Screenwriting: Understanding Adlibs

Adlibs are not limited to the field of screenwriting alone. The term is also commonly used in music and other fields of media, on or off the camera. It involves improvising, depending on the scenario. With screenwriting, it is a part where there is no written dialog that the actors should follow. As the actor is allowed to invent or create their own dialog to fit the scene, the actor can unleash his own creativity.

In some cases, the adlib can even make the film more popular. There are two ways of including an adlib dialog in a script. One is by presenting it as an action line. A description of the action and the lines are written in regular paragraph form. Another is by treating it as a character’s line. Some of the possible lines that can be used in the scene are written in dialogue form. The following are a few reasons why adlibs may be necessary.

Lack of Time

With the 1942 classic Casablanca, the script was not fully completed by the time the shooting had begun. As the dialogs in some of the scenes were still in the process of being rewritten, actors had to adlib some of the lines. A number of these improvised lines were considered as some of the best in the film itself including, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Health Reasons

The term is commonly used to refer to improvising dialog. However, it is also possible to find entire scenes being improvised.  With the film Raider’s of the Lost Ark, the improvisation was necessary. In one scene, Indiana Jones was expected to have a long duel with a swordsman. As most members of the crew were suffering from food poisoning, the grueling scene could not be completed. Instead, the main character was allowed to dispose the enemy in a more simplified matter.

Bad Weather Conditions

Weather can also be a factor. With the 1920s Russian film Potemkin, the harsh cold winter weather forced the crew to create additional improvised scenes in a single location and edit them afterwards. Some of the most imitated scenes in the movie industry were taken from this film, including a scene which involves a baby pram falling down the stairs and overturning at the end.


Another reason is practicality. With the movie Seventh Seal, the infamous “Dance of Death” scene was adlibbed. Its director, Ingmar Bergman wanted to take advantage of the cloud formations during the final day of filming. Most of the actors at the time of the filming had already gone home. To save time and additional costs of hiring professional actors, passing tourists and other members of the crew acted as stand-ins and played the part of dancers for that particular scene.

Improvisation or adlibbing is not often recommended, and does not commonly reach the final showing of the film. However, the inclusion of an adlibbed dialog or scene shows the creativity and effort of the actors and crew involved in the film. If done well, the audience will remember the adlib, making the film more memorable.