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Writing for the Actor

Norlinda recently wrote to ask my (inexpert) opinion on writing for the actor:

I’m writing my first feature screenplay. Some of the feedback I received from my first reading was that I should try to write more for the actor. I don’t really know what that means other than maybe inserting more subtext and not adding a lot of parenthetical or directions.

Here’s my reply:

This is the basic principle as I understand it:

  • Write lines of dialogue so that (from your perspective at least) there’s only one way to say them. That is, that any directions are implicit in the dialogue itself.

Here’s an example of an average line:

BOB: Where did all the soup go?

Here it is with plenty of implicit subtext and direction, particularly if there’s only one other actor on-stage (or on-screen):

BOB: Ah, man, who the hell ate all the soup?

Stupid example, but maybe you see the difference? We get a clearer picture of the actor’s delivery from the second line. In doing so, you’re not overly restricting the actor–you’re given them queues as to how the line should be delivered. Actors, in my limited experience, crave that implicit direction.

There are still a bunch of ways to play that second soup line. In rewriting it as I did, though, I excised a vast number of (in theory) non-applicable readings. I’ve made the actor’s job easier.

The Writer Isn’t the Director

The other thing to understand is that you, the writer, aren’t the director. You’ve got to make the character’s intents as accurate and clear as you can, but then you’ve got to trust the actors and directors.

You’d probably benefit from reading an introductory actor’s text book. The one acting course I took used this slim little volume, but any popular book would do. Combine that with a couple of books on directing. I’d recommend On Directing Film by David Mamet and A Sense of Direction by William Ball.

Understanding how actors and directors analyze text improves any dramatic writer’s work, I think.

Maybe some actor, director or writer out there in ReaderLand can improve my slipshod advice?

7 Responses to “Writing for the Actor”

  1. Stuart Maxwell

    In addition to your two picks, Darren, two books I find indispensable for the screen or stage writer are The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri (a little dated but still relevant) and William Gibson’s Adventures in the Screen Trade.

    More than writing good, speakable dialog (which you’ve described well here), I think that writing for the actor involves creating a compelling emotional journey. It’s the difference between a writer who describes an intellectual argument through the mouths of her characters and a writer who paints an idea with words and situations, who hints at truth by banging her characters together.

  2. filmgoerjuan

    So instead of “these pretzels are making me thirsty” (which can be open to any number of readings and interpretations), you’d suggest “Ah, man, these pretzels are making me all thirsty as hell”?

  3. darren

    Stuart: Indeed, I’ve read that Egri book. I did find it a bit, well, trying, but there’s good info in it.

    Filmgoer: Heh, well, really these aren’t exactly lines with gravitas, you know? The point is, I guess, that specificity rarely hurts a script.

  4. Matthew Bissett

    Here’s another look at it… perhaps in some aspects the opposite of what Darren is saying. Unsurprisingly, Darren as a professional playwright says write your lines to limit what the actor can do. As a professional actor and director, I’m going to suggest what ‘writing for the actor’ means is remembering that the actor is ultimately your most valuable tool, the sole mediator between your words and the audience.

    What you should be gunning for, then, is to write lines that the actor can ACT, by which I mean show us the audience the thought process leading up to and away from the line. It’s the THINKING that’s compelling in our great actors. This could be as easy as not having a character say “I’m angry”. (One of the worst forms of exposition), but rather give them a line about getting whatever it is that they want, which they then can DELIVER as angry. Don’t have the characters TELL us their feelings, rather find ways, activities to let the actors express those feelings. A subtle actor can convey so many more complicated feelings in two seconds than any line you might write.

    This, admittedly, is harder to do. Which is why one rarely finds such moments in Hollywood.

  5. darren

    Matthew: Dude, easy with the professional status there. I’d prefer to stick with amateur until I officially declare.

    Yep, what you say is true as well. An exquisite mainstream example of this is possibly the only quiet scene in The Bourne Ultimatum where, in about five words, Julia Stiles’s character reveals a tremendous amount about her past relationship with Jason Bourne.

    I think, ideally, that there should be a healthy tension between what the director wants, what the actor wants and what the writer wants.

  6. DirectorLife

    As a new director and continuing actor, I have to agree. It’s hard to deal with ambiguous lines, especially when it comes to amateur actors.

    In my blog, I wrote about a class that I took in college. We were told to deliver a line “I hate you. I hate you, and I never want to see you again” to the class. Most everybody went with anger — “I HATE YOU!!!!! I HATE YOU AND I NEVER WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN!!!!!!!!” (notice the excess of exclamation points).

    That, of course, is a very common interpretation of that line. But I asked myself, “Have I ever said it like that?”

    I sat upstage on the table, I pulled my (long) hair down in front of my face, and I glared at a girl, and I said softly, with a gravelly voice: “I hate you.” A pause. “I hate you, and I never want to see you again.”

    She screamed, literally.

    It was very hard for the rest of the class to think outside the box on that one. Or maybe they just weren’t used to doing it.

    As a director, I often have to think outside the box. My actors usually go with the simplest interpretation, the path of least resistance. And while that certainly applies in many, many situations, sometimes a better effect can be gained from looking at the line in a different angle.

    The playwright can certainly help out in those situations.

    I recently directed a play called “The Faculty Room” by Bridget Carpenter (crazy but good play). One of the characters is sarcastic the whole time, but my actor kept playing him as honest and truthful. It took him awhile to understand that his character didn’t mean half the things he said — that, indeed, it would be funnier if his character didn’t believe half the things he said.

    Looking back, it could have definitely improved the play if the playwright had added a few lines here and there to indicate the extent of his apathy.

    On the other hand, there’s nothing better than figuring tough things out for yourself.

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