Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Reader questions: casting and descriptions

More reader mail...

Sand Man writes:

I find it beneficial to have an actor in mind when I write or read a screenplay. Would someone like yourself find it beneficial to have the writer suggest an actor they feel fits the characters they've created..?

First off, as a writer, I think it can definitely help to have a certain type in mind when writing.  If it crystallizes the character for you, that's not a bad thing.  I don't often do this myself, however on one of my recent scripts, my wife instantly came up with a casting choice after reading the script.   The funny thing is, I wasn't thinking of this actor and probably wouldn't have come up with the name on my own, but as soon as it was pointed out to me I could really see it!  Now when I picture the eventual film, that's the actor I envision.

However I decided not to go back and insert a reference to that actor in the description.  I realize that putting it in could help a reader picture exactly what I want them to.  But what if they hate that actor?  What if that actor's latest movie has terrible buzz? Or worse, what if this exec has seen an early cut of that actor's next film and knows he or she can't act their way out of a paper bag?

I also worry about boxing their imagination in too much.  Maybe they don't think this particular actor is marketable and limiting their imagination to that specific type, I've closed them off from coming up with other possibilities they might have actually worked with.  These are things I worry about, but at the end of the day, it's all a judgment call.

I have no doubt that there are some professional and produced writers who would totally endorse naming actors in your script.  It's a perfectly acceptable shorthand, especially if you're dealing with readers who have limited imagination.  Also, it's a much easier trick to use if you're naming an actor with a lot of mega-successes under his belt.  (In other words, using "Robert Downey Jr." probably isn't going to be as much of a knock against you as "Chris O'Donnell.")

So is there really a right answer here? I'm not sure, but there's probably a right answer for you.

Ian writes:

I've read plenty of screenwriting books and plenty of scripts. I think I'm pretty competent when it comes to putting a story together, and anyone who reads my work says my dialogue is strong. But it's action and description that I still can't figure out. I'm never sure how much to describe a setting or a character's expression, and when to keep the description to the bare minimum, and I think it's affecting my work negatively since, obviously, a lot of the writing in screenplays is action and description. 

So I was wondering if you could weigh in on this? Should I keep the level of description consistent throughout, or should it change from scene to scene? Do I just keep things simple on the page, and let directors, cinematographers and actors fill in the description for me? Anything tips you could give me would be greatly appreciated.

If by consistent, you mean that every scene should have the exact same level of description, I rather disagree with that.  It's going to vary depending on the specificity of the environment.  For example, if your main character is walking into an unremarkable office or a grocery store, there's a good chance you'll do less describing than if they wander into an alien spaceship or something totally foreign.

Also if you're returning to the same environments several times over, you won't need to write nearly as much on subsequent visits as you will the first time.

In terms of how complex you get, I don't think you need to delineate every single piece of blocking in the scene.  If it's important that a character cross a room in a particular way, then certainly go crazy.  If you get carried away and try to spell out every movement in the script, you're going to over-complicate the read and that can hurt you.

The question-behind-the-question here is really about figuring out what's essential to tell the story.  I can't give you a one-size-fits-all answer.  That's one of those things you discover yourself through trial and error.


  1. I've read scripts where the writer did that and I get why they did it but it does seem more of a distraction. Recently I also was doing a story pitch with a producer and he kept using 'buzz' actor names to describe his characters. It felt very fake to me, like he was just name dropping for his ideal cast as though he had a chance to actually get those people to be in his projects.

  2. When you are writing a script, doesn't it help to envision a specific actor hat will fit the character? Because we have watched them on film before and we can even hear them say the lines and act out the scenes in our minds, so doesn't that inspire the writing?