Though more of a directing rather than a screenwriting device, “sweeping the floor” is a phrase used to describe an action given to an actor so their lines appear more natural. Sometimes an actor with a short scene or just one line wants to give more importance to their small part so they put too much emphasis on their small role. “Sweeping the floor” helps the actor concentrate on the activity (and, of course, it doesn’t have to be a literal sweeping the floor action) and the result is often a more natural performance. This works for better actors in bigger roles as well.
When Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) first meets Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street director Oliver Stone uses many variations of “sweeping the floor” in that one scene. Gekko talks on the phone (a couple of times), lights a cigarette, checks his blood pressure, flips through his mail/messages, and ends the scene hopping on a treadmill in his office. It’s an important five-minute scene and all of those activities help push the scene forward.
“For a more ingenious example of the same device look at one of the love scenes between Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront. It is reasonably well written, but might have seemed over saturated if the actors had played it while looking at each other directly. Instead Brando uses a couple of props, one of which is a child’s swing in the playground of the park where the scene takes place. Incongruously he sits in the swing, giving a slightly self-depreciation tone to his performance. The other prop is the glove the girl has dropped. Brando picks it up and does not return it, absent-mindedly trying it on his own much larger hand. This purely incidental activity means that for much of the dialogue he avoids eye contact with her. Because of this the scene is less sentimental and creates an impression of unpretentious and natural screen presence (though it is, needless to say, just as contrived and premeditated as any other piece of acting).
On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of Directing
Once you become aware of the “sweeping the floor” device you see it everywhere. People sitting down talking eye to eye the whole time happens more in low-budget indie films than in real life. That’s why experienced directors have actors doing things even if the scene isn’t written that way.
What’s your favorite “sweeping the floor” movie example?