Badly Written Scene Description Kills Your Actor’s Choices!

You are writing this script to be made. Crew members are going to read it. Heads of departments are going to read it. At least, that’s the theory. Actors are going to read it.

When you write, you imagine a scene, floating in glorious living color above your computer. You watch the scene. Over and over, you replay the scene and redo it. When you’re satisfied, you write it down. Generally, the first draft is exactly what you saw floating above your computer. That’s fine.

The problem comes when you don’t rewrite to make it more actor friendly.

“She sits at the table and puts her face in her hands.”

Actors hate this. You should hate it too.

You should be telling the actor what you want them to feel at this moment, not do. If you write detailed physical description of action, an actor is going to do precisely what she is told. She may question you about it… but, she may silently acquiesce. Once you tell an actor to “put her face in her hands,” she is going to assume, because it’s in the script, that it is very, very important.

That gesture may have been something from the scene hovering above your computer that you simply transcribed onto paper. It may not have been that big a deal to you. But if you leave it in the script, it becomes a big deal.

Just because it got written does not necessarily mean it is good writing.

When the actor puts her face in her hands, you just eliminated a host of other options that had been open to her. Now, all she can do is put her face in her hands. Why would you take away an actor’s opportunity to give you a thoroughly nuanced performance? Why would you force an actor to do something that might be considered ham-fisted or lame?

If you wrote…

“Janine feels wretched.”

She can take that feeling and translate it into physical action in countless possible ways. Give your actor the freedom to make the best possible choice for that moment in that scene. Avoid making the choice for them.

If a character runs out of the room and slams the door, and it’s crucial to the story, then of course keep it in. Micromanaging the actor’s physical performance on paper is not a great way to have the most successful experience when you are shooting. Give the actor emotional moments to play not tiny, detailed, “she lifted her eyebrow in suspicion” moments.

If you have a tendency to give an actor precise physical directions, try to figure out a way to un-have that tendency. That’s what rewriting’s for!

Go through your script, all of it!, and see how many times you give the actor specific physical instructions. Ask, “is this something I have to say?” Or “can I turn this action into an emotion and let the actor choose what to do when the camera’s rolling?”


Filed under Bad Writing, Details, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process

11 responses to “Badly Written Scene Description Kills Your Actor’s Choices!

  1. Is it better to announce the emotion or use no action line at all and just let the actor base her reaction off of the dialogue?

    • yourscreenplaysucks


      Good If the dialogue will tell the actor how to react, then that’s all you need. Sometimes you have to gently tell it in the action description.

      Of course at times, you will want to tell the actor exactly what to do… it’s a grey area.

      The more scripts you read, the more clear this thorny question will be.


  2. Carla Christina Contreras

    Thank you! (from an Actor)

    • yourscreenplaysucks


      Thank you for backing me up.
      Writers often forget that finally, the script will be given to an actor who then only has the page to use to do their work.


  3. OP

    If you wrote: “Janine feels wretched.”

    A reader would complain and say show us through action that she feels wretched, as compared to saying it.

    So having a character SLAM a door to show they’re pissed is better than saying: Janine feels frustrated.

    From an acting standpoint, I’m sure actors would prefer this, BUT picky biased readers going off of what “they learned” to get their MFA or whatever, would whine about it.

    I’m telling you, you put a line like: “Janine feels wretched.” You will almost certainly hear, show us she feels wretched. Don’t tell us.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      This is a thorny issue and I’m not sure how to resolve it.
      The more scripts I read, the more I see (some) emotion written in the arena of “Janine feels wretched.”

      If an actor can act it, I feel it’s okay to do… sparingly.

      But it’s a tough call.
      Look at a bunch of Black List scripts and see what they do.

      • OP

        I haven’t seen it done at all really in Black List scripts, or scripts circulating.

        But… Not many of those scripts are that great to begin with. They’re not always the best blueprint to follow.

        I do think a lot of over direction of acting happens. But I still think it’s better to show it, compared to telling. Just need to make sure it’s simplified.

        If you can get it through the dialogue. Even better. Word choice for action description can also convey it while using very little space. Even a parenthical if necessary for the dialogue could do it justice. I mean, you don’t want to do that too much, but it can be used in the right places.

  4. Will

    Do you also not write “She smiles,” “She laughs,” “She sighs”? I disagree that “You just eliminated a host of other options that had been open to her. Now, all she can do is put her face in her hands.” — No two actors will do this the same way. Speed of motion, placement of hands on face (or then back of head, neck), gripping, scratching, tugging on hair, possibly then slamming fist on table — all these are still possibilities and choices an actor can make. I don’t think most people would look at it in such a rigid way since things can always be tweaked during production too. I still prefer visual description over the somewhat ambiguous “Janine feels wretched.”

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      One never knows… many ways to skin a cat. I may be too rigid in my approach. My feeling is that I’m writing a sales piece, not a production script. I have to convince the reader, the development exec, the producer, then a director and talent and finally a financing entity. That’s a long way from production. Along the way, it’s going to change, especially according to the director’s wishes. My job is to write something that will eventually get into a director’s hands.

      If I’m directing it myself, I do it differently.

      Then again, maybe not!

  5. Well that was a waste of time.

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