The description; the action; the action line; the stage directions – these are all terms used to describe the narrative portion of a screenplay, the material that, along with the dialogue, makes up the physical writing in screenwriting. For clarity and consistency, I’m going to refer to the narrative portion of a screenplay as the stage directions in this article.
Crafting quality descriptive prescriptives or stage directions is one of the hardest aspects of screenwriting for film scribes to master. It’s hard because all stage directions are meant to be is description: a simple explanation of what – characters, action, and imagery – is meant to appear on screen during a particular scene. All of the elements that are usually considered hallmarks of “good” writing – clever wordplay; literary style; elaborate descriptions of setting and characters; intricate explorations of the characters’ internal thoughts and feelings; and so on – have no place in this type of writing and their inclusion can (and usually does) actually impede the screenwriting’s effectiveness. Therefore, the stage directions in a screenplay are most effective when the wording is as simple, tight, and stripped down as possible. At the same time, it can’t be boring and must engage the reader. So it’s quite a challenge.
To meet it, you must write clearly, and directly. Tell us what is meant to be seen on screen without enhancement or embellishment. Use short sentences – with one idea (one action, one piece of description, etc.) per sentence to maximize clarity. Employ short, punchy paragraphs in order to make the script easy to read. Avoid long sentences and paragraphs – reading description can be tedious under the best of circumstances and will absolutely become so if you force your reader to hack her/his way through giant blocks of type. You want your readers to put their energy into understanding and enjoying your tale, not into the physical process of reading it. And also, the experience of reading the script should indicate the experience you want the audience to have when watching the eventual movie it proposes. If you employ short sentences and brief one, two, or three line paragraphs, your reader will be able to experience the story with the same energy and kinetic pacing that you presumably want the movie to have.
Also avoid employing an excessively literary style when penning stage directions, because elaborate wordplay takes up a lot of page space and it can’t be photographed. For these reasons,
EXT. CENTRAL PARK – DAY
It is raining. A man and a woman walk arm in arm along a footpath.
is infinitely preferable to
EXT. CENTRAL PARK – DAY
Droplets of moisture tumble down from the dark, roiling heavens like the jealous tears of an angry god. A man and a woman cling to each with a comfortable familiarity that reminds us of the enduring power of love as they stroll down a path as twisted and unpredictable as life itself.
Cinema is a visual/audio medium. Viewers will only be able to comprehend things that they can see on the screen or hear coming out of the speakers. So your stage directions should only contain elements that can be photographed or recorded. Don’t write what characters are thinking or feeling – instead, describe action, behavior, dialogue, or sounds that show what they are thinking and feeling. Don’t write long expository passages telling us about a character’s backstory or detailing the history of the narrative’s central situation. Instead, come up with scenes that show this exposition or dialogue that explains it. Don’t write that a room is cold or that a character smells something funny – instead, describe a character shivering because the room is cold or wrinkling her nose to indicate that she smells something funny.
This is a common one, but do not allow your stage directions to get bogged down with detailed descriptions of sets or characters. As a screenwriter, it’s your job to set the scene. It is not your job to determine the color of the drapes, the number of chairs, or the type of carpet that decorates a given set. So instead of writing something like this:
INT. FRANK’S PUB – NIGHT
Frank’s Pub is one of those seedy, desperate places where dreams go to die. The warped wooden floor is covered in sawdust and vomit. There is a long, mahogany bar with a scratