Screenwriting : ACTOR FRIENDLY SCREENPLAYS : We Don't Thump Tables, We Get Angry. by Sara Dee

Sara Dee

ACTOR FRIENDLY SCREENPLAYS : We Don't Thump Tables, We Get Angry.

I'm an actor but am popping into your screenwriters lounge because Kyle Little, here on Stage 32 asked a question of how, basically, to create an ‘actors screenplay’.  So I wrote this outpouring of what, for me, constitutes a bad or difficult screenplay to read as an actor.  I have mentored screenplay writers that have gone on to be commissioned and this is an issue I’ve dealt with time and again so, I’m now making my views public. It will also, I hope, make some actors aware of why some scripts ‘trip them up’ and stop them being their spontaneous best. Also there's a hint of how directors can be too infected by over specific stage directions as well. As actors, we learn to spot them.  That aside, if you want to know how actors, in my experience, read screenplays and what is a common annoyance feel free to read my rant . .

It's basically this, experienced actors don't like to be physically dictated to in the stage direction moments. Here's an example,   ". . . She turns and grabs the door handle that slips out of her grasp a few times before she manages to open it" . . .   

Seems okay but, for a start I might not need to turn, depending on the blocking, so that's redundant, and if I manage to open the door first time, in my characters panic-state on set, I don't want to feel guilty for not following the stage directions that closely, "did the director notice, have I got this wrong,?" All sorts of stuff comes into play to tease me with failure but trust me, I will show panic and I know delaying the opening of the door might be a good nail biting addition.  

Therefore I don't mind reading,  "She's in a panic. . ." , (reassuring statement), but hopefully the dialogue or story will dictate that to me anyway, so all I really need to know is:  'I head for the door and open it'  with a note suggesting the 'panic' makes the door opening more problematic. eg  " . . . the shock weakens her grip on the handle delaying her further. . . "   In short, please have confidence the actor will show, organically the writers intention through their own spontaneously found physicality. Give them emotional context and some room to deliver the intention their way.

Don't get me wrong, sometimes it's really important to be specific about the action, e.g.

" . . . She takes a seat and tips her left arm to look at her watch, spilling the contents of the coffee cup into her lap. . . "  This was a comedy scene that then leads to another moment where the boss points out she's wet herself.  She HAS to sit down to localise the spill and she MUST have the coffee cup in her left hand to get the watch viewing and spill to work.  That's all fine and necessary. THINK then, when it's NOT necessary, the same amount of attention is placed on reading the specific stage directions because actors can only assume there's a point to be made by them. Often this is not actually the case and the reading of such specifics becomes laboriously distracting.

Basically, as an actor, I'm far more interested in the 'emotion' of the character during action than being told how to DO the action.  Another example, " . . . Her shoulders drop she, bows her head and turns away to hide her tears. . ."   That would make me so wooden and superficial.  What I need is  ". . . disappointed and hurt she makes every effort to hide her tears. . . ."

Yes, that mention of disappointment might make my shoulders drop but at least, whatever I do in the moment, I'll be coming from a place of internal emotional motivation rather than just following a list of actions I should perform as the writer sees it and trying to figure the emotional context on them. Would seasoned actors even do that?  No, of course not but we still take in what’s been said as we read and it colours our judgement. We then have to edit out the distractions ourselves and hope the director's happy with that. It just adds doubt to our natural choices.   Think of a lady on a white horse. . . . Now forget her. . . not so easy huh.

That's the other problem with action specific scripts, some directors  'look' for those specific actions and try to get them out of the actor, believing that's the only type of reaction that will work because they've fallen in love with the idea of it, when in reality, the actor has actually done a great job performing the intention of the writer through their own personal interpretation of the character and emotional state anyway. Several takes of the scripted version and the superficial result is on the cutting room floor along with a crest fallen director. Don't colour the pallet, that's an actors job.

Keeping character choices consistant gets difficult when the writers version is dictating your every move and influencing the director too. Luckily, some directors get the gist of these directions but then let the actor do things their way as that is always going to be the most natural and 'real'.

