Film being a visual medium can make it particularly difficult to think of ways to get across information about a character without them blabbering it out loud, and it is in fact often the mark of real talent when a writer/director/actor manages to accomplish that. But as a screenwriter, it can’t be guaranteed you’ll be handed a director or performer who can really grasp your character and intuit their physical actions and reactions.

It’s never a good idea to overload your script with information about a character’s inner world. One of the first lessons any screenwriting class will teach you is to leave out any and all information that won’t literally be seen on screen (Note: Some well-established writers, most commonly writer-directors, flaunt this rule and add whatever backstory they like for their own benefit, and that is because they answer to no-one).

Example: Warwick’s eyes flashed to the door, watching as his friend Peter entered, forlorn. He had always quietly respected Peter, who seemed to have his life in order.

That second sentence would not fly under examination, since this information would be imperceptible to viewers. If it were important that audiences pick up on this respect one character has for another, say to instil a similar reverence in said viewers, you would have to practically weave it into a scene.

But, you obviously can’t simply just have anybody in the scene state the obvious. “I respect you and have for a long time.” “I have control of this dynamic.” “I am intimidating.” Terrible. It’s far better to consider how a character might pace, grip their knee, part their hair, etc. Pointed indicators that avoid characters’ having diarrhoea of the mouth or oversharing, whilst leaving room for the meat of the plot to unfold.

Even films concerned with broad action, hardly focused at all on the particularities of movement and gesture know when to slow down and describe the intended presence properly. For instance, the silent introduction of Indiana Jones leaps from the page:

‘Indy’s next move is amazing, graceful and fast, yet totally unhurried. His right hand slides up under the back of his leather jacket and emerges grasping the handle of a neatly curled bullwhip. With the same fluid move that brings Indy’s body around to face the Peruvian, the whip uncoils to its full ten foot length and flashes out.’

It is impossible to misinterpret the intended gravitas of Indy’s skill from this passage. With a less clear description, whoever is reading the script might’ve assumed that Indy, in immense danger, snapped his whip aggressively, or in panic. The first time Indiana Jones does anything that might tell us about what kind of hero he is, should not be left up to interpretation. He must be skillful and calm here so that when we see that he is fallible later (he gets hurt, is afraid of snakes, stumbles into predicaments), we don’t mistake him for a shmuck. Just like how in the film there are two sides to Indiana Jones (professor and archaeologist extraordinaire), specific attention is given to just HOW Indy does what he does in different scenes of the film to play up his impossible proficiency or relatable imperfection.

A script is never director-proof, but outlining characteristic gestures can be invaluable in shaping these characters you’ve created, as well as their dynamics and how they are meant to come across, and bringing them to life with intention and subtlety.

Planning Gestures in Scripts
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