Description plays an integral role in screenplays. A script is not a finished work of art. Words on paper need to translate to visuals on the screen. Your task is to create a blueprint for a film or television show.
If you don’t write it, we don’t see it. And how you write it should paint vivid pictures with each word you choose.
Strong, effective description can elevate your execution and your story, not to mention creating a great experience for the reader, making your work stand out.
Here’s why description matters and how it can up your game, beginning with mastering the fundamentals of craft and culminating in elevating your writing and strengthening your story.
Description: Too Much Detail or Too Little Detail?
On one hand, writers know it’s verboten to include camera angles. But it’s easy to get overly concerned about that and then fall short of telling us what we are seeing on the screen. Or writers go too far, including many small, specific details of a character’s clothing or exact ages for each and every character.
Both poor writing choices.
How do you achieve the perfect balance?
There is a very simple way to decide what should or should not be included in your description:
Is it significant?
Screenwriting is communicating. If you devote words on the page to describe something that we are seeing, from the murder weapon to the character’s jeans to the expression on the hero’s face, you are telling your readers, “Hey, look at this! It’s important.” So it had better be important. If you’re telling us about the dust on the tabletop there should be a reason behind it.
If the information is necessary to supporting the plot, establishing the setting, understanding the character, revealing subtext, or conveying what we are seeing on the screen – it’s significant.
If an element of description doesn’t clearly enhance the story, it’s out.
A final note on Too Little:
In the eagerness to create a “quick read,” some writers have followed bad internet advice to cut extraneous words such as “a,” “and” and “the.”
Do not do this.
You may have shaved a couple of pages in length but you are killing the reading experience. It’s not faster; it’s slower! This just gives the reader a headache. Because you are no longer writing normal sentences. It’s an effort to read. We can’t wait for the script to be over, but for all the wrong reasons. Find more about the perils of “Look Ma, No Articles” and how it can destroy your script in Screenwriting Mythbusters.
The true way to create a real “page turner” is to make the reader eager to find out what happens next.
Description: Prose vs. Cinematic Writing
Many writers enter screenwriting with a background in other mediums, such as novels or playwriting. The expectations for screenplays are distinct and specific. We expect your description to be cinematic. Prose will immediately make you look amateurish.
- Is lean. It paints a vivid picture with the least possible words.
- Conveys what we see by showing not telling.
- Is in the active present tense. This is happening now.
- It reveals emotion and subtext through what we see, not by going into the minds of the characters.
You can read more about my obsession with juicy words and how to best deploy them throughout your script.
The best way to truly understand the difference is to read good screenplays by talented writers. Read lots of them. Pay attention to how these writers handle description and learn from them. Pick ten of your favorite films – especially those in the genre you are writing in – and read those scripts. Then read everything you can get your hands on by your favorite writers of that bunch.
Yes, sometimes the pros bend the rules. Because they can. But there’s still plenty to learn from the best in your field. If you were learning to be painter, wouldn’t you study the Great Masters?
There are some exceptions to the “learn by reading” rule. Professional writers who are writing to direct – auteurs – my take some license and “call the shots” in their description more that we would feel comfortable with in a script from an aspiring writer.
And then there’s the ever-present Shane Black exception. Shane Black had such a famous “voice” that it became an adjective unto itself – a style of writing described as “Shane Black-ish.” Many aspiring writers have struggled to duplicate it. Almost all the attempts to imitate Shane Black that I have read were just that – attempts that fell short and were often painful to read. Everyone coming after runs the risk of falling short of his high watermark, as well as seeming like an imitator.
I have met Shane Black, and trust me, you are no Shane Black. And you shouldn’t want to be. (Apologies to Senator Lloyd Bentsen for borrowing one of the greatest political debate lines of all time.)
Shane only pulled it off because it was incredibly deft, and fit perfectly with the character and the tone. And because he was damn good at it. Check out this introduction to Mel Gibson’s character, Riggs, in Lethal Weapon.
[My italics and bold added to highlight his Intrusive Author’s Voice and the self-referential moments in description.]
EXT. BENEATH THE PIER NIGHT
FOUR TOUGH LOOKING DOCK WORKERS are camped out under the pier, warming themselves around a small bonfire, laughing loudly. Christmas decorations dangle above them from the pier, and empty beer cans litter the sand around them.
CAMERA PUSHES IN to discover an old collie tied to one of the pilings. Then we realize that the dog is being tormented by the dock workers. They flick lighted matches at him. Shake their beers and spray him in the face.
These guys are not rocket scientists.
The dog cowers, tugging on the rope. Tries to get away.
All to the great amusement of its tormentors.
One of them turns, laughing --
As a shadowy FIGURE strides calmly up to the fire:
Cigarette dangling from-lower lip.
Shirt-tails hanging loose below the waist.
Nothing threatening in his manner as he plops down beside the men, smiling.
They are immediately on their guard.
Happy holidays. Mind if I join you?
Riggs smiles at him innocently. Strokes the collie's fur with one hand.
With the other, he reaches into a paper sack and produces, a spanking new bottle of Jack Daniels, possibly the finest drink mankind has yet produced.
I need help drinking this. Cool?
