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. 63]:
A clever playwright in spoken drama may have his character express many subtle emotions at once — for he has at his command not only facial expression, but the dialogue and the inflection with which the dialogue is spoken. The photodramatist must not get too complex at any one point, or the entire scene will be lost.
It is perfectly feasible to express almost any subtlety in pantomime, providing the continuity writer will only work out the scene with the necessary deft touches. It is unfair, however, to ask the actor to do all this work for you in one close-up. It is your duty to think up situations which call for the necessary bits of business — the lighted cigar which goes out from neglect under the stress of emotion, the sinking into the chair of the old man when he is stricken with bitter disappointment, the paradoxical scene where the girl laughs from sheer terror.
Don t try to play any barber shop chords in the acting; stick to the great fundamental notes and the scenes will carry conviction.
* The main point: As a writer, you need to be able to think like an actor. There’s that line we often hear associated with an actor approaching a scene: “What’s my motivation?” Well, there is fire beneath that smoke. And if you present a cloudy portrait of a character where you have not identified some pure, simple dynamic that is at play up top in their consciousness, then you’re likely presenting a confused character. Yes, a character may have all sorts of things going on underneath what they say and do, but in almost every scene, they will have some clear point of attention or goal in mind.
* “Bits of business”: I can’t believe I’m reading this phrase in a book published in 1920. I thought that was something I came up with a long time ago as I’ve used it seemingly forever in relation to screenwriter. Every screenwriter knows what this is about where a scene or a character needs something on which to focus, something to spiff up the action. You know, a bit of business.
* “Photodramatist”: If you have a hard time remembering that movies are primarily a visual medium, for example you tend to rely too much on dialogue to push the story and not action, perhaps you should start calling yourself a photodramatist. Photo. Drama. Visual. Action.
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.