In my previous two columns (read Part 1 and Part 2), I wrote about what does and doesn’t belong in description, as well as the “look” of your description on the page, meaning the effective use of “white space”.
In this month's column, I want to talk about some other tips that will help you write your description so as to both maximize that white space and make the description read like watching a film:
(1) For starters, unlike in narrative fiction, which is most often written in the past tense, description is written in present tense. It is immediate. And it describes both the setting and the actions that will be taking place on the screen.
This is something that even beginning writers pick up on early in their efforts to write screenplays.
However, I can tell you that I often see scripts where the writer will lapse into the past tense on occasion. I can only guess that it's a habit from writing in other forms, but you must make sure not to do it. Stick to the present tense.
(2) Forget everything you learned in freshman English in college. Your composition class won’t be your friend when it comes to writing description.
You want to write short sentences. In fact, incomplete sentences are not only OK, they are often the best form of description. Drop the “subject” from the old saw of “subject, verb, predicate.”
For instance, instead of writing “John picks up the gun”, write “Picks up the gun.”
Of course, this assumes you've described an action involving John just prior to that. In which case, writing John’s name again (or the pronoun) when there's no other character who could be performing that action simply takes up space in description and slows down the read.
(3) The object in writing description these days is to say the most in the fewest words. It's all about economy. A bit like writing haiku.
To accomplish this, drop your adverbs and adjectives. Instead, use “active” verbs to promote the feeling of action and eliminate the need for adverbs. Every word you save in description helps to keep the reader’s eyes moving and the script to feel like a “moving picture.”
(4) Avoid the use of “is” with the action. For example, don’t say “Mary is racing down the aisle.”
Instead, write: “Mary races down the aisle.” I’m guessing you can tell the difference in the two examples, particularly when you read them. Search out all of your description for instances where you use “is ___ing” and replace them with the single word/verb.
(5) Avoid the use of “we see.” For instance, writers will often write something like: “We see a car pull into the driveway.” Instead, just say: “A car pulls into the driveway.”
As with much of the so-called rules or tips, you're going to find exceptions to this. You won't have to look far. Even credited writers use the “we see” from time to time. It’s not a death knell to your script.
However, it is frowned upon by many of the people doing coverage in Hollywood for a couple of reasons. Some are real sticklers about it.
First off, it is implied that we will “see” whatever it is that you are describing. That is the whole point of description. It's what we will "see" on the screen.
Second, as I said earlier, you want to use the fewest words in writing your description while getting the same point across. If you have a chance to do so, you should.
(6) Don't write out every single facial expression or movement of your characters. In most instances, it is unnecessary and impedes the flow of “the read.”
Only describe an action or expression if it is essential to the point of the scene or helps to convey some aspect of the character.
Furthermore, you want to leave room for the actors to act. Acting is their job, not yours. Telling them every single action is intruding on their talent and function.
If you do all of those things, your description will have a rhythm to it, and that rhythm is what will help to make your script feel like a “quick read."
It might take some effort to get a handle on this, but the more you work at it, the more it will pay off for you.
- More articles by Drew Yanno
- X-Ray Specs: Ethnicity in Character Descriptions
- Column D: Did He Go to the Prom? How Much Backstory is Too Much?
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