Unnecessary “Bits of Business”/Over-describing the Action

Every so often I’ll read a script where the writer takes great pains to tell us every move the character is making—as if this will make the scene more interesting. For instance, one script I read had one character, John, talking on the phone. Here’s how it went:

JOHN (on phone): I shouldn’t put so much pressure on you. It’s just –-

John’s eyes widen

JOHN: What? Are you okay?

John stands.

JOHN: Yeah, sure, I can meet you tomorrow.

John paces.

JOHN: Are you sure you don’t want to meet now?

John sits back down.

JOHN: Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow.

John hangs up the phone and sits for a moment, thinking.

Let’s see…John is the only person in the scene, yet the writer found it necessary to tell us his name at every available opportunity. And what’s with these silly directions? Without changing the dialogue, here’s one way I might rewrite it:

JOHN (on phone): I shouldn’t put so much pressure on you. It’s just --
(concerned now) What? Are you okay?...Yeah, sure, I can meet you tomorrow....Are you sure you don’t want to meet now?...Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow.

He hangs up, drops into a chair, deeply worried.

There…it's easier to read and it takes up a lot less space on the page. Here's another example:

Joe walks into the room and looks around. He scratches his nose, then he scratches his chin. He turns slightly, looking at the desk. He rests his left hand on his waist, then cocks his head slightly to the right. Then he pulls out a pack of cigarettes, pulls out a cig, puts his right hand into his pocket and retrieves a lighter...

We don’t need to know every single movement a character makes. If it’s not absolutely pertinent to the scene, CUT IT!

Roundabout Description/Action

It tends to get awfully confusing (and frustrating) when your descriptions take one step forward and three steps backward. In other words, when a character in your script does something, write it in the order they do it. So instead of:

Joe sees the desk after he walks into the room. He pulls a gun from the desk drawer after spotting the note: “Gun in top drawer.”

Write it something like this:

Joe walks into the room. He sees the desk. Then sees a note pinned to it: “Gun in top drawer.” He moves to desk, opens drawer, retrieves a Smith & Wesson 45.

The Unnecessary Parenthetical Direction

You don’t need to explain how every line is to be read, or what action should take place as the line is read. For instance:

COP (pointing toward road): Didn’t you see me over there?
MAN (looking down road): No, I didn’t.
COP (loud, annoyed): I was parked right in front of you!
MAN (cowering): Sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to...
COP(shaking his head): You guys are all alike.
MAN (letting his breath out): I know. I’m so ashamed. And I love this one:
JANE (angrily): I HATE YOU!!

If you set up your scene/characters/dialogue properly, that should be sufficient to tell us how the line should be read. For instance:

A hulking behemoth of a man crashes through the wall. He stands there, glowering, narrowing his red-hot, steely eyes at the two cops.

BEHEMOTH: I’m gonna kill you!

See how you the action sets up the context of the dialogue? No parenthetical description is necessary.

Overly-specific Character Description

Don’t get bogged down with describing characters’ physical details. As an example:

Joe is 32-years-old, medium height and a little overweight, with blonde hair and blue eyes.

There’s usually no reason to let us know the exact age. This is especially true with peripheral characters who make a brief appearance in your script. Just tell us Joe is “early-30s” and leave it at that. However, if you’re introducing a character whose precise age is pertinent (i.e., small children), then tell us those ages. Also, we don’t necessarily care what a character’s height and weight are. Sure, if it’s some big fat slob and we need to know he’s a “5’6”, 300lbs. tub of goo,” or if we have to know he’s “portly” or “rotund,” or “skinny as a toothpick,” then fine. Otherwise, don’t overly concern yourself with such detail. As for hair and eye color, unless that’s a specific plot point, we don’t care (and it limits casting choices). Here are some other examples of overly-specific descriptions:

A COP (about 40, with a mustache, and wearing dark sunglasses) barrels up to the scene and pushes back the crowd of onlookers.

Do we really care how old the Cop is or that he has a mustache? No! Just write something like this:

A BURLY COP with Ray Bans barrels up and pushes back the crowd of onlookers.

Here’s another:

A TRASHMAN (57, overweight, with long, slick-backed hair) picks up the trash bag and tosses it into the back of the truck.

Instead, just tell us:

A greasy TRASHMAN hefts the trash bag, slings it into the rear of the truck.

As with describing your setting, just give us the essence of the character and let the director and/or the casting director work their magic.

Continually Repeating Character Names

You have a scene between Sally and Joe. No one else. With that in mind, tell me what’s wrong with the following:


JOE is seated on the bed. A knock at the door. Joe gets up and opens the door, and SALLY is standing there.

JOE: Sally?
SALLY: The agency sent me.

Joe and Sally shake hands.

JOE: Come on in.

Sally steps in.

JOE: Have a seat.

Sally sits on the edge of the bed.

JOE: It was two hundred, right?

SALLY: Right.

Joe pulls out his wallet, liberates two hundred dollar bills and hands them to Sally.

SALLY: Thank you.
JOE: So, should we get down to business?

