Thursday, April 23, 2015

Action vs. Decision

(Spoilers: The Matrix)

Last week I read short treatments for feature film projects from my screenwriting students at Art Center College of Design. I discovered that I was giving a lot of feedback relating to the issue of action vs. decision, so I decided to address the topic in this week’s blog post.

The easiest way to illustrate the difference – and the potential pitfall it creates – between decision and action is in loglines. (I won’t use actual student loglines as that would violate their privacy). So, let’s say you have a logline like:

A lonely cop starts dating a criminal and must choose between his girlfriend and his job.


When an ambitious man from an impoverished family discovers his boss is embezzling from the investment company where they work, he must decide between alerting the SEC or blackmailing his boss.

Both of these might sound like viable movie premises – and they could in fact be turned into viable movies. But as they stand they are problematic because they both focus on decisions instead of actions. The trouble is, a decision is transitory – it takes only a moment. What will occupy the rest of the movie? Words like “choose” or “decide” should raise red flags in your log line.

It would be slightly better to say the character “wrestles with” their choice or decision. That could take time. But what will we see on screen? Will they be looking out the window in contemplation for an hour? Maybe they’ll make a pro and con list. Neither is visual or filmic.

In a logline, you need to indicate some kind of action that could plausibly fill at least an hour of the movie (the set-up will usually account for 20-30 minutes of screen time, and your ending – not typically part of the logline – will fill some additional time.) What would the above loglines look like if they focused on action? Let’s try the cop romance first:

A lonely cop falls in love with a criminal and must protect his girlfriend from his partner’s investigation.

Now we have a sense of what the main character will be doing through the movie – trying to secretly foil an investigation. It implies scenes and plot points and, most importantly, ongoing conflict. It’s an idea that can be developed. Now let’s try the embezzlement story:

When an ambitious man from an impoverished family discovers his boss is embezzling from the investment company where they work, he uses the information to gain power, but is threatened when the SEC investigates.

Now we understand what the action of the story will be. Our main character will be blackmailing his boss while avoiding the SEC investigators. To illustrate why this is important, let me show another way you could develop this idea:

An ambitious man from an impoverished family fights discrimination to work his way up to an executive job at an investment firm – only to discover his mentor is embezzling from the company.

The action in this version is focused on the main character fighting discrimination and working up through the company. The embezzlement is phrased to suggest it’s a twist that comes near the end. The action element in a logline usually tells us what act two will be about. In the first active version of this idea, act two will be about blackmailing, while in the second version it will be about rising through the ranks of the company. (You may think one sounds more dramatic than the other – all action is not created equal. That’s part of the point. Make sure the action of your logline suggests the most dramatic version of your idea.)

It’s not that decisions can’t be part of the logline, it’s that they should set up ongoing action. So you could rephrase the cop logline as:

When a lonely cop falls in love with a criminal, he chooses to hide her identity from his partner. But as the investigation continues, he must make greater and greater moral compromises to protect his girlfriend.

In this version we've added back in the internal struggle the cop is engaged in – his decision(s) – but we’ve used it to set up ongoing actions – protecting his girlfriend, making moral compromises.

Let’s move on from loglines now and consider the role of action and decisions in developing the full story. Decisions are great tools for writers because they reveal character. Often, we illustrate the character arc by showing the character making different decisions in similar situations. On a most basic level, consider all the romantic comedies that involve love triangles. In the beginning, the heroine may choose one guy (the wrong guy), while in the end she chooses another (the right guy), thus showing that she has learned something about love.

In a way, most stories could be said to consist of characters making decisions that lead them to taking action, which puts them in a situation to make a new decision, which will lead to more action. Your story needs both. Decision points change the direction of the story (often they correspond to act breaks). Action provides the material for the scenes that follow.

We can see this clearly in The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski):
  • Neo makes a decision not to listen to Morpheus’ instructions over the phone. As a result he is arrested and interrogated by the agents (action).
  • Later he chooses to take the red pill – a different decision than he made earlier. This leads to the action of his awakening in the real world, his training, and his visit to the Oracle.
  • After Morpheus is captured and the team narrowly escapes Cypher’s betrayal, Neo makes the decision to try to rescue Morpheus rather than pull the plug on him. This leads to the action of the rescue attempt.
  • And then Neo makes the decision to turn and face Smith despite all the advice he’s received to the contrary. This leads to the action of the final confrontation and Neo becoming “the One.”
Neo makes other decisions in the movie, of course, but you can see how these big choices lead to action that is the actual content of the movie.

You usually don’t want a decision or choice to end the conflict. Rather, it should introduce new conflict. So in a romantic comedy, just because the heroine chooses a different guy at the end of the movie, that choice shouldn’t immediately give her happily-ever-after. Typically she then has to win that guy over. She has to take action based on her decision. And that task should not be easy.

So decisions and action work together to create story. The most common problem in early story development is the writer identifies the decisions but not the action. Decisions can sound dramatic in a logline or short treatment, but if you don’t identify the action that follows, then you may discover nothing is really happening when you try to develop your concept into a screenplay.

EDITED TO ADD: Other dangerous words are "realizes," "learns," and "discovers." All are transitory - what action do they lead to?

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