Specifics can be drawn out on set of course.  If the camera is set on the actors right then it might be wise for the actor to use their left hand to offer some flowers, for example, so the camera can see them better. The actor opposite, receiving them, would do better to take them with their right, so everyone is 'open' in the shot.  That's okay too.  We all work for the DoP.  Yes, screen trained or experienced actors know the rules here. If the actors don’t  . . .yet . . .the director should instruct them : you have to find your light, you have to work within the depth of field, you have to be in the frame and not move, you have to be a bit bigger when in a distance shot than in a close up etc.  

We all know the problems on set will be worked out and the actors can, and should, manoeuvre accordingly to help make it work. However, if the actions are too specific in the script they are even more distracting when on set. Some can't be 'felt' by the actor in that particular physical way to denote the emotion expected and some physical moves written can't be executed that way given the limitations of the shot.

I've had a director tell me to blink my eyes as I look into the camera. That instruction tells you nothing. In this case if the script had said " She looks back at the camera with a nonchalant strength." OR  the director told me , "You're all powerful, you don't need this, look back at the camera and let me see that in your eyes.. . ."  either instruction makes me naturally blink my eyes as I turn my head, all the while feeling aloof and commanding.   Even if I didn't blink, the power and the feeling of being dispassionate in my reaction would still be shown somehow. Perhaps the thought,  "you must be an idiot or joking" that I might 'think' to help the motivation, could induce a slight tilt of the head instead.

Honestly, the director has to choose the actors that give a performance they trust and then honour what they offer if it’s a healthy and equally effective alternative. Some actors tell me they were taught not to be slaves to the script. In dialogue, I can't see this would work and I certainly wouldn't go against the words of the writer, the dialogue is the king of character information for me but I do understand why stage directions can get in the way of spontaneous performances if they dictate your moves.

This over specific writing mistake usually comes from a 'writer director' because they visualise every detail OR a 'newbie' script writer because they don't know actors are fuelled moment by moment on 'emotional' intention and motivation. They are trained to let that come through them 'spontaneously' from their gut. The last thing they need is to be told how-it-should-look when they do that. Wherever it's originated from, script or director, that only leads to a possibility of superficiality or misinformation about a character that hampers the actor to make it their own.

Of course, if a character has a twitch that has to be made evident because it’s noticed, referred to or causes the character a physical problem, it’s okay to suggest the ‘twitch’ is there and maybe responsible for the dropping of a key down a drain for example, but don’t remind us, or put it in, every time the character does any action. Trust the actor to know how to use the twitch to effect in their way. The director is there to make sure it’s evident and balanced in the film too.

Directors note -  if your actors need a step-by-step guide, you run the risk of inexperienced actors 'demonstrating' rather than 'living' the performance. Experienced ones will know how to practice the move until it becomes a part of their characters make up, and make it their own i.e. until that needed move, regardless of how uncomfortable to start, feels natural, and totally wrong doing it any other way.  

At an audition for instance, I was told how big my hysterical reaction was to be, by the director, who demonstrated, very loudly, as he saw it!   I was courageous enough to mimic that performance in the audition with conviction and then worked out the rest of my character based on that outburst, eventually bringing it to the set, as I got the role. There was no need for him to suggest or demonstrate anything further, I had got a measure of where he wanted the character to go by that one direction. The rest came spontaneously from my gut because I had done the work and figured how the character got to a place where that hysterical extreme was natural.

Back to our coffee cup spill. A good actor knows the joke comes from everything being so natural and fluid the viewer doesn't see it coming, they don't see the mechanics or the prep, or what must have been written in the script, the actor just does it naturally.  That goes for every stage direction and delivery of dialogue too and it takes self-confidence in the actors instrument to pull it off well.  Please don't trip us up by expecting a tilt of the head, instead tell us the character feels empathy or unsure. Don't make us 'thump the table' if that's not crucial, i.e. the table has to be marked or broken in the next scene, instead perhaps let us know our rage is so accute we could 'take our anger out on the furniture.'

