Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Actors may not like it, but do it anyway

Actors hate getting interior direction (or parentheticals). They resent when the writer includes (angry) or (hurt) before a line of dialogue. They believe they should have the freedom to interpret and deliver the line the way they see fit. And to a large degree I agree with them. They need to breathe life into their characters and they don't want to be told how to react.   In some cases it can be downright insulting when you see (angry) as an indicator to the line: “Go the hell, you son of a bitch!”  (This is a common rookie mistake.) 

But there are times when interior direction is required. Dialogue can often be ambiguous and the writer needs to get across his intent. Let me give you an example.

This is a brief scene from my play, A OR B? It opens the second act. Ben and Abby are a young couple. They enter a hotel ballroom to attend a big charity dinner. Here is the scene with no indicators or stage direction whatsoever.

BEN: Let’s not let what just happened affect this evening.

ABBY: Don’t be so hot.

BEN: We won’t stay too long.

ABBY: I got nothing on.

BEN: Lucky me.

ABBY: You’re vibrating.

BEN: Hello?

ABBY: We got two bars in here.

BEN: No, Ted.

ABBY: You’ve got to hang up.

BEN: Later.

ABBY: What a tool.

BEN: This is not the place.

ABBY: I’m just doing my job.

BEN: You’re sick.

A little hard to follow, no? Also not particularly funny. I would think actors would have a bitch of a time trying to make sense of this scene.   

But here’s the twist: the play shows two parallel scenes (a la SLIDING DOORS). In one scenario Ben and Abby are lovers. In the other they’re co-workers. What I do to open the second act is to do both scenes with this exact same dialogue, but based on their relationships, they are two very different scenes.

Here they are, but this time with indicators and stage direction. First track: they’re lovers.

They are still in the afterglow of making love in the bathtub.

BEN: Let’s not let what just happened affect this evening.

ABBY: (a compliment) Don’t be so hot.

BEN: (anxious to get back to it) We won’t stay too long.

Abby gives him a quick peek of cleavage inside the dress.

ABBY: (sotto) I got nothing on.

BEN: Lucky me.

Abby’s hand discreetly brushes across Ben’s crotch.

ABBY: You’re vibrating.

BEN: (it’s obvious why) Hello?

ABBY: (looking around) We got two bars in here.

BEN: (looking around) No Ted.

Abby’s hand brushes his crotch again. He clearly reacts.

ABBY: (to his reaction) You’ve got a hang up.

BEN: (discreetly brushing her hand away) Later.

ABBY: (sotto, impressed) What a tool.

BEN: (slightly embarrassed) This is not the place.

ABBY: (pointedly, suggestive) I’m just doing my “job.”

BEN: (ultimate compliment) You are "sick."

And now the alternate version.  They're strictly co-workers.  Ben wanted to make love. Abby refused.

Same beginning. But no afterglow. Their body language is much stiffer and professional.

BEN: Let’s not let what just happened affect this evening.

ABBY: (hot meaning angry) Don’t be so hot.

BEN: We won’t stay long.

Abby shrugs. She’s got no plans.

ABBY: I got nothing on.

BEN: (sarcastic) Lucky me.

Ben’s phone buzzes in his pocket.

ABBY: (re phone) You’re vibrating.

Ben pulls out his cellphone and answers it.

BEN: (into phone) Hello?

Abby takes out her cellphone and checks the reception.

ABBY: (re receptions) We got two bars in here.

BEN: (on phone) No, Ted.

ABBY: (re phone) You’ve gotta hang up.

BEN: (on phone) Later.

He hangs up and returns the phone to his pocket.

ABBY: (re Ted) What a tool.

BEN: (scolding) This is not the place.

ABBY: (defending) I’m just doing my job.

BEN: (disgusted) You are sick!

The fun of the sequence was that practically each line had double meaning. I never could have conveyed that just in the dialogue.

No, I wouldn’t pepper my scripts with parentheticals, but every now and again you need to declare your clear intent. Don’t be afraid to do that. At the end of the day it’s YOUR script. There may be better ways but at least see your way first.

And another thing: If you’re writing a spec it’s primarily made to be read. Readers hate parentheticals a lot less than actors do.


Steve said...

I've written a lot of TV drama, mostly for the BBC. The actors may not like it - tough. Sometimes it just has to be done and the writer usually has a greater grasp of the bigger picture than an individual actor does. That might sound overly unsympathetic but it's borne of experience. I've see actors, in my view, interpret a line wrongly, making me wonder if they really grasp what's going on. (To be fair, I've also seen actors find different, just as valid nuances too) It's okay when there's plenty of time for rehearsal, to explore the subtleties, with the writer, but you rarely get that time on TV, so sometimes the writer just has to clarify what the subtext is.

But another reason why these parenthetical are useful is because the script isn't just for actors. It's for producers, directors, casting directors, many of them are overworked, juggling multiple scripts and often the parentheses help them visualise and realise the writer's intentions.

Carol said...

We had 2nd auditions for Village Player's of Hatboro's production of A or B? yesterday, which fits in nicely with this post, because even with parenthetical bits each actor will do his or her own spin on the words. and it's amazing how many different interpretations there can be. Just the sentence 'Like, Like, Like, Like' was read in seven different ways!

