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;
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