Some directors tell you not to take any notice of the stage directions and that's probably because what happens on set, the limitations of shot choices and the resources available, will change everything OR they don't want the actors hampered by the writers image of events and are trying to get the actors to work more spontaneously.  Others use the stage directions as a guide but, in any event, what nobody needs is the step by step physical movement  list an actor will make, because the writing fails to show the more important ‘internal emotional context' of how the character is feeling.

A good director knows how to get confidence rolling by enticing the emotional context with good communication and letting the actor loose to do their thing.

Actors thrive on being impressionable and easily influenced so they can respond quickly and orgnically but please don’t dictate or impose your will of expectation onto us too specifically. Our artistry needs to ‘breathe’ too and for anyone reading the script I would suggest taking out the unneeded physical specifics and replacing those with emotional guides instead would help feed the imagination and get the reader more involved personally too.

Cameron Leigh James

Sara Dee thank you for your perspective, particularly the specifics and why. Sincerely appreciate it.

Sara Dee

Thank you so much Cameron. I'm pleased there's something in there of note.

Karen "Kay" Ross

Hey, Sara Dee - here's the link for this post (I know, so meta LOL):

Kyle LIttle

I love this document! I'll be reading it often haha I love the example, "slipping on the door knob" I instantly thought, if I was directing this, how much better it would turn out, to just neglect to tell you that I coated the knob in Vaseline or locked the door, then just say "you're probably pretty panicked, open that door" and see where that goes.

This is also where I find a bit of a problem balancing certain things writers will teach, like "you can't film that" it inherently discourages me from writing what you feel, and then trying to compensate fore every emotion by replacing it with action details, which as you know is a bad idea. But I love love love the idea, or the technique even, that actors won't just "act" the objective, but Instead just go do it! Instead of pretending to go look for the missing shoe, you'll just go literally look for it, and I love that, and yes directors, writers and producers need to protect that, and you made a perfect point with the blinking, how are you going to really deliver what that director wants, if you're just "reading " the blink, just physically copying a demand, but with the right emotion stuck in your head, man them blinks are gonna mean something! I love it!

There's probably not enough "play" on set these days, and I mean that in a "professional" and productive way, and quite honestly I think it's the same with any job and industry, if your workers are just sitting in repetition all day, what a glum outcome you'll get, it must like factory labour for actors in some situations, and I at least know that won't look so good on screen.... And lastly miss dee, don't think of this as a rant, that's sells you short, this is a tool, and that's what I'm here for, to learn stuff! So thanks again.

Peter Roach

Thanks. That long read was worth it. Turning to left, banging the table 'damn you, now I have to edit a couple scripts.

Sara Dee

Thank you so much to all. I'm very touched that this article has made sense and inspired positive action. Thank you Karen for the direct link. That's the sort of technical wizardry I fall short on so really appreciate it. Should I offer it anywhere else?

Great response Kyle - It would be great to work with you one day but if you put vaseline on the door knob (brilliant, briliant idea) I'll get through the moment but might return in hysterics knowing full well what you did there!

Peter, glad the perspective was worth consideration and keeps your writing brain in the emotional moment. Best of wishes and gratitude. x

Doug Nelson

Thank you for a well scripted rant. I certainly hope that the young wannabe screenwriters and directors read it - and read it again.

A. S. Templeton

Strewth. Many novelistic (screen)writers operating under the Show Don't Tell diktat sadly delve into micromanaging action and delivery. Give the actors, director(s), and production staff enough to have fun with, cut/trim/condense everything else--action, dialgue, wrylies--not strictly relevant to plot progression or character dev.

Sara Dee

Thank you Doug. That's a very pleasing endoresment especially from one so experienced as yourself.

A.S. Templeton. I so hear you!

A. S. Templeton

Sara Dee The ReelHeART 2020 troupe and narrator doing the live read of my winning pilot for my series The Mâr Chronicles did quite a bit of prep before the Zoom radio play-style performance. They cut the action to the bone and altered and even added a few tidbits of dialogue. The actors' interpretations of the characters plus the marked-up script kindly provided afterward were invaluable in my revising of the next draft.

