So Who Says You Can't Tell the Director What to Do?
by Craig Kellem
Someone spread a rumor that you shouldn't tell directors and actors what to do.
Best to let that doozy in one ear and out the other. Don't hesitate to use the very tool that can help make or break your script, (i.e. the stage directions).
What are they?
Physical actions/gestures/attitudes/reactions etc. described in narrative or parentheses that enhance subtext and cinematic action are called stage directions
Examples: "They lock eyes;" "He begins to sweat;" "They both blush;" "Their hands accidentally touch."
It's amazing how many well meaning and skilled screenwriters forego this key device, bypassing a crucial opportunity to build drama and mood into their scenes. We're sure the "no directions rule" was started with good intentions. Lengthy, pretentious descriptions and or excessive technical instructions are mind numbing and cumbersome. However, the writer's creative vision must be conveyed on the page and it is naive to think that this can be achieved through dialogue alone.
Just as in life we often say one thing but do another, throw empty or half true words around while allowing our actions to do the real talking. In a movie, much story evolution is not stated but REVEALED between the spoken lines. A reader should not be expected to grasp all dramatic development from straight dialogue. It is not always strong enough to transmit the core subtext. Readers need visual cues along the way. Nuances and gestures, the contradictions and seductions that undermine and create conflict between character lines cannot be entirely inferred from what's said. There must be some hand holding by the writer, some direction SHOWING the synergy between the spoken word and underlying intent.
A scene for example where two lovers are saying good bye at the train station and expressing their grief by arguing about the train schedule, derives its most important story value and dramatic impact via the deft descriptions of their eye contact or lack thereof, silences, lingering affections and teary glances as they yell at one another "It said seven o'clock !!" "No it didn't! It said ten!!"
Bottom line (pun intended): Make us WATCH the complexities of your characters unfold, make us feel the REAL stories developing scene to scene by including the visual cues that SHOW us what lies at the heart of the moment. Let us SEE how people say one thing but do another. Let us be the voyeurs we paid to be. How can a simple chat about the weather be the erotic high point of a romantic plot? The answer lingers not in the dialogue but around it.
Reminder: Cinema is a visual medium. We need to see the various human story levels operating in a given moment to feel the urgency of your script and fully sense how each sequence pushes the narrative forward. Stage directions do not need to be overwrought, long winded paragraphs. Just a note here and there to keep our attention trained on the screens in our heads. Makes all the difference.
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