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

mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
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?".
So person X scrunches up her face and looks around, confused.

There's your action - the scrunched face and looking around demonstrate that she's confused.
 

mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
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?
Yes, absolutely right!

You want the action that you believe works perfect - not just for the screenplay, but for that particular character.
 
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indietalk

IndieTalk Founder
Staff Member
Admin
Yeah that's the hard part!
 
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.
It's a little difficult to properly describe the character's world at this point in the script as it forms a major plot twist later on. i.e. the audience is meant to form one opinion of what is going on, only to discover at the end they were mistaken. It's a deliberate misdirection in other words. All I'm trying to get across in this scene is that she is mildly confused about how it is so late. Yes, I know I could say something as simple as "X looks at the clock, it is 10am, she is mildly confused". But that doesn't necessarily convey the exact reaction I want, and to me it sounds a bit naff. And given we are taught to use as few words as possible to illustrate what is going on, I'm just asking whether something like this is permissible instead "X looks at the clock, it's 10am. Odd!"
 

mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
I'm just asking whether something like this is permissible instead "X looks at the clock, it's 10am. Odd!"
In my opinion, no.
She needs to somehow convey "odd" because that word will not be on the screen.

I feel here like you're trying to get me to agree that you're right.
At the end of the day, you need to do what works for you.
If that's what you want to do, then do it.
But if you're asking me my opinion, the answer is "no."
 
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I'm just asking whether something like this is permissible instead "X looks at the clock, it's 10am. Odd!"
Permissible is a vague thing. Permissible for whom? For me? No. For anybody I personally know? With one exception, no. For Quentin Tarantino? Absolutely. If you are trying to break into the business and don't have massive pull/connections, a reader who has hundreds of scripts to get through this week is the person that will judge the worthiness of your screenplay. If everything else is well written, compelling, and (most importantly) what the production company is looking for at that moment, a number of transgressions may be forgiven.
 
It's a little difficult to properly describe the character's world at this point in the script as it forms a major plot twist later on. i.e. the audience is meant to form one opinion of what is going on, only to discover at the end they were mistaken.
Do you have the story outlined to the point you know when and how all of the important bits will happen/be revealed? If so, you have all of the information you need to write it how it feels right at this point. Remember, this is just the first draft. You can go back as many times as you want/need to make it the best screenplay in the known universe. If your story is good, you will most likely rewrite/revise it many times before it's "finished". I put finished in quotation marks because a screenplay is only truly finished once the edit is locked.

ETA: Don't try to reveal everything about the character and the world all at once. You have to give the audience (reader) a chance to absorb new information before you hit them with more. Sprinkle the seeds of mystery liberally throughout your story.
 
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I feel here like you're trying to get me to agree that you're right.
Not trying to get you to agree as such (great if you did though LOL), just enquiring whether you think there are exceptions to this rule. You know how much I value your opinion.

The advice in this business is often conflicting with varying caveats. Character introductions being one example, where even top writers list attributes and characteristics in their introductions that are not really possible to show on screen.
Do you have the story outlined to the point you know when and how all of the important bits will happen/be revealed?
Yes, I've edited this story to death now and I'm pretty content with most of the writing. The reason I brought it up is due to that one line only, which I've been dubious about for the exact reasons Mara has raised and I've heard before. I'm using a thought to convey an action. It's just in my mind, I don't want to tell the actor to screw their eyebrows or make a certain expression. All I want is for them to convey the expression of "that's strange"! And to me, the most logical way for the writer to explain that is to write it as a certain thought, that elicits an obvious reaction that they can interpret and act out.
 

mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
It's just in my mind, I don't want to tell the actor to screw their eyebrows or make a certain expression. All I want is for them to convey the expression of "that's strange"! And to me, the most logical way for the writer to explain that is to write it as a certain thought, that elicits an obvious reaction that they can interpret and act out.
I assure you that the actor and director will find the way that works for them.
 
I assure you that the actor and director will find the way that works for them.
Without meaning to sound disrespectful, how would you write that line if it were you? The reason I'm asking is because my previous efforts (of which there are many) honestly sound shit to me! With a capital S. I just want it to sound professional, intuitive and 'to the point'
 

mlesemann

Staff Member
Moderator
I'm not sure if we're on the "no gun in the drawer" or "is it really x time?" scene so I'll take a crack at both.
Writing one or two lines in a vacuum without knowing the rest of the story - or at least the scene - is pretty tough.
But if it's surprise at the time on the clock, I'd go with something like this:

"Jack glances casually at the clock as he walks by. Then he stops suddenly, pivots, goes back and looks again.
Stares at it for a long moment. Then shakes his head and continues on."