Sally gives a nod...then Joe pulls a Monopoly game from under the bed.

JOE: I get to be the thimble.

We know who’s in the scene, so why do we have to see both character names so often? You could rewrite as:

JOE is seated on the bed. A knock at the door. He gets up and opens the door, and SALLY is standing there.

JOE: Sally?
SALLY: The agency sent me.

They shake hands.

JOE: Come on in.

She steps in.

JOE: Have a seat.

She sits on the edge of the bed.

JOE: It was two hundred, right?
SALLY: Right.

Joe pulls out his wallet, liberates two hundred dollar bills and hands them to her.

SALLY: Thank you.
JOE: So, should we get down to business?

She gives a nod...then Joe pulls a Monopoly game from under the bed.

JOE: I get to be the thimble.

Name Consistency

Be consistent with character names in your descriptive passages. For instance, if you have an apartment manager character and her name is Mrs. Joyce Jones, don’t refer to her as Mrs. Jones in one scene and Joyce in another. This also pertains to the name slug. I’ve read many scripts where two names were used for one character…in the same scene. For instance:

Mrs. Jones looks at the crack in the wall.

MRS. JONES: You got a crack in the wall. I’d better call the repair guy. Joyce leaves.

It’s either “Mrs. Jones” or it’s “Joyce.” Pick one and stick with it.

Flooding Your Story with Toooooo Many Characters

This is when you have characters who show up for a brief appearance, then completely disappear, never to return. I once did a critique/evaluation on a script that had a total of 38 characters—all speaking parts. Only 15 of them had any actual importance to the plot. Many characters could have been combined. So, ask yourself: Do I really need six cops for that scene? Do I really need the waitress coming in to lay down the check? Remember, it costs money to hire actors, so get that cast list down to a manageable level. Also, it’s usually not a good idea to front-load your script with an abundance of characters. If I’m on page 5 and I’ve been introduced to twelve characters, there’s probably gonna be a problem. Let us get to know the main character(s) before you bombard us with secondary and peripheral characters.

Character Names That Sound/Look Similar

Several years ago I was hired by a New York City producer to do a rewrite of a political thriller script he wrote. As I read through his initial draft, I kept getting confused. I wasn’t always sure which character was speaking, or which character was in the scene. Why? Well, because so many of the names looked and sounded similar. Here’s a sample of names from that particular script:


There’s a million names available (go buy a baby naming book and you’ll see what I mean), so choose names that are individually distinct.

Numbered Characters

It can be annoying experience reading a script that looks like an accountant’s balance sheet. For instance:

Cop #1 looks at Cop #2 and they turn their attention to Suspect #1. Cop #1 confers with Cop #2.

COP #1: You think he’s the guy?
COP #2: Dunno. He sure looks suspicious to me.
COP #3 half-drags Suspect #2 from the house.
COP #3: Found this one hiding in a closet.
SUSPECT #2: I’m tellin’ ya, I’m innocent!

Numbering of characters is fine if it’s kept to a bare minimum (a couple times in script—and if the appearance of the character/s is ultra-brief), but try to give them some other moniker. So, instead of COP #1, he could be GIRZZLED COP or OLDER COP or ROOKIE COP or FAT COP. Instead of SUSPECT #1, he could be SCUMBAG or CROOK or BADDIE or SLEAZEBALL…or whatever. Just go light on the numbering. Thanks.

Characters Discussing What We’ve Just Seen/Are About to See

Before Rhett Butler swept Scarlett off her feet and carried her up those stairs, did he first say, “Scarlett, I’m gonna sweep you off your feet and carry you up those stairs”? No, of course not—he just did it! So, if we’ve seen it, or if we’re about to see it, there’s usually no reason to have your characters talk about it. For instance:

Avoiding the encroaching flow of boiling lava, Jerry leaps from car roof to car roof. He ultimately jumps onto the apartment balcony. Safe at last!

TOM: Jer! How’d you get here?
JERRY: I leaped from car hood to car hood and then jumped onto the balcony!

Ending Scenes with Something Boring/Non-Visual

Joe sees the dead body on the floor, blood seeping from a stab wound in the neck. Joe turns around, picks up his hat, turns off the light and walks out the door. Unless there’s a really good reason to show Joe picking up his hat, turning off the light and walking out the door, simply cut the scene on his stunned face as he gazes down at the body.

Less-than-Inspiring “Love” Scenes

I’ve read my fair share of uninspired, lackluster sex/love scenes over the years. Here’s just one example:

TOM: I love you, Louise.
LOUISE: I love you, Tom.

Tom kisses Louise. Louise returns his kiss. They kiss on the lips for a while. Tom kisses Louise’s face and neck. Louise runs her fingers over Tom’s back.

LOUISE: Ohhhhhhh.

Um, yeah. You couldn’t turn on a light switch with this stuff. Go read some “hot” scripts (i.e., The Postman Always Rings Twice, 9 ½ Weeks, or Basic Instinct), and see how it’s done right.

And, oh yeah, date more.