Laughter With Purpose

Tweak + Polish Tip No. 7


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by Naomi Write + Co. in rewriting, screenwriting

Even though we’re talking about laughter, today’s Tweak & Polish tip (#7 in the series!) is worth thinking about no matter what genre you write in. Because the majority of stories, across all genres, contain some moments of levity.

(And even if there’s zero laughter in your script? You can pretty much sub in any other emotional reaction for the “laughter” references and the advice holds up.)

What we’re talking about is a sort of writing tic I’ve noticed in some writers’ scripts. It’s a tiny little thing – we’re going real micro today – and I don’t think the writers realize they’re doing it, or that it’s not as effective as they might assume. But the good news is, it’s also easy to fix – which makes it perfect for a Tweak & Polish tip.

A sneaky phrase in your screenplay’s action lines

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not trying to throw any writers under the bus here. This is one of those little things that it’s easy to fall into the habit of and not even realize it until someone mentions it. So today’s post is that mention, meant to get you thinking about how you might be inadvertently letting this phrase sneak in, and whether there’s a better way.

Take a look at these script page excerpts and see if you pick up on the target of today’s tip. Here’s excerpt #1:

And here’s excerpt #2:

In the script excerpts above, did you notice the action lines:

“Everyone laughs,”
And, “The group has a laugh over Diggy’s joke”?

Are you thinking, “Jeez, what’s wrong with telling us they’re laughing?”

Great question.

Because it’s not the description itself that’s faulty. This might be exactly the right thing to include in your action lines. It’s the way these descriptions are used in the examples above that we should look at more closely (and we’ll get to some effective uses in a moment).

In the scenes above, these lines are basically filler. They’re not deliberate, specific choices that add something vital or useful to the scene.

How does it sneak in?

If it’s not vital then how or why does this description make its way into a script?

It seems to me that there are probably two reasons:

  1. The description is used to try to elicit that same emotional reaction (here it’s laughter) from the reader, and/or
  2. The writer isn’t sure how to fill the moment but feels like some action description is needed.

As you can probably guess, each of these uses has its flaws. Let’s talk about what they are so we can figure out what might be more effective.

Purpose #1: To make us laugh

Sometimes writing characters’ laughter into a scene is meant as sort of a cue to the audience. Almost like a sitcom laugh track.

And the instinct behind this usage is sound – if you’re writing a comedy, you want to make sure there are funny moments in the script. Moments where people are laughing, right?

But if you think about it, simply prompting us to laugh via the characters contradicts the idea of “show, don’t tell”. Because that’s basically telling us to laugh, rather than showing us a reason to laugh. And telling us to laugh isn’t as effective as creating a funny moment that will make us laugh. In fact, maybe more often than not we’re going to laugh at comedy characters, not with them.

Just as with any other emotion or type of entertainment you’re trying to convey in a script, the goal is to dramatize moments that make us feel it.

Purpose #2: To fill the space

The other time this description sneaks its way into a scene, I think, is when a writer doesn’t know what to write but feels like an action line is needed. Used in this way, the line isn’t accomplishing anything other than filling the moment.

But screenplays are such a concise format that we really need to make each moment count. Everything we put into a screenplay should contribute to the story. Each action line should add something to the script.

So, instead of filler lines, get more specific. Show us what’s happening in the character dynamics in that moment, or what one character is experiencing. Be deliberate about your choices, just as you would with anything else in the screenplay.

Effective action lines have purpose

As with everything in your screenplay, including characters’ laughter should be a deliberate choice and have a specific purpose. A few examples of using description effectively:

Loud Mouth

Screenplay by Anayat Fakhraie.

Here, “A rowdy audience CHEERS!” tells us something about the character we’re about to meet. It creates a moment of anticipation that pays off when we see what everyone’s cheering for. The “audience cheers” line adds something to the character introduction.

Crazy Rich Asians

Written by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on the novel by Kevin Kwan.

Hey — “They all laugh”? Isn’t that exactly what I was saying not to do?

But if you look closely, you’ll see it has a real purpose in this scene.

Here, the line isolates Rachel from everyone else. In this moment they all know she’s naïve to the situation and about to make a misstep. The laughter is a reaction that tells us something. It tells us how wrong Rachel is, which honors and reinforces the fish-out-of-water aspect of the story.

In the first excerpt (at the very top), a little more context could give the “everyone laughs” line a purpose and more meaning in the scene. If, for example, we saw that everyone was nervous about what state they’d find Mookie in. Then their laughter upon hearing he’s the same old jokester could show us they’re relieved.

Palm Springs

Screenplay by Andy Siara, story by Max Barbakow & Andy Siara. And this one is a two-parter:

In this first part, you see it’s used in a way that’s similar to the Loud Mouth example. “PRE-LAP the sound of LAUGHTER FROM A CROWD –“ sets up the moment we’re about to see. Here, the crowd is laughing along with a bridesmaid’s wedding toast. The laughter gives us the crowd’s temperature at this moment; everyone’s feeling pretty good.

Then, about a page later, we see:

Here, the crowd’s laughter “dying out” tells us the change in temperature. They’re not laughing as heartily as before. Which might actually make us laugh, but we’d be laughing at Misty rather than with her.

Each “laughter” line is a specific choice that adds something to the scene, and they work together to help tell the story of the scene as well.

Is laughter the best medicine?

Laughter can mean a million different things, depending on the context that surrounds that laughter. If you’re including laughter (or any other action) in a scene, make sure it has meaning and a purpose that adds something to the story.

The bottom line is simply to make sure the words on the page are pulling their weight. Everything in your screenplay should be there for a reason. Choose each thing you include to deliver a specific effect in your screenplay.

And remember, this is a Tweak & Polish tip, which means you’re not going to worry about it when you’re developing your project, or even when working on the first draft. Don’t sweat the small stuff too early. Later in the process, after all the big pieces are in place, is the time to edit out filler lines, wordsmith, and make other tweaks and polishes.

Interested in the other Tweak & Polish tips? Here they are:

1: Cut Redundant Dialogue
2: Don’t Summarize, Dramatize
3: Write for Continuity
4: Digestible Sentences
5: The Dialogue Pass
6: Filmic Word Order


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.