If we're on the gun, I might try this:

"Jane casually opens the drawer half way and reaches in without looking. She runs her hand through the drawer - comes up empty. She opens the drawer all the way and rummages around in it, increasingly frustrated. A few envelopes. A book of stamps. She reaches all the way to the back and pulls out - a stapler. She throws it back in the drawer and slams it shut."

I also might re-structure a few scenes to eliminate the issue - but that's just me.
 
I'm not sure if we're on the "no gun in the drawer" or "is it really x time?" scene so I'll take a crack at both.
Writing one or two lines in a vacuum without knowing the rest of the story - or at least the scene - is pretty tough.
But if it's surprise at the time on the clock, I'd go with something like this:

"Jack glances casually at the clock as he walks by. Then he stops suddenly, pivots, goes back and looks again.
Stares at it for a long moment. Then shakes his head and continues on."

If we're on the gun, I might try this:

"Jane casually opens the drawer half way and reaches in without looking. She runs her hand through the drawer - comes up empty. She opens the drawer all the way and rummages around in it, increasingly frustrated. A few envelopes. A book of stamps. She reaches all the way to the back and pulls out - a stapler. She throws it back in the drawer and slams it shut."

I also might re-structure a few scenes to eliminate the issue - but that's just me.
They're great writing examples, but again it feels like a lot of words and visual direction to get a minor point across, when perhaps some kind of expression or alternative physical reaction might do. The instances where I get stuck like this are usually when I want my actor to convey some kind of micro-expression. They're not major plot points or anything, things that I would want to describe in detail, just a "look" usually, to convey a thought they are having.

Taking the drawer example, I might write something like:

"Jane casually opens the drawer half way and reaches in without looking. Something's missing!"

Because to me, it doesn't matter what exactly the actor does here. Whether it's a furrowed brow, rummaging through the drawer or a look of bewilderment etc. All I want them to get across to the audience is that one thought they are having - "Something's missing" out of that drawer.

I know you should avoid using thoughts in a screenplay, things like "Jack thinks about his ex-girlfriend" because it can't be visualised, but it does feel like in certain instances, describing a thought (where there's an obvious action associated to it) is more natural than describing how the actor should visually portray it. By the sounds of the feedback here though, I'm taking that I should still avoid it...?
 
The instances where I get stuck like this are usually when I want my actor to convey some kind of micro-expression. They're not major plot points or anything, things that I would want to describe in detail, just a "look" usually, to convey a thought they are having.
Yes. This is where I get stuck too. I'm trying to convey an emotion so I write it in alongside an action (as per my take on the Suzie example). But that seems to break the rule...

In your case, I might have written: she stares at the clock in disbelief. But even that may break the rule (even though it's meant to be an expression on her face)?

So perhaps you could get your character to check the clock, small crease of the brow then check a watch and her brow creases even more...?

In the meantime, I feel a re-write coming on. Anyone know any good (cheap) script consultants?
 
I give up. I've expressed my opinion. You guys can fight it out on your own.

I seem to have offended you - many apologies - definitely not my intention. Neither am I trying to win an argument but to gain understanding.

Specifically, I'm trying to understand what can and can't be written in a script in terms of emotion. Is a "look of disbelief" okay or not (as my example above) ? It would seem (to me) to be in the same vein as a "look of fear" or "look of love" but maybe these aren't allowed either which is why I'm confused...
 

indietalk

IndieTalk Founder
Staff Member
Admin
She is not offended but why should he waste her valuable time here if people are just going to do it their own way? More power to you but it is still incorrect and that is her whole point here. It's a lazy way out to not figure out the right expression for the character and the right action. Because it is hard. So challenge yourselves. If you want to put thoughts do it for the first draft. You may find you write quicker and more fluidly and you don't want to have to think about an action for 15 minutes. So pound out that first draft. Then go back and work on the thoughts. Just the thoughts. Then it is a task and does not interrupt your flow. The same way you spellcheck. Make it a task.
 

indietalk

IndieTalk Founder
Staff Member
Admin
If you need help with examples post your genre and a bit of the scene for context. A look of disbelief may be different in comedy vs. horror etc.
 
The instances where I get stuck like this are usually when I want my actor to convey some kind of micro-expression. They're not major plot points or anything, things that I would want to describe in detail, just a "look" usually, to convey a thought they are having.
That's your problem, at least from the perspective of this non-screenwriter : you are micromanaging both the actor and the director. If the thought isn't important enough to warrant a specific action, facial expression, or line of dialogue, then it doesn't need to be there. It's for the actor and director (and editor) to work out between them how that scene should be performed and shot, or if it even needs to be in there at all.
 
The trouble is: I can go back through my script (as you suggest) but I still don't know what is and isn't allowed to be expressed with an accompanying emotion (even in facial expressions or actions e.g. "look of disbelief" or "threw it away angrily").

Does anyone know a good article or book that explains this in detail?

I'm trying to "get it" but I still don't at the moment.
 
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