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action If it can't show on screen, it shouldn't be in your script

mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
As I've mentioned before, I work regularly as a script consultant. In practical terms, this means that I spend a lot of time (a) editing/revising screenplays and/or (b) giving feedback & notes.

I see the same issue again and again:
People write things in their screenplay that can't be shown on screen, either by an actor or as part of the set/surroundings/actions.
Just don't do it.

Examples - edited slightly
1. Joe remembered what time he got up that morning.
2. It's the same car as in the previous flashback
3. Suzie didn't like people standing so close to her.

If the information is important, find a way to incorporate it into the dialogue or descriptions.

1a. Joe: I can't believe I slept until 11!
2a. Stan approaches his battered old sedan [you established in the previous flashback that he drives a battered old sedan]
3a. Kim steps close to Suzie and she immediately backs up a step.
 
Looking at 3a - I might write it as: Kim steps close to Suzie but Suzie, who doesn't like people so close, immediately backs up a step.

Would that break the "rule"?

I just wonder whether the motivation for the action can be included because it gives something for the actor/director to work on. Otherwise why does Suzie move back? Does Kim have personal cleanliness issues?
 

mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
just wonder whether the motivation for the action can be included because it gives something for the actor/director to work on. Otherwise why does Suzie move back? Does Kim have personal cleanliness issues?
If Kim has personal cleanliness issues, that that should be made clear. Kim or others can/should say so, either in that scene or establish it in a different scene.

If you don't think the action that I described makes it sufficiently clear, then add dialogue in which Suzie SAYS that she doesn't like people to stand so close - which can be in response to a question from Kim, if you choose.

DO NOT give the motivation as a thought or emotion - that's for actors and directors to discover, work on, and develop from within the script.
That's their job, not the screenwriter's.
 
I put things like germophobia, OCD, and personal space issues in the Character Bio Sheet, not the screenplay. Those traits should be made clear through the character's action on the page.
Yes exactly. Even putting it on a character bio sheet is useless, really, if it’s not clear through their action. Anything not made clear through action is irrelevant.
 
As I've mentioned before, I work regularly as a script consultant. In practical terms, this means that I spend a lot of time (a) editing/revising screenplays and/or (b) giving feedback & notes.

I see the same issue again and again:
People write things in their screenplay that can't be shown on screen, either by an actor or as part of the set/surroundings/actions.
Just don't do it.

Examples - edited slightly
1. Joe remembered what time he got up that morning.
2. It's the same car as in the previous flashback
3. Suzie didn't like people standing so close to her.

If the information is important, find a way to incorporate it into the dialogue or descriptions.

1a. Joe: I can't believe I slept until 11!
2a. Stan approaches his battered old sedan [you established in the previous flashback that he drives a battered old sedan]
3a. Kim steps close to Suzie and she immediately backs up a step.
Would you say it's ok to use a "thought" in the description if there is a synonymous (or obvious) action/reaction to such a thought? Things like "yuck", "ouch" or "that's weird" following the description of an event?

I have a scene in one of my scripts where a character looks at a clock and is visually surprised at how late it is. I don't want to use dialogue to explain it, and the reason for the surprise is not immediately obvious from the context of the scene. At the moment I'm using the thought "strange!" to describe her reaction but not sure if this is right.

Also, say for example you wanted to describe a scene where someone opens a drawer expecting a gun to be in there, but it isn't there. How might you write this if the audience isn't meant to be aware of what the character was expecting to see in the drawer?
 

mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
I have a scene in one of my scripts where a character looks at a clock and is visually surprised at how late it is. I don't want to use dialogue to explain it, and the reason for the surprise is not immediately obvious from the context of the scene. At the moment I'm using the thought "strange!" to describe her reaction but not sure if this is right.
Don't use a thought. Period.

Perhaps she can check to be sure that the clock is actually working - is it plugged in? Are the batteries in place? Should they be changed?
She could pull out her cell phone (or, if she's old fashioned, her wrist watch) to double-check the time.

How might you write this if the audience isn't meant to be aware of what the character was expecting to see in the drawer?
You can show surprise that something that's expected to be there isn't there by having the character rummage under & around whatever else is in the drawer - paper, underwear, etc in a futile search for it. They could also check other drawers in the same cabinet/closet, and their face and body language can clearly express frustration and/or aggravation.

