Do Not Overdirect Your Actors!

I don’t know if overdirect is even a word. It doesn’t seem to be recognized by spellcheck. Well, it’s a word now.

I have mentioned this before, but it never hurts to bang a gong repeatedly. Finally the vibrations’ll reach somebody and they’ll perk up and take note.

When your write, you are seeing a movie in your head. Floating above your computer or pad of paper. As you write a scene, you play that scene back and forth in all its richness and glory. Again and again. And as you watch it, you write down what you see. Perfectly natural.

The PROBLEM is that you are watching a movie and then putting ALL OF IT on paper. Do not do that. Only tell us the little bit we have to read in order to get it. One word more is too much. Just because you see it happen up there in front of you, doesn’t mean we need to read it to understand what is going on.

Do not tell us a character’s every movement, head tilt, body turn, walk across the room, etc. in a scene. As you REWRITE your scene (and I know you will!) put on your “Am I Overdirecting” glasses and read the scene again. If you are giving us nuanced character movement, don’t. Tell us only what you must, and shitcan the rest.

Walks
Turns
Nods
Smiles

are deathtrap words. Sometimes they work for you, but mostly they are quicksand, slowing the reader down by filling her head with images she does not need to GET IT.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Do Not Overdirect Your Actors!

  1. Yes! Thanks, I needed this today.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      I need it EVERY day!

      I make the mistakes I tell other people not to, but in theory, not on such a grand scale. Glad you felt it was helpful.

  2. Larry N Stouffer

    It isn’t the primary purpose, but an ancillary benefit is this advice can drop a 115 page screenplay down to the desired 110. Be careful not to underdirect, though.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Larry,
      How right you are!
      It’s a hellish fine line you have to walk. You have to be clear… i.e., we gotta get it, understand, and follow the action the writer intends… but, at the same time, as soon as you step over the line into “He turns and looks” you clog up the page and the story gets bogged down.
      It’s a fine, fine line that requires multiple drafts to get right.
      Be clear.
      But not TOO clear.

  3. Jonny Kurzman

    I’ve just delivered a new spec to my manager. We’ve been going back and forth over the last few weeks getting it in shape to go out to the town. The last 10 days have been intense.

    Last night he sent me a PDF with the company logo on the cover. Very nice. But mostly a huge relief that finally it is done. Finished. Put to bed.

    And now I can relax a bit I just took a look at your website where I read this post. Stuff you’ve said before. Stuff I know.

    And yup, I’ve walked right into what you call the deathtrap. Again and again and again.

    Ho hum.

    Which got me thinking about what makes your advice different from other screenwriting gurus.

    I think a lot of the guys who focus on structure end up massively over thinking/over complicating what should be a relatively simple, instinctive thing. Beyond a few basic guidelines, I think you either have a feel for story or not.

    But the stuff you talk about is more akin to what you need a personal trainer for. When we’re sick to death of the script we’ve been working on for a year, are on our knees, your nuggets of advice are the equivalent of getting us to go that extra mile, to squeeze out that final extra push up.

    I wish I’d remembered/had the chance to re-read your book before that last push on the script.

    Oh well. Wish me luck.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Jonny,
      Good luck with your spec!!
      Hope it goes your way.
      The trick with a spec is to have two working at one time. You work on one, put it away, work on the other, put it away… pull out #1 and you aren’t so invested in it and can make changes with a happier heart. Of course this is vastly complicated if you actually are trying to sell it for money and have a manager type person who wants it.
      This stuff is terribly difficult, and it’s good to hear from someone with your talent and experience.
      I”ve got the people I give my material to and their notes are incredibly important.
      I can’t imagine sending a script out without having someone read it and give me notes.
      People always see stuff I didn’t.
      Like “Maybe your main character shouldn’t die on page 9.”
      You know, the subtle stuff.

      • Jonny Kurzman

        Agree, notes are vital.

        As well as my manager and agent I am part of a local screenwriters group and they read the 2nd draft. The feedback from the group was very useful.

  4. Ian

    I have a scene in my story where I have to write that someone is turning away from the protagonist while they are on the phone to show that they are rude. How else would I do that without writing, she turns her back toward him?

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      That’s the perfect time to tell the actor what to do. It matters for the story. Your character has to turn away so we can see that they are being rude. The anti “turn” rule is just a rule of thumb… you can get rid of a lot of them, but 100% isn’t necessary, as, in this case, sometimes it is the right thing to do. Good question!

  5. Ian

    Thanks for responding. You made me feel better. Thanks!

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