The dock workers exchange glances. There seems to be no harm in this. One of them frowns:
You a homo?
Do I look like a homo?
You got long hair. Homos got long
I hate homos. Arrggh.
Riggs shakes his head, laughs.
Boy, you guys are terrific. You
make me laugh, you just do.
At which point, appropriately enough, Punk #4 shakes a beer and sprays it in the old collie's face.
The DOG pulls away, WHINING.
Riggs leans forward.
This your dog? Nice dog.
And then, he proceeds to do a peculiar thing:
He starts to talk to the dog – in what seems to be the dog's own language.
Very weird, folks...
He coos, snuffles, barks softly, then withdraws, listening, his ear to the dog's muzzle.
Riggs nods. Frowns.
The others look on, puzzled.
Then Riggs looks at each of the four dock workers.
Huh- You know what? He says he
doesn't want you to spray beer in
his face. He says he just hates
A pause. Uncomfortable. Then --
Oh, he does ... ?
Well, mister, why don't you ask
him what he likes...?
The others snicker. Riggs simply nods.
And once again, begins to confer with the dog. Listens intently, piecing together what he is hearing.
What ... ? You want ... oh. Oh,
hell no, I couldn't do that ...
Nossirree bob, you little nut.
He ruffles the dog's hair.
The men are more puzzled than ever as Riggs turns and says:
Get this: He wants me to beat
the shit out of you guys.
Everything stops. A cloud passes over the assembled faces and a pin-dropping silence ensues.
NOTE: DO NOT hock me about the formatting above. This is as I found it online and it does not appear here in a screenwriting program. For concerns about formatting read one of the jliion great books and articles on formatting, or consult our friend, Dr. Format.
One, possibly two scripts, I’ve ever read came close to capturing the a sense of Shane’s distinctive style and his use of the “Intrusive Author’s Voice.” And those writers were working in a style of their own. That’s what you should aim for!
I have been chastised before for telling writers that pro readers stop reading the slug lines as they progress through a script. #truth And honestly, there are some very legit reasons for that:
- Sluglines are in scripts for one primary purpose, to break the shooting draft down into shots for the purpose of scheduling and budgeting the film. Ergo, interior or exterior and a short description of the location. That’s the information needed for a schedule. Scenes set at the same time of day, at the same location can be shot consecutively. This saves time, and time is money. That’s why films are not shot in sequence. By shooting according to location, you save the time of moving cast, crew and equipment back and forth from location to location. This is far more efficient. It’s also why a spec script shouldn’t have scene numbers that are used to break down shooting scripts. We simply don’t need them at this point.
- As for us readers, at a certain point, we should be familiar with your primary locations. We’re not looking to learn about them from the slug. If you are introducing a new and significant location, it should be in the description.
Aim to describe the setting at the top of the scene. Be lean but evocative. Two versions of the same setting:
INT. WALT’S BAR DOWNTOWN AFTERNOON
Jack enters the bar and sits in a booth. The barstools hold a salesman (50s) with the stench of sweat and stress from barely scraping by, a working girl who has seen better days (46) with smeared makeup and a too short skirt, a junkie-type (20s) scrawny, in a stained grey hoodie. There’s a weathered bartender and owner (late 60s) in a dirty apron behind the bar. An old jukebox that probably hasn’t worked in years, sits in one corner.
INT. DIVE BAR DAY
The door to the dive bar swings open flooding the room with sunlight and illuminating the dust in the air. Peanut shells pass for décor. Regulars fill the barstools. Jack scopes out a back booth with a view of the door and slides in across the cracked vinyl.
The extra information in the first slug line is extraneous. You didn’t need to read that second slugline to grasp the setting. And the second version was cinematic. It keeps your focus on what is significant. It conveys the feeling of the setting without loading it down with extraneous detail. Plus, it tells us something about the hero by telling us where he chooses to sit and hints at why. It indicates that this will have some import in the scene. It reveals his character – he’s cautious and calculating. It supports the tone in its style and adds tension – making us want to know what will happen next.
Description: Character Introductions
This is a tricky one. When it’s right, it’s a huge boost to making your hero engaging. When it’s wrong, you can lose the #1 way to draw us into your story.
Tons of detail doesn’t work here. It’s the big picture, the sensibility of the hero, their most essential characteristics, that tell us who they are. For instance, it’s not the specifics of their clothes, but what the clothes say about the man or the woman.
Think attitude, behavior, and personality.
See Mr. Black’s intro of Riggs, above. It conveys volumes about Riggs’ character – his unconventional appearance, his seemingly easy going attitude that can turn on a dime, his unorthodox way of handling a situation, his values, his wry humor, his own strong sense of justice and the unique interactions that make us think, “Is he crazy or isn’t he?” It was so effective that I couldn’t bear to cut it down for the sake of the word count of my article.
RED emerges into fading daylight, slouches low-key through the activity, worn cap on his head, exchanging hellos and doing minor business. He's an important man here.
[NOTE: I’m omitting this]
He slips somebody a pack of smokes. Smooth slight-of-hand.
