I learned more about the craft of screenwriting by studying acting than from reading books on screenwriting.
There. I said it.
Actors, after all, are my real audience. Without them, I might as well write a novel. The moment I decide I’m going to write for performance, I have committed to communicate everything – my entire story – through the actors.
The clearer I am to the actors, the clearer they can be to the audience.
By training with actors, I discovered first-hand how that script I labored over would be perceived by its audience. In fact, it didn’t take too long for me to “go native” – to more strongly identify with the actors than the writer. That’s because good actors are taught that the script is everything and its words are sacrosanct. Actors will delve into the characters you created with a passion and love for them that might even exceed yours. Ever see the markings on a script in an actor’s possession? Sometimes every line of dialogue – your words! – is covered with notes and analysis.
A good actor will be the best audience you can ever hope for. Better, even, than your mother.
So your very first job as a writer for performance is to not betray your audience’s (i.e. your actors’) enthusiasm and trust. Sadly, writers do this all the time. I witnessed it in the very first scene I performed in class. There I was studying the script to (a) memorize the lines, (b) do all that other stuff that actors do in the act of acting, and (c) memorize the lines. And suddenly I was aware of a whole lot of parentheticals mixed into the dialogue. You know exactly the words I’m referring to: “(quizzically)”, “(nervously)”, “(confusedly)”, “(exasperatedly),” and so forth.
What the hell was I supposed to do with those words?
Talk to any actor and one of the things guaranteed to drive them batty is for a director to give them line readings. That’s when – for whatever reason – the director will tell the actor “Say the line this way.” Which means there’s a horrible disconnect in the creative process somewhere. Acting, after all, isn’t mimicry. Even a mediocre actor knows that a decent director won’t resort to line readings.
Parenthetical adverbs are the writer’s equivalent of giving an actor a line reading. Exactly how does one deliver dialogue “quizzically”? Speak the words with a furrowed brow? Shouldn’t the actor’s response come organically from the emotional state created by the situation and the dialogue itself? Because that’s all the actor’s audience is going know about the set-up anyway!
The adverb is not your friend.
I didn’t say that. Stephen King did. And before him, Ernest Hemingway lived that philosophy with barely any annotations in the middle of his dialogue at all. And before him, William Shakespeare didn’t leave much in the way of specific dialogue instructions to his actors.
These writers trusted their writing. The actors assume they can trust your writing. So why don’t you trust your writing? If you feel your intent requires a parenthetical clarification (of any kind), that’s a subconscious warning signal. Go back and rewrite until the parentheses are no longer needed.
Which brings me to a parenthetical even worse than the adverb: (beat).
Please tell me what an actor is supposed to do with that?
Because, as an actor, I sure don’t know. Yes, I’ve seen it in any number of scripts. Whenever I typed the word, as a writer, I knew what it meant. But now? When it was a command to me, the actor? I figured – and remember I was still self-identifying as a writer at this point – that a 3.6 second pause would constitute a good beat in this particular dialogue.
I performed the scene for the class. The teacher asked me quizzically, “What was that silence you did?”
I nervously replied, “Umm… The script said ‘beat’ so I waited 3.6 seconds.”
The teacher looked at me for a beat.
“Was that too long?” I questioned confusedly.
“When you see those words in a script,” the teacher said exasperatedly, “just ignore them. It’s the writer expressing concern that we won’t get his meaning.”
Originally published December 31, 2013 in Script Magazine.