Debbie Croysdale

@Sara I agree character portrayal needs to be from inside out, not depicted by a physical action meaningless in itself. A director needs pull out innermost visceral cave of a persona but in budget Indie there is time pressure for experimentation in staging, particularly if the actor has not nailed second take. Big studios have luxury “lets try it again later” but an Indie project might only have all actors in a pivotal scene for one hour. I still totally agree with you that actor must feel the part organically but want to add that blockbuster budget OR micro budget, the crew must be on the same page. Artistic flexible direction, together with flexible performance.

Daniel Smith

Great advice. All the books I've read and courses I've done never really touched on what an actor needs or how they approach things. It's a big help thanks.

Kiril Maksimoski

Never has I or will ever even try to create "actors screenplay" What is that? I'm a writer and author of the story / characthers... you are actor and author of the role...why would I ever bash my head with "what would actor say do" when creating my characters...improvise! Work with director! Create the role!

Rutger Oosterhoff

Thanks for sharing. All of this lets me think of the book "I'll be in my trailer; the creative wars between directors & actors".

Clark Ransom

I was excited to see this post as a kind of a "cross-over" dialogue between two creative disciplines; we need MORE of this! As a writer, I can tend to overly focus on the mechanics of the script and miss some of the more subtle opportunities of subtext, whatever kind of subtext that may be, action, emotion, or voice. But your perspective as an Actor gives me pause and adds one more writing tool to my scribe box. Hopefully, this viewpoint allows me to produce even better work in the years to come.

Kathryn Mackie

Thanks for your post, Sara Dee. Some of the examples here seem beyond terrible. Writers should leave the directing to the director and directors should give their actors creative space. I recommend all writers produce something themselves so they can observe on set how their script is interpreted by an actor, and the kinds of dialogue choices that hamper performances.

Brian Flanagan

Thanks to Sara Dee for her expertise.

Too much description slows readers down.

Whereas a lean text moves us along.

Angela Cristantello

"Don't colour the pallet, that's an actors job." This was SO great! Thank you so much for sharing, Sara :)

PS: Once in a rehearsal, I had a director ask me IN EARNEST to "cry four tears". No kidding. He was confounded that I couldn't just do it (and in the middle of this big crazy soliloquy, no less.) These things are real, Man.

Dan Guardino

Just my opinion. Screenwriters should avoid describing a character’s every movement. Blocking is not the screenwriter’s job. Also, extraneous character movement is distracting. Too many details is a big turn off not only for actors but also agents, producers, and readers. It is best to describe only relevant information and it’s ’s not necessary to describe every single detail of the scene. Paint the scene in broad strokes and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest.

Jim McQuaid

"trust the reader, trust the actor." Scary but necessary. Great post.

Sara Dee

Thank you all so much for some fabulous responses. Great to see what thoughts it's generated. Angela, that's a killer situation and yes, it's real, I've had a director choreograph my every step with a metronome and then wonder why it doesn't look natural! Brian, that's it in a nut shell. Clark and Daniel, I agree, there's never enough 'cross over' of information. I attended a directors workshop once and the way they talked about having to 'deal with actors' was a bit shocking but incredibly enlightening for me. They didn't know there was an actor in the room. Debbie, I get you, I'd like to be in a place, regardless of budget where actors, directors and script writer all know how each other worked at least, right now, that takes experiences, trials and errors and everything really starts with, and is influenced by, the script. Jack, your friend has a valuable talent there. Dan, that's the nail on the head! Rutger, I'll have to read that book it sounds fascinating! I still maintain, if there's not too much to influence the action specifics in the script then a lot of disappointments or feuds could probably be avoided. Perhaps another reason some directors say they'll be ignoring the stage directions as they know the actors probably will be! Kirill, that's perfectly fine, I respect that but the question was asked what it might take and I was willing to offer this perspective. Kathryn, yes, I didn't touch on dialogue that's a whole different topic on it's own but you're not wrong. I have had a couple of scripts in my time where I could interchange the names and it would make no difference who said what, they were just informing the story in the dialogue with no distinguishable 'character' traits what-so-ever.

I think that's a great art good screen writers have, the way they make their characters speak so you really get a feel for who they are. That's Magic! Jim, yes, it's all about trust in every part of this business and those with integrity seem to win through. I think that's why it seems so hard to break in too, everyone finds their own team they can trust and they hang on to them. Who wouldn't!

