discovery' of cinema, of cinematic editing.  

When two actions alternate, we expect them to collide.

A man gets ready for a date, a woman gets ready for a boxing match.

We fully expect them to meet!  It's part of the logic of cinema.

Or a man gets ready to propose to a woman, and she gets ready to have a cup of coffee after exercising.  These two people have different expectations!  

He gets his good clothes from the dry cleaner, buys flowers, polishes the ring.  She goes to the gym, doesn't shower, brings her smelly gym clothes along, crams an onion-laden hot dog in her mouth.  

You see?  Now you're going from one action to two, and this is creating the specificity and surprise, the expectations and problems, we expect from stories.

Layer.  More than one thing happens at once.  

So let's say a man falls in love--and also loses his job.

Or a man gets ready to rob a bank and he falls in love.  That is:  at the same time he's preparing to rob the bank, he's also falling in love--perhaps with a fellow criminal, perhaps with a woman who works in a bakery on his block.

Again, this is two actions, but the intertwining of them can make something unique.  

It also gives actors the opportunity to act.  Doing two things at once is one hallmark of acting going on:  Hamlet is acting crazy and planning revenge.  He's acting crazy and in love with Ophelia.  A character says one thing but is thinking another.  You can write this, you better write this, because it's something actors in particular can do:  they're expert at it.

And the Story?  Life Is Like That.

To wrap up.

You may want to tell a feature-length story, with a beginning, middle and end.  But it always has to be told through series of actions that are particularized, alternated and layered.

The big question then becomes:  How do you get from the beginning, middle and end of the story to the series?  What's in the middle 'layer' between the two?

But that's another topic.

And I actually think that before one even gets to that level, there's an intervening level:  something we feel about life that series of actions concretize.

These are things like "isn't it always the way?," "what goes around comes around," "anything that can go wrong, will," "you get what you pay for," and "no good deed goes unpunished."

These are generally spelled out through a series of actions that leads to a reversal or twist.  

A guy gets ready for a date:  picks up dry cleaning, changes, buys flowers, chocolates.  He drives everywhere.  He's about to buy gas and he realizes--not so much money left.  So he saves it. Doesn't buy gas.  He picks up the date.  The car runs out of gas.  That's an action-series that leads to a particular sense of 'life is like that.'

This makes the question of the beginning, middle and end of a feature script at a still-higher level than these feelings about life.  Probably in some sense the larger story is a fight or conflict--is life like this or like that?  Is it 'a sucker never gets an even break' or 'every dog has his day'?

But more about all that another time.

--E. R. O'Neill

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Norman Friedman gets mentioned in at least one book on screenwriting. (How Not To Write a Screenplay by Denny Flinn.)

Friedman is useful in so many ways.
He sketches out some plot types--adventure fiction, classical tragedy, modern drama, the like, and he has a layered theory of story and of our reactions to stories.
For example, he distinguishes formal or aesthetic 'emotions'--e.g., "What will happen next?"--from moral emotions, which involve how we feel about whether a character succeeds or fails, takes action or suffers, is rewarded or punished.

His descriptions often go something like:
a person of moderate social status, through no fault of his own, is subject to terrible misfortune at first, with intermittent hopes of something better, but in the end comes to a sad end. (Think Willy Loman.)
a person of high standing and great talents suffers terrible misfortune through a relatively small or insignificant mistake, and ultimately but nobly perishes.
That is, there's always:

a person,
their social status,
their admirable or regretable moral and other qualities,
(this including whether we admire or detest these),
whether the person acts or is acted upon,
whether he succeeds or fails,
inflicts suffering or suffers, 
whether such sufferings or honors are his own fault or pure chance or choice or accident, etc. (that is: is he responsible or blameless),
what happens in these terms in the short run and over the long run (e.g., at first he succeeds but in the end is routed),
whether his status changes by the end--he becomes Prince or loses his inheritance or dies or whatnot.
Three sisters are of relatively high social status.

They have admirable qualities--being generous, knowing French, being cultured. (But they can also be snobs.)

They experience glimmers of hope--of romantic attachments, for instance.

But ultimately, through no fault of their own, or through their own inability to take positive action, their situations all worsen, they lose things and persons valuable and important to them.

In the end their states are worse then when the play started.

Yet the persist in dreaming of a better world--even a world without them, a future world, though none have children. (Only a social upstart has children, and they are not their legal father's children).
It's a nice approach. You can see how it's kind of proto-structuralist. One feels that Friedman's plot types could eventually be reduced to all the possible variables in a sort of equation--although he's not exhaustive. (Could there be a weak and detestable person who hurts others, and we admire him for it? Then when he's rewarded, we nevertheless feel bad?)  

Even making a game stab at the 'grammar' Friedman detects, we can see how action-based dramatic writing is.
Someone acts or is acted upon, injures other or himself suffers.
And in a really good dramatic analysis, everything can be stated in terms of actions.

The script or play becomes transparent, because everything takes a clear role in relation to actions, to causality, to responsibility, choice and these moral-narrative categories.

Dramatic writing is writing in actions. It can be in words or some other medium. But actions become an expressive, plastic means:
they're selected and arranged (sequenced and compounded) to say something besides themselves, to be a vehicle for meanings.
Friedman's interesting, because he helps flush out the way stories embody what might be called, in a hifallutin' way, moral-ontological intuitions.
That is: stories embody certain feelings we have about the way the universe is, the way it rewards or punishes those who are good or bad.
The "universe" part is ontological.  

The moral part is about virtue and vice (good or bad, strength or weakness) and reward or punishment (justice).
(A lot turns on guilt and innocence, responsibility and the lack of it.)
It's surprising how many stories seem to embody some very global intuitions of this kind. (I've mentioned some before on this blog.) E.g.:
Virtue is rewarded.
No good deed every truly goes unpunished. (E.g., virtue punished.)
Bad things happen to good people.
What goes around comes around.
The universe is amoral.
Everything that can go wrong will.
Bad things happen to good people.
Rewards are proportional to risks.
In for a penny, in for a pound.
Life's a bitch and then you die.
And the like.

These intuitions can be simple or complex.  

But we like and admire dramatic works when they confirm to these intuitions. We think they're 'true to life.'

To be altogether too brief: if you can't conceptualize your story with this kind of clarity, and if it has no such moral intuitions or logic, the chances of anyone being able to follow it or cotton to it are pretty low.  

Or such is my own moral and ontological intuition!

--E. R. O'Neill