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?