Thursday, 3 November 2016

SCREENWRITING FUNDAMENTALS #5 DON'T DIRECT FROM THE PAGE

 I do a lot of coverage of screenplays these days. I see a lot of common mistakes.

The following are a series of concise screenwriting tips.

#5 DON'T DIRECT FROM THE PAGE

Another very common error I see in amateur screenplays is where the writer believes it is their job to direct the actor and the camera. 

Let's start with the actor. 

Countless times I've seen 'John furrows his brow.' Or 'Michelle raises an eyebrow.'

Don't, whatever you do, direct the actor in how to express emotion through their face. 

The emotion that you want the actor to convey should be self-evident from the CONTEXT of the scene.

Say you want your actor to express 'confusion'. Rather than writing that the actor should furrow their brow - all you need to do is put that character in a naturally confusing situation. 

If you've succeeded in doing that then it is self-evident that the actor would express a look of confusion. 

Next are hand movements. 

Often I see written - 'John reaches for the cup, curls his fingers around it gently then picks it up.'

This action should simply be written - 'John picks up the cup.'

OR even better yet ... cut to the important action... 

'John drinks from the cup.'

If he drinks from it, then it's IMPLIED that he picked it up. 

This also falls under the category of OVER-WRITING. 

Don't micro describe characters’ actions. 

You wouldn't write, 'John places one foot in front of the next, then lifts his first foot and places it in front of the other...'

You'd simply write - 'John walks.'

Now - you might be shaking your head at this advice - thinking just how elementary it is - but the reason I'm writing about it is that I see this kind of actor direction in EVERY SINGLE amateur screenplay I read. 

And I read a lot.

Here's another very common way that beginners direct the actor from the page. 

              JOHN
             (angrily)
I told you not to do that!

Here's a RULE for you - not a principle - but a RULE - never - ever - write HOW a line should be delivered.

That is up to the director and the actor to decide.

SURE - if you're writing to direct - then have at. 

But the vast majority of writers are not writing to direct.

So don't do it.

The use of parenthesis should be kept really simple.

The best use of it is to direct who is being spoken to.

In any situation where there're more than two characters in a scene - and it's unclear who is speaking to who - use parenthesis like this... 

Assume a scene where there are the characters - John, Michelle, Jake and Susan. 

JOHN
(to Michelle)
Pass me that monkey-wrench, will you?

SUSAN
(whispers to Jake)
I don't trust John.

Another way to use parenthesis is with sarcasm - when the sarcasm might not be plainly evident. 

Consider this scene ...

It's a sweltering hot day. John and Mike sit on a bench, baking in the sun.

JOHN
Damn, it's hot.

MIKE
(sarcasm)
Really, you're hot? I'm cold, I wish I had another jacket.

...

It's not absolutely necessary to put sarcasm in the parenthesis, but given that it's very likely the Reader will be skim-reading - it's a good idea to avoid confusion. 

Here's another way that I see writers directing the actor from the page.


JOHN
Hey Mike, I was thinking about...
(beat)
... you know what? Don't worry about it.

Don't ever write (beat).

That's the writer deciding how and where the actor should place their pauses. 

Have faith in your actor that they will know the best place to put the pauses to best deliver their lines. 

This dialogue would be better written like this -

JOHN
Hey Mike, I was thinking about-- 
You know what? Don't worry about it.

That's most of directing the actor from the page.

The next thing I see - which is less common - but still prevalent - is directing the camera from the page. 

Never - ever - write - 'The camera follows John as he runs after the taxi.'

Instead, you should write - 'John runs after the taxi.'

Of course, the camera is following John as he runs after the taxi - that's the action that's being described, so that's what we're seeing up on the screen. 

The only way it got filmed was if the camera was following him. 



THE TAKEAWAY

Go to the script you're working on right now.

Do a 'directing from the page pass' - where you only focus on directing from the page. 

Consider all the points I've made in this post and carefully analyze your script, removing every instance where you directed the actor and camera from the page.