Regarding writer directions, Even Shakespeare did it. Granted he embedded them into the actual dialogue, which makes it a bit harder to understand, but they're there, if you know where to look.

(Bookmark to stay updated on our production of A or B? Coming this April!)

Carol said...

@ Steve. You're not Stephen Moffat, are you? :)

Stephen Marks said...

(acting like an a-hole, continuous) Mighty Dyckerson said......

Frank Beans said...

Agree with Ken--parentheticals in dialogue can be used, but only sparingly. For example, when the delivery is meant to be surprisingly ironic or conflicted with the literal words.

Ideally, that's what directors are for! Which also explains why much good comedy comes from writer/directors, or partnerships who are sympatico about what constitutes humor.

Mike Barer said...

This is great inside baseball. If you'll excuse the expression.

Diane D. said...

Parentheticals, no parentheticals, whatever---it's a great scene, and I hope I can see the whole play in April. Thanks for the web address, Carol.

Terry said...

Speaking AS an actor, I think the reason most of us object is that they are generally unnecessary. For the most part, the emotional current that underlies dialogue and shapes its delivery in a scene is very obvious, and yeah, it's a little insulting for someone to think we have to be told to deliver a line "angrily" when you'd have to be a moron not to understand that your character is, at that moment, angry.

When they're necessary, though, they're necessary, as in the examples Ken posted here.

It's usually beginning writers who have a lot of trouble with overdoing it. They seem to have trouble letting go of the need to control, to as great an extent as possible, every aspect of the production. I've seen scripts from writers like this that are overloaded with extremely detailed directions on pretty much every aspect of a production, directed at everybody from actors to the director to the scenic designer and the lighting guy to the stage hands.

For a writer, I understand that your script is your baby, and I understand that you can visualize it in your mind, exactly the way you believe it should be done. Every aspect, every angle of the production. But you have to recognize where your job ends, and you have to learn to trust other people to do justice to your work in the way they interpret it, and you have to accept that not everything in a production is going to mesh with your vision. It's a collaborative art. We trust you to give us a good script, you have to trust us to interpret it in an effective manner, even if we don't do everything exactly the way you "know" it should be done.

Steve said...

Carol, sadly, for the sake of my bank balance, no.

Terry, like I said, that's great if you have a good, conscientious actor who dies into the part. But not all are that good and I;ve seen enough actors completely miss the point of a scene that I reserve the right to put in what I think is important, especially as it's not just for the actor. Tbh, I don't really see what the fuss is about - I'd have thought most actors would happily take as much guidance and help to get to the heart of a scene and character as they can get. These things are part of helping you to interpret it in an ineffective manner. If they're good, they'e a guide, if you're not so good, they're a roadmap. Most good writers know that over using them is counter productive but when I use them, it's because I think it's important and relevant. And they are rarely ever treated as prescriptive.

cadavra said...

Also worth noting that parentheticals are handy for small physical directions: (shrugs) or (bites lip) or (huge eyeroll) or even (pauses, then--). I use them a fair bit and no one's ever complained.

Liggie said...

I think a lot of parenthical overuse comes from writers remembering the plays they subdued in high school English classes ("Death of a Salesman", "Long Day's Journey into Night", etc.). Plays need to use plenty of description and parentheticals, and writers first attempting screenplays likely think the same applies to screenplay format. It's an adjustment to go from the verbosity of a written play to the spare screenwriting style.

When I wrote my screenplay I kept my parentheticals to a bare minimum, for things like pauses in a speech, a character affecting an accent for a sentence, and indicating sarcasm. As long as the intent and emotions of the characters' dialogue were clear, I figured I'd give the director and actors plenty of room to enhance the lines.

Diane D. said...

I'm a regular reader of this blog but I'm not a writer--just a lover of film/TV. I found your comment very interesting mainly because I don't get why plays would need so much more description than screenplays. I've always thought that the Director (in both cases) had almost total responsibility for instructing actors on interpretation. They seem to be such Gods. Would you (or anyone) be interested in responding to this query?

Mike said...

@Diane D: They need an excuse to write "Exit, pursued by a bear".

Liggie said...

Diane, actually, plays are a writer's medium more than a director's. A successful play will be staged many times not just on a Broadway run, but possibly also Off-Broadway, regional theaters, touring productions, summer stock and school drama productions. A play thus needs more description and parenthicals to ensure a consistent telling of the story.

Meanwhile, screenplays get produced only once (the remake trend notwithstanding), so the director's vision gets priority, including chopping up the script to the point the writer can't recognize it.

Another factor for sparse description in screenwriting is the "one page = one minute" maxim. If your script is more than 120 pages (two hours), it's less likely to be sold, so whatever excess description you can cut helps. "Robert angrily opens the door" isn't exciting reading, but it gives a screenwriter a lot more running time than something more descriptive but three times as long.

Liggie said...

Mike, there actually IS a play called "Exit, Pursued by a Bear", by Lauren Gunderson:

Mike said...

@Liggie: In the piece de resistance, they plan to cover the room in meat and honey so Kyle will be mauled by a bear.
Thank God the author didn't read Titus Andronicus.

Diane D. said...

Liggie: That makes perfect sense; thank you so much for your very thorough answer!

Mike: LOL