I wonder if you write descriptions in a screenplay the same way you write in a novel. For example, I see writers describe the physical effects of the emotion of anger rather than just saying 'angry', do we do the same thing in a screenplay? Or do we just say the emotion and let the actor act it out in his way? What exactly should we do?

Another example is when we write character thoughts in a novel, can we do the same in a screenplay? Again what should we do in this situation?

Basically what are the differences and similarities between writing these kinds of things for a screenplay and for a novel?


3 Answers 3



You can say something besides "angry", there are many flavors of anger, but no, do not describe the facial features. That is directing; do not try to do the director's job in your screenplay. You might say "coldly furious" if it is important to convey the demeanor of Jack and what he does next or says next. You might say "Jack ROARS in fury and slams the iphone on the table, breaking the screen, then throws it across the room, accidentally breaking three of Mary's antique ceramic figurines." (Because the audience knows that Mary will notice this, due to the pride in her collection we saw earlier.)

Even that might not make the final cut, the director can change this to something else.

Character Thoughts:

NEVER. A screenplay consists ONLY of things the audience can SEE and HEAR. NOTHING ELSE. If they can't see it, you don't write it. If anything, "Jack appears ashamed and turns to hide it." The audience can see that (and exactly how Jack shows shame is up to the actor and director; not you).

A screenplay is told ONLY through dialogue, setting, and action. Absolutely nothing the audience (or director) cannot see or hear. For example, even in a setting, you will be marked an amateur for "a sense of forboding hung over the city, the air seemed thick with it." How do you film "forboding" and "air thick with it"? Do you mean it is overcast? Foggy? Then say that. Don't say "the tension was thick." I can't film that. Stay specific, stay visual/auditory.

  • In TV/Movie genre, character thoughts are delivered through Voice-over. In stage plays, character thoughts are delivered though a Soliloquy, like Hamlet's "To be or not to be". Of course, in either case audience can hear the words.
    – Alexander
    Apr 20, 2018 at 20:01
  • @Alexander Precisely, you can write what the audience can hear. Do not write "Jack is thinking Julie is lying." I can't film that. Write a "TO THE CAMERA" moment or "V.O. (Jack's voice)". Even those can be overdone; Jack can SHOW he thinks Julie is lying perhaps, but do not put "thoughts" into exposition; all that goes there is something that can be seen or heard.
    – Amadeus
    Apr 20, 2018 at 20:07
  • Thanks so much for your detailed answer. Question: If I want to show that Jack is thinking that Julie is lying and I really want the actor to show facial expressions of mild doubt due to that thought, should I just say something like "Jack looks mildly doubtful as he thinks Julie is lying, he has never seen her react so angrily to his questions before "? I mean, can I explain the reason behind that facial expression so that the actor has a better idea why he's showing doubt and therefore be really connected to the story and the character he's playing?
    – Yostina
    Apr 21, 2018 at 12:30
  • 1
    @Yostina For me I think that is too much, and too vague, and too directorial. Write what we can see! I would write "Jack's reaction is disbelief. He opens his mouth to argue, then thinks better of it and turns away." That is action. Being really connected doesn't help, tell the actor something specific to express. I can't film "he has never seen X", and it doesn't provide a specific emotion. Could be 'surprise' or 'repulsion'. it is your job to translate that fact into a specific emotion / expression or actions that the actor can execute. Figure it out, don't push it off on him.
    – Amadeus
    Apr 21, 2018 at 14:21

It seems to me that you ask this question because you haven't yet read a screenplay.

You are familiar with novels because you have been reading them for years, so you have internalized the conventions for novels. But you have not exposed yourself to screenplays in the same way, and therefore you are unfamiliar with the conventions for screenplays.

What you need to do is find a couple of screenplays and read them. Your question will be answered on the first few pages that you read.

You can find scripts to many popular movies on Scriptologist.


A screenplay is primarily a set of instructions for the actors and the director to create a movie with. Keep in mind that they typically don't want to be micromanaged. So generally descriptions in screenplays are short, functional, and to the point. Similarly, character thoughts would only be included if they are to actually appear in the movie (probably as a voice over). The dictum, "show, don't tell," often misapplied to novels, was made for movies. If you want to convey something, do it through actions or visuals.

With all that said, really good screenwriters keep in mind that their screenplays also have to do double duty --in addition to guiding people through making a movie, it should also create a movie in their minds when they read it. So, minimal elaboration can been layered on top of the basic script in order to help it read better, and understand how to stage or how to play out action that might otherwise be confusing.

It's a balancing act. To many novelistic touches will make your screenplay seem amateurish and be a turn off to actors and directors. But without any of them, the screenplay may fail to compel people when they read it. Your guideline should be "less is more" in this regard, however.

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