Screenwriting Advice From The Past: The Actor’s Angle [Part 1]

July 15th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. I have been running a weekly series based on the book. You can access those posts here. Today we look at “The Actor’s Angle” [P. 61]:

The husband of the story knows that his wife is about to slip out of the house to keep an appointment with another man. The woman, a flirtatious Carmen type, kisses a rose and pins it in the husband’s buttonhole. Then she goes out leaving him in a silent fury of jealousy.

It would be possible to plant the jealousy motif by a sub-title. It would be better artistry to show the husband staring after the wife, while his hand creeps up to tear the flower from his coat, then a close-up of the hand crushing the rose while petals flutter to the floor as the man is stirred by his passion.

This gets at the heart of one of the most fundamental guidelines of screenwriting: “Show it, don’t say it.” Yes, you can state in scene description what is laid out in paragraph 1 above. But moves are primarily a visual medium. So better to show a visual representation of a character’s internal emotional state, signified here by the husband’s reaction to the rose.

Next week, more screenwriting advice from 90 years ago.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

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