Four sentences total, broken up by the voice over I didn’t include because I wanted you to appreciate how much Darabont told us about his hero with a rich first visual that describes a beautiful hero entrance without “calling the shots,” a single but telling detail about his clothing – it’s old – what he does, and how he is regarded by those around him. He caps it off by showing us that Red is cool with the cigarette handoff. It’s only a few frames in the film, but it works. Are we intrigued and paying attention to what Darabont has chosen as significant for us to know to grasp who his hero is? You betcha!
Notice “He’s an important man here.” It might seem a bit of a “by-the-rules-of-screenwriting” cheat – telling us – but when done deftly and with confidence, you will get away with it. It’s a minimalistic way to tell us something that will be apparent in the movie but hard to show in the script without dragging it down needlessly. These are the cheats that I love. Lean, evocative and they communicates reams. Plus Darabont is a writer/director and you can bet that will translate to the screen through the character’s behavior and the reactions of supporting actors in the scene.
Remember to use this type of “cheat” very judiciously and only for a truly significant reason.
I see two kinds of action sequence problems most often:
- The action is not followable. There’s a ton going on, a car chase, bad guys, shootouts, crashes. We’re inside the car. We’re outside the car. Explosions, tunnels, fruit stands run over. While it may be clear in your head, we need to be able to see it and follow the progression on the page.
- The action is not broken down into cinematic shots. This can be a common problem with writers who have a background in prose. We may find a long paragraph that tells us what’s going on, “And then… and then… and then…” But it’s not cinematic. Show us! The stronger version would break this up into shots: INT: GOOD GUYS CAR… EXT: CARS FROM ABOVE… Often when I see writers lapse into prose to compress action, I wonder if they are worn out from the work that goes into writing action because they are still building up the strength and skill that it takes.
Description: Character Development
We learn the most about your characters not from what you tell us about them but from what your characters show us.
How do they behave? How do they move through a room, interact with other characters, react to what is happening in the scene?
If we see them at home, how does the setting reflect who they are?
One of the most powerful ways to reveal character is though facial expression. Ah, I hear you saying, “But we can’t tell the actor what to do! Isn’t that their job?”
- Your job is to get the emotion onto the page.
- Great characters draw great actors to material.
- If you get the underlying emotion on the page, there will still be plenty of room for interpretation, but this ensures that the director and actor will start from the point of understanding your underlying intention.
Description: The Next Level
The description that most impresses readers, while also creating the most impact, has both something extra and something missing.
Something Missing? Really? Yup.
Subtext is the art of making the most of what is not there:
- Subtext is brought to life in description.
- Subtext illuminates the emotion of the moment.
- Subtext brings the character’s inner thoughts, conflicts and feelings to light.
- Subtext comes across through actors’ reactions – their facial expression and body language.
In a sense, subtext turns everything inside out.
By externalizing the internal, you add a layer of richness to your writing that breathes life into characters, helps your theme resonate and makes your story truly compelling.
Look for opportunities to subtly infuse your description with subtext. Think of the power of what is not there and put it on your page:
- The spark conveyed by a glance between two characters who have just met and are drawn to each other.
- The unspoken line that leaves palpable tension in the air.
- The exuberance of the movements of an excited young child, unfettered by a sense of self-consciousness.
- The grief we see expressed in the entire body of character who has just lost someone they loved.
- The connection shown through the highly charged body language between characters who are falling in love.
Here’s more on why less is more.
If I had to sum up Something Extra in one word it would be “voice.”
A writer with “a voice” possesses one of the most sought after qualities in the industry. This is high praise coming from a pro. This is a writer who has a distinctive style. That style deftly supports the genre and the tone of their script. There is a sense that the writer is confident in their skills and in their storytelling ability. These writers have a point of view on the world. Their stories have something to say about being human.
When I experience this on the page, I feel as if I can relax – the writer is in control. That means I can lean back enjoy the visceral sensation of experiencing the story. This is what I think it takes to make us fall in love with great writing and engaging storytelling.
Writers with a voice often have a Super Power – a special skill on top of strong writing that makes them exceptional. Might be great dialogue – whether witty banter, comedic retorts, or a naturalistic feel. It might be rich and resonant subtext that makes the story visceral. It could be fresh action sequences. It might be authentic female characters. Others have a knack for turning true stories into dramatic narratives. Regardless, in my experience, A-List writers have a Super Power that stands out.
As the president of a production company for many years, whenever I had writing assignments to fill the first thing I would think of was the outstanding strength that the project needed to bring it to the next level and move it forward. I had a huge collection of the scripts that I absolutely loved crammed into floor to ceiling bookshelves just outside my office. This was my go-to when creating a list of writers to consider hiring.
I’d stand in front of the wall of shelves, head turned sideways – the scripts were lined up vertically – and peruse the titles, searching for the great writer with a voice and a Super Power that could help get my project to the screen.
Now most of my scripts sit right here on my computer, which is much easier on my neck, but there was something special about those scripts on paper filling my shelves that makes me nostalgic for those times.
Seeing the titles on their spines, recalling the writer’s stories and thinking about their Super Powers was a great source of inspiration for me.
dedicate your tie and energy to becoming strong at description. Your goal should be to join the club of those writers with their scripts "saved on the shelf."
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