If I read the line ‘she smiled at him lovingly’ one more time, I swear I will kill the writer.
Uncountable are the screenplays where characters are constantly smiling, looking ‘lovingly’, expressing ‘dark anger’.
Some inexperienced writers are of the belief they can implant emotions into the brain of the audience simply by describing the faces the actors should pull. This is a fallacy.
By the time we are supposed to feel the emotion, you need to have done your work as a writer. The actors cannot save you here.
You want the audience to feel sorry for your character?
Don’t describe a sad face but rather create a situation that will make us feel sorry for the character.
Do this well BEFORE the actor expresses the emotion.
This explains why it almost never works when a character cries in the opening scene of a movie. We don’t know the character, we don’t get why they cry. We don’t care.
Of course there are exceptions.
Extreme cases, such as the loss of a child, instantly trigger emotions.
But did you feel for the old man crying at the beginning of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN? I didn’t. (Much later, we got it)
Did you feel for the friends at the funeral in FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL or for Lucilla watching Maximus die in GLADIATOR? Sure! We were all crying like babies.
Similarly, a love scene at the mid point or in Act Three can be fabulous; in the opening scenes it looks like soft porn.
Before an audience will go for an emotion, they will need to see a reason on the screen to feel it.
You can’t force it upon them. An actor purely acting out the emotion is soul-less.
And finally, believe it or not, I once read a live action screenplay in which the emotions of a bird were described. The writer must have been inspired by BABE. What can I say…
Animals – no matter how well trained – will NOT express feelings through performance.
So, with an exception for animated films, you cannot describe facial or other expressions with the intention to evoke an animal’s feelings.
If you must give the audience the idea the animal is happy, have humans SAY so. In other words, don’t write in action “The dog is pleased with the treat, he happily trots off.” but put in dialogue something like: “Look how happy Fido is, he is wagging his tail!”
Stop describing the faces of your characters. Show us the reason(s) why they feel a certain way.
And I will smile at you lovingly.
If you found this tip useful, check out the Screenplay Checklist, an A-Z of commonly made mistakes by aspiring screenwriters.
Check this 12p. list of errors and annoyances to perfect your spec screenplay.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.