Other that, you'd have to (a) establish the search for a gun in this scene or in a previous scene, (b) work with the fact that the audience will know that the character expects to see SOMETHING without knowing what it is, or (c) resort to having the character speak aloud to herself.
 

indietalk

IndieTalk Founder
Staff Member
Admin
How would you eloquently write that someone just got a bright idea? You know, instead of having the animation team put a lightbulb above their head. "John taps his chin in puzzlement but quickly retreats, looks up, smiles, and nods." See I am not good at this. And I really hate writing/reading thoughts-through-action. It tends to look busy and cheesy. I think that's why people resort to thoughts.

girl think GIF by shapefruit
 

indietalk

IndieTalk Founder
Staff Member
Admin
In other words, there are so many actions that could work. Saying "aha," raising your eyebrows, raising your finger, etc. etc! So why not leave that up to the director and just say John has a bright idea, or John figured it out?
 
In other words, there are so many actions that could work. Saying "aha," raising your eyebrows, raising your finger, etc. etc! So why not leave that up to the director and just say John has a bright idea, or John figured it out?
Because the reader (the actual audience for a screenplay) would then have to think up their own action/reaction based on their own experiences, and that might lead the story to a different/less fulfilling place. Screenwriters only reach the reader (at first anyway), a Director most likely won't see the script until a Producer has purchased/optioned it.

ETA: I recently got the following note on a screenplay set in the Old West wherein I wrote, "The second class passenger car was everything you would expect of late 1800s rail travel.", "Stop being lazy and taking the easy way out. Do Millenials even have expectations of late 1800s rail travel?" Point taken.
 
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indietalk

IndieTalk Founder
Staff Member
Admin
Right. I know the answers. And I get it. Thinking out loud.

But I feel it's part of the reason people put thoughts. Actions can look cheesy and too "on the nose" the same as dialogue can be written on the nose. It's an art form and you can't just add "any" action "that works" imo. I feel you really have to write the correct one and if the director changes it great, no problem, but at least you put what looks good in a screenplay.

Like in a movie if someone is trying to figure out what to do in a serious situation and they tap their chin and say "hmmm" that is cheesy and on the nose. However that would work if they were looking at a menu and trying to decide between a burger and pizza. See what I mean?
 
Perhaps she can check to be sure that the clock is actually working - is it plugged in? Are the batteries in place? Should they be changed?
She could pull out her cell phone (or, if she's old fashioned, her wrist watch) to double-check the time.
I understand there are alternative options to reinforce this point but in this particular scene, it is just a minor expression I want to convey. I don't want to make a big deal about the surprise or have her check a phone or batteries etc. All I want to get across is that she makes an expression that would be universally understood as someone thinking "huh?". I probably haven't explained the situation well enough to be fair though. The reason she is surprised is because she's just awoken (without prompt) and is confused as to why she hasn't been woken up prior to now by her baby's usual early starts.
 
Right. I know the answers. And I get it. Thinking out loud.

But I feel it's part of the reason people put thoughts. Actions can look cheesy and too "on the nose" the same as dialogue can be written on the nose. It's an art form and you can't just add "any" action "that works" imo. I feel you really have to write the correct one and if the director changes it great, no problem, but at least you put what looks good in a screenplay.

Like in a movie if someone is trying to figure out what to do in a serious situation and they tap their chin and say "hmmm" that is cheesy and on the nose. However that would work if they were looking at a menu and trying to decide between a burger and pizza. See what I mean?
Yes. This is known as craft. To write is to forge a universe using only the Divine material of words. Referencing my Old West screenplay, another note I got was that I started an exorcism with The Lord's Prayer, and the reader felt that was too expected. My (internal) response was, "Well, no shit! It's an exorcism. There is a ceremony to these things, and this is an actual exorcism liturgy."). What I actually said was, "Good note. I'll look into that."
 
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indietalk

IndieTalk Founder
Staff Member
Admin
Defiantly a craft, and a craft I never mastered. I'll leave that up to others I don't write anymore. However Mara, since you said put any action that works, would you agree, that it's a craft to figure out the right one to make your screenplay more fluid/pro? Even if it's changed later?
 
I understand there are alternative options to reinforce this point but in this particular scene, it is just a minor expression I want to convey. I don't want to make a big deal about the surprise or have her check a phone or batteries etc. All I want to get across is that she makes an expression that would be universally understood as someone thinking "huh?". I probably haven't explained the situation well enough to be fair though. The reason she is surprised is because she's just awoken (without prompt) and is confused as to why she hasn't been woken up prior to now by her baby's usual early starts.
You can write that she looks surprised, but I would ask, "What does surprise look like on this character?" Each action in the script is building/refining the character and giving the reader a deeper understanding of the world around them and how they interact with it.
 
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