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How to write character's emotional reactions in a screenplay?

Question : When writing my screenplay, I frequently find the urge to describe a character's emotion. However, I have read somewhere (I forget where) that this should be left to the actor to some extent, the actor should understand the story enough to know how their character would respond to events. What is the correct thing to do?

Example: Let's say that, in the opening scene, Bob, who we barely know, sees a smiling ghost. Then the scene ends. Bob could be scared, or he could be excited, or he could not care. As the writer, I know I want Bob to be scared. Should I ...

A) Write ‘Bob is scared’. (This purveys Bob’s emotion, leaving the actor to react as necessary, but I haven’t written any visual cues)

B) Write ‘Bob looks scared', (This purveys Bob’s emotion, leaving the actor to react as necessary, but I have given a very vague visual cue)

C) Write ‘Bob freezes on the spot, mouth gaping open, eyes bulging.’, (I have detailed the visual elements of Bob's fear, but is this too explicit and not leaving anything to the actor?)

D) Write nothing! (The actor decides how Bob should react based on the entire script, even though a first-time reader of the script may not know how Bob would react because they are new to the script).

E) Something else?
I would go with C). but only with the "Bob freezes on the spot" part.

I think it depends on the kind of story you're trying to tell. If specific emotions or reactions affect your story line, then mention them but keep them brief.

This is a tricky thing cause keeping stuff as brief as possible sometimes drains the vibe out of your screenplay and hurts it ( makes it a boring read ) . you can compensate for it through dialogue but again not all things could be expressed in form of dialogue . So I'd say try to go with it somewhere in between.
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You need to let the reader know what is happening visually, so that it can be shot in that way.

I think sometimes when we write we get caught up in writing for writing’s sake and forget in part that what we’re writing is a blueprint to what gets shot.

So writing ‘Bob is scared’ or ‘Bob looks scared’ doesn’t really tell me anything. How is this expressed? How do you show visually someone being ‘scared’?

‘A ghost appears in the room. Bob looks scared.’


‘Bob turns as the ghost flashes to life in the room. He freezes on the spot for a moment as they eye each other. The ghost lunges at Bob and he screams. He runs out the door and down the stairs. Got to get to the front door! He sprints now, as he nears the house entrance.
He’s knocked to the floor by an invisible presence. Blood pours out of a large gaping wound in his head. The room is otherwise empty’

Or in your example of a short scene with bob and a smiling ghost, perhaps something more like:

‘In the corner of the room a green amorphous blob appears. It resembles snot, hovering in the air. Three holes form a makeshift face - two eyes and a mouth. Bob turns and spies the creature. It’s a ghost. The ghost smiles. Bob tenses, frozen on the spot.’

What do we see? Perhaps eyes bulging and mouth agape is the way your character expresses fear. If not, don't write that.
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the thing is those are impossible commands, actor cant make their eyes bulge etc... and honestly trying to follow those commands will look slapstick and unnatural


IndieTalk Founder
Staff Member
Those weren't commands he was guessing what you might see from the actor reading the script.
I'll echo the advice already given that you should just keep it to a simple action like "freeze on the spot." I'd also say it somewhat depends on what you're doing with the script. If you're just going to make it, keep it to simple action. If you're going to be pitching it to people and having it read, I've read you may want to embellish a bit and the mouth agape and bulging eyes might be good to include to make it a more evocative read.
Of course C. A and B are poor and D is nonsense. In a screenplay you describe what you see. For emotions you also describe what you see, faces and movements. To give a bit more emphasis to an emotion you describe a bit more the face. A screenplay has to be also nice to read! And if you think you leave nothing for the actor try to take the expression you describe, record it and then compare it with the scared face of a big actor... There are a lot of muscles on the human face :yes:
Thank you to everyone who replied, some great responses. I now believe that some physical descriptions are indeed important, but equally the actions shouldn't be too complicated.