Craig D Griffiths

Thanks. It is a horses for course scenario.

I tend to leave a lot of space for actors to work. This makes for a sparse script.

I have a director that wanted more pages. I pointed out the lack of detail in the script. He insisted. So I added every twitch, hum and movement. It grew by 20 pages. He is happy. The actors will hate it.

William Martell

I have 110 pages to tell the story, so every single word is precious. I think I answered a question on FADE IN earlier by saying that gives me two more lines for story.

I can't speak for other writers, but if I use up my words on an actor opening a door, that specific action is critical to the story. I don't have enough space to waste it on "business".

So I would hope that the actor analyzed that action to figure out why it is necessary for the story. I wouldn't be wasting my words on it if it wasn't.

I have no idea what "blocking" is in a film. I have a stage background, and film is a completely different animal - because it is, at it's core, the juxtaposition of images. And everything is shot completely out of sequence. If I write the hand fumbling with the doorknob, that's going to be an insert shot. A different camera set up.

And, most likely, all of the shots of the actor at the NW corner of the room are shot at a completely different time than the shots of the actor they are talking to at the SE corner of the room. Maybe even different days, and those Actors never meet each other (though that's a little rude).

So all of those pieces of the scene are edited together, but the actor is probably not doing a continuous scene (except in the master, if there is one), so there's no stage-type blocking, and any hands on doorknobs in the screenplay are a different set up. Maybe even not that actor's hands. (A friend of mine used to do all of those shots - so some other actor's hands did Harrison Ford's hand close ups on a film - the other actor was less expensive.)

I'm sure that there is some new writer who is writing every minute detail, but no one is ever going to buy that script. It's either 200 pages or 110 pages that times out at 45 minutes... Though there may be writer-directors who don't know how to write who might be the culprit.

My job is not to tell the actors how to act. My job is to tell the story visually (using dialogue only as a last resort) and let everyone do their job.

Sara Dee

Thank you William, this makes absolute sense. You've elaborted on the point that if it 'counts' you must write it in and yes, some actions can help tell the story. 'Telling the story' is key. As for 'blocking' in film it's a case of knowing where your light is and the edge of frame so you're in shot or in focus when moving around the set. Talking of thumping the table - I've just re-read a script I was sent years ago and the character was working at his desk in his office and was very calm and smooth as he went through an interview with a visiting policeman. Once the policeman left, he shows him out and, ". . . with a surge of unprompted energy he suddenly bangs his fist on the wall, drawing blood". Cut To . . . . Totally out of character but spoke volumes, all was not as it should be, the policeman was decieved or did our character feel anger or grief at the news . . .? You have to read to find out. Great way of building intrigue and, in this case, the emotion behind it is not dictated, to add the emotional context specifically might give the game away too soon. If I was a director I'd make the fist a close up so you don't see much of the face to help enhanse the suspense.

I guess that's the point, when an action tells you something better than dialogue ever can, please go ahead, it serves as 'language', serves the character and story too. Personally, as an actor, I ADORE little dialogue with every move I make telling the story instead. I would go so far as to say, for me, actions are far better than words for telling story, together with subconscious symbolism nudges too. I just despair at the 'uses right hand, to pick up the money and, with a frown, swings to the left and stares at the window,' that, as I see you understand, is far too superfluous and restricting and doesn't tell you what the frown is for emotionally. As an actor, yes you take clues from the rest of the story so far, but if that frown was written to denote grief or anger my face doesn't quite respond specifically like that so I'd have to ignore it, I'm more of a cold hard stare or a tear welling collapsed face. I'd rather read 'she picks up the money, and stares at the window with (either) 'rage in her heart' or 'grief stricken.' As with my previous, surprising example of a behavior twist, how do I know if there's a sub plot going and this 'frown' is illustrating a hidden agenda? Without the emotional context, in this final example, I simply don't.

Thanks again for your response to help illustrate a point.

Peter Roach

Follow up on Sara Dee's eye opening post. I am re-watching a Chinese series .

The actors non verbal response makes the show. Example, there are a couple scenes where one person is lying and the actor says nothing but his/her face speaks "I know you are lying yer bastard." See I would have written that line, not knowing the actor can bring that to life.

The body cues in the show are amazing. I am sure I missed these cues in many a show, so how can I express that in a script without being a pain in the behind?

Christiane Lange

These are really good pointers, and since I know and work with actors, also something I think about as I am writing.

At the same time, apart from tics, there are also non-verbal responses, where you have to describe it somehow, e.g.: "He raises a questioning eyebrow." It doesn't work from a reader's POV to write: "He uses a facial expression to show that he doesn't understand." But as the writer, I don't really care what expression or gesture the actor chooses to use, as long as the point comes across. :)

Dan MaxXx

Here’s a table read by some familiar Actors. Shia LeBeouf put in the work.

Christiane Lange

Jack, yes, that can work, but then you end up telling the director what to do :P

Doug Nelson

Many times I've seen scripts get in the way of making films. A side rant - this is a Screenwriter's Forum, you're writers; NOT directors.

Andy Davie

What a great post from the wonderful Sara Dee. So much information and insight. I wish I'd seen this 'rant' so many years ago when first attempting to write screenplays. When I look at my older work now the cringe factor is almost painful. Removing the directions from those older scripts opens up more white space and gives more room to expand on the story.

Ideally you want to create an engaging, smooth read without leaving the reader (whatever their profession) wondering why a character moved in a specific way. That is unless it's actually pertinent to the unfolding plot, i.e.

Sara lifts her cup with her left hand as she calmly responds to the police officer's questions. Might be because later on it's revealed she's hurt her right hand while fighting her victim...

Aside from those plot driven specifics there really is no need to play puppeteer or director in your screenplay. Cut those strings, free your cast, director, reader and yourself in the process.

Sara Dee

Thank you Andy, succinctly put my whole article in a short paragraph.

Sara Dee

Hello Peter, my penny's worth I don't know exactly how the scene looked but if I read, ". . . . Incredulous, she lets the lies tumble from his mouth, her anger bubbling to the surface. Her face speaking volumes that he fails to see. . . . " Or maybe, ". . . . Her face says it all. Holding back her rage she absorbs every lie. . . ." I think that would be enough for me to get the right emotion out. Each is different but the REASON I MENTION HER FACE in these examples is I want the director to grab that close up, as you saw it.

A bad example of our liar scene stage direction for me would be, " . . . We focus on her face as he talks. She knows he's lying and her fixed stare, pursed lips and slight tilt of the head makes this obvious . . . . " That dictates the actors physicality and shooting specifics to the director, who'll know to focus on her face, but, if that instruction has annoyed them too much . . . meh . . .maybe not!

From my perspective, that silent moment 'close up' on another character, as the scene is dominated by chatter elsewhere, would do well being pinpointed in the script without 'telling' the director what to do.

Doug Nelson

I'm always on the lookout for that money shot. Those are the gems that sparkle throughout the film and raise it to a higher plane. Aside; I write action - I don't use '' words. But that's just me.

Peter Roach

Thank You Sara. Noted/Saved in Action safe.

Sara Dee

Oh Doug, that's so interesting! I've never specifically noticed that but yes, I see it now! So my example would read ". . .she lets the lies tumble from his mouth. Her face speaks volumes as her anger bubbles to the surface . . ." x Much better x

I am just a visiting actress here on the scriptwriters lounge and am pleased I popped in for a visit. It's been a joy to offer my perspective and learn from everyone.

Ismael Judá Moraes Reis Dias

I tend to make screenplays friendly to actors to improvise or add their own mannerisms to the characters, so it becomes better to them in terms of performance.

Doug Nelson

Sara - even tighter. She doesn't let the lies tumble from his mouth; he lets the lies tumble from his mouth. I'd probably start with a Mid Shot, his lies would be OC, I'd pull in to a Close Up as her anger bubbles up, then Cut To an OTS of his reaction to her anger. I'm blocking without even knowing the story - sorry, but that what us director types do.

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