How much latitude does a screenwriter have to ‘editorialize’ in scene description?
A question from Lalithra Fernando:
So, as a director, I know not to tell actors to be a little angry here, or more happy there. This leads to generic responses in the acting, rather than specific, layered emotional responses.
When you are writing, do you also want to avoid such language?
ie. He stared at the door, angrily.
He glared at the door.
(pretty wack example, but w/e)
I suppose its about adverbs.
Anyways, when I write it out, it always seems pretty foolish, but the question comes back every time I think I’ve answered it for myself. In need of some clarification.
Lalithra, you raise a good question. On the one hand, there’s the adage about not writing anything in scene description that an actor can’t act and that the moviegoer can’t see — that basically the only thing we, as screenwriters, can include in scene description and parentheticals, is specific directions re a character’s actions. Unfortunately in working with actors, it’s preferable to describe the character’s emotional / psychological state, tied to what plot elements are impacting them at the moment, then allow the actor to translate that into action, as opposed to telling them specifically how to act.
Which is a big reason why the old adage — “only describe what a moviegoer can see” — isn’t a hard and fast rule. In a selling script, it’s almost as important, sometimes even more so to convey the mood and feeling of the moment rather than specific character actions.
Let’s look at some examples from the wonderful script by Michael Arndt for Little Miss Sunshine. First, here is the introduction of Grandpa (P.4):
INT. BATHROOM - DAY
Two hands spill a brown powder onto a small mirror.
A razor blade cuts the powder into lines.
A rolled-up dollar bill lowers. The lies are snorted.
The snorter lifts his head up. He is a short, chunky
balding old man -- a Roz Chast kind of grandfather.
This is GRANDPA, 80 years old.
He sits down on the toilet seat, rubs his nose, takes a
breath and relaxes as the drugs flood his system.
Very straight ahead description. Now let’s look at how Frank is introduced in the hospital after a failed suicide attempt (P. 3):
INT. HOSPITAL ROOM - DAY
In a wheelchair, parked against a wall, is Sheryl's brother,
FRANK, also middle-aged. His wrists are wrapped in bandages.
With empty eyes, he listens to the muted VOICE of the Doctor
coming from the hallway.
With his “empty eyes,” the last line is a bit more about conveying Frank’s mood. This next example is even more ‘inside’ the character, Frank’s first moment in his new home — Dwayne’s room (P. 10):
Very unhappily, Frank enters the room and just stands there.
Thank you. I gotta start dinner.
Come out when you're settled? And
leave the door open. That's
I'm glad you're here.
She gives him a kiss on the cheek, then departs.
Frank sits on the cot in his nephew's bedroom. On it is a
Muppet sleeping bag with the Cookie Monster eating a cookie.
Frank glances at the sleeping bag, then averts his eyes.
This is pretty much the worst moment of his life.
“This is pretty much the worst moment of his life.” Not something a moviegoer could see. Not a description of a specific thing an actor can act. Rather going inside the character to convey to the reader (and the actor) what they’re feeling, the mood of the moment.
Arndt takes the same approach late in the script where Richard is seeing the other contestants at the pageant (P. 96):
The audience -- charmed -- starts clapping along. As she
finishes, the audience rises as one in a standing ovation.
Richard is the only one to remain seated. His face sinks as
reality finally hits him -- there's no way Olive will win.
“There’s ‘s no way Olive will win.” Again going inside the character to convey feeling and mood.
The reality is this: It is acceptable for a screenwriter to go beyond mere action description and write about the emotional status quo, even to go inside characters to reveal to the reader what they’re feeling. That said, a screenplay is not a novel, so we have to pick our spots. Best advice: Only go inside a character when you really want to drive home an important feeling, a key mood of the moment.
Does anyone have any other good examples of scene description that go inside a character?
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