OBSERVATIONS OF A SCRIPT READER (2012)


By now, I had meant to do more entries in my series about issues I’ve been running across while reading screenplays for coverage and script consultation, but I got behind and am only now doing my second one. So, so sorry to be so sluggish. This particular column might seem a tad trivial, but it will focus on the use of two words I’ve seen crop up over and over again over the past couple of years, the use of which strike me as rather odd (if not maddening). The first one is “ironic” or “ironically” and the second is “smirk”.

I am constantly running across dialog in which the actor is instructed to say something “ironically’. I have to be honest. I have absolutely no idea what that means or how you say something ironically. I suspect that they mean “sarcastically”, “tongue in cheek”, “dryly” or something akin to that. This may be a generational thing and perhaps those younger than me have an idiomatic or slang use of the word that I’m unfamiliar with.

However, that is not the only use of the word that puzzles me. More and more, I’m running across narrative in which someone is described as “wearing a shirt ironically” or “has an ironic hair style”. I really, truly have no idea what this means. But even more importantly perhaps when it comes to writing a screenplay, that is not an action. From an audience stand point (and certainly from a reader’s standpoint), a character can’t do something or wear something or have a style of dress that is ironic (in the opening scene of The Social Network, when Zuckerberg is accused of wearing sandals and socks ironically, no one in the audience would have come to that conclusion without the line of dialog).

The second word is “smirk”. I have seen this crop up for a number of years as a synonym for smile. At least I think that’s how it’s being used. But “smirk” is a smile that is derisive or superior in some way. All smirks are smiles, but not all smiles are smirks. But when I see it used, it is used by a character in which the attitude isn’t remotely derisive. At first I thought “smirk” was being used in this way because English was a second language for the author of the screenplay since the stories took place in another country or were about characters who were immigrants. But more and more, it’s being used anywhere and everywhere.

It is possible that it is being used because of the recent advice that is constantly cropping up about not employing “neutral” or “bland” words in the narrative (i.e., not “run”, but “dashes” or “zooms”—I will have a column about this in the future). Maybe some writers feel “smile” is too bland and want to spice up their narrative. But whatever the reason, it really causes a disconnect when I read since it is constantly being used incorrectly.

So in conclusion, don’t use “ironic” or “ironically”, ever. If you mean to use it in place of “sarcastically” or a word like that, don’t; use “sarcastically”. In the same way, don’t use “smirk” unless the person is giving a smug, derisive smile. Otherwise just use “smile”.

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