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Question : When writing my screenplay, I frequently find the urge to describe a character's emotion. However, I have read somewhere (I forget where) that this should be left to the actor to some extent, the actor should understand the story enough to know how their character would respond to events. What is the correct thing to do?

Example: Let's say that, in the opening scene, Bob, who we barely know, sees a smiling ghost. Then the scene ends. Bob could be scared, or he could be excited, or he could not care. As the writer, I know I want Bob to be scared. Should I ...

A) Write ‘Bob is scared’. (This purveys Bob’s emotion, leaving the actor to react as necessary, but I haven’t written any visual cues)

B) Write ‘Bob looks scared', (This purveys Bob’s emotion, leaving the actor to react as necessary, but I have given a very vague visual cue)

C) Write ‘Bob freezes on the spot, mouth gaping open, eyes bulging.’, (I have detailed the visual elements of Bob's fear, but is this too explicit and not leaving anything to the actor?)

D) Write nothing! (The actor decides how Bob should react based on the entire script, even though a first-time reader of the script may not know how Bob would react because they are new to the script).

E) Something else?

5

Just say it.

I suggest reading this: What Visual Storytelling Looks Like In a Screenplay.

And this companion article: 4 Examples of Good Visual Writing In a Movie Script.

I'd recommend giving the actor something to do besides "looking scared".

John, terrified, slowly raises one trembling hand to the side of his face.

But that is up to you. Keep it short, one line. Make it visual, incorporate an action if you can. The director will have no qualms about killing or replacing the action if they want, but all your exposition should be visually oriented.

As the link says, there is a difference between the screen writer directing and the screen writer providing a visual experience. Notice we don't say "CLOSE ON" or give any camera angle or lighting direction. Just tell a visual story. And it is better if you don't use generic words like "scared".

  • Fantastic answer, thank you so much. As a supplementary question, what would you recommend I write on rare occasions where it makes perfect sense for an actor to only do a subtle facial expression? For example, James receives some information from David that makes him suspicious of David, but he does not want to reveal to David he is now suspicious of him, but the audience can tell. i.e A facial expression is all that can be used at that moment. – Andy A Mar 27 at 21:09
  • If David can see him, then David can see any expression that conveys suspicion. You can't do what you want and make sure the audience knows without making David seem like an oblivious idiot. It is easy if David leaves, THEN James reacts. "As the door closes behind David, James drops his smile, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. He nods once." Visual, action. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Mar 27 at 22:03
  • I see. So are specific facial directions such as 'drops his smile' and 'eyes narrowed in suspicion' not too detailed and restrictive for an actor? I have read somewhere about not directing the face too much. – Andy A Mar 27 at 22:34
  • I don't think so. Like I said, you are telling a visual story. You can't talk about thoughts, or feelings, all you can talk about is what is visible. This is a way of making the emotions visible. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Mar 28 at 10:02
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E.

A scared Bob walks over to the door, hand on the knob.

or

BOB

(scared) Who are you?

While I haven't written scripts, I have acted some on stage. Giving the actor the basic reaction you want her/him to have is important. In your example, the actor can not figure it out from context. Bob might be amused, mad at the ghost, mad at the person who is surely pranking him, worried that he's hallucinating, freaked out that he's dead, etc.

Scared of the ghost is a good possibility but far from the only one. Don't make your actors and director guess. If the emotion is important to the story, state it succinctly.

  • Thanks for your response Cyn! What should I write if I simply wanted a reaction in the actors face? (no dialogue, no walking away, just a scared look, then the scene ends). For example, the last shot of the opening scene of Game Of Thrones is the guy looking scared, but we don't see what happens next. – Andy A Mar 27 at 18:58
  • @AndyA Now you're getting into the technicalities of screenwriting format which I don't know. But I would find a way to add in the emotion (which fortunately you can sum up with a single word) to the shot instructions. "Closeup on Bob's scared face." Or whatever is correct for your scene. Let the director/actor decide how to show Bob's fear. – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 27 at 19:01
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I would advise only adding the emotion if it's contrary to what may be expected. So

Monster appears.
BOB (scared) What's going on?

Is less essential than:

BOB's Mom appears, carrying a tray of cookies.
BOB (scared) What's going on?

This may especially be needed for small statements that may appear neutral ("it's ok." "fine") but you want to make it clear that these are decidedly NOT neutral.

Another example:

BOB (menacingly)
Happy birthday.

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