Entrances and Exits

Entrances are for playwrights. They should be used much more sparingly by screenwriters.

In a play, the author typically has to devise several ways of getting the actors on and off the stage. The action occurs in only a few locations. In a screenplay, however, the action takes place over several locations. The heightened pace of film also makes entrances and exits seem staged. They are best avoided unless there is a dramatic reason for them.

When I’m writing a scene, I like to build the four walls first. The scratch scene, my first pass at writing, often has both an entrance and exit. Then I very quickly begin to rework the scene, cutting it down until only the bare essentials are left. It’s almost like a director giving lines for actors to speak before the actual scene begins. They won’t appear in the film, but still help bring the performance up to speed. I find this also works well in writing.

In his memoirs, Elia Kazan compared the difference between directing for stage and screen:

A film director can choose to leap into the “meat” of a scene or from high moment to high moment, leaving out what, in his opinion, is not worth the attention of the audience. Entrances and exits – unless they’re freighted with dramatic substance – mean nothing. It doesn’t matter how the character got there. He’s there. Cut to the heart of the scene.

Good screenplays also cut straight to the heart of the scene.

Take a screenplay like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977). There are very few entrances in the entire script, even though the story jumps from location to location. There is an excellent party scene at a Beverly Hills mansion. It begins with two men chatting. This cuts to a wider shot and another man joins the conversation. Another cut, and Alvy (Woody Allen) and Rob (Tony Roberts) are at the center of the scene. They arrive at the party without actually making an entrance. It’s economical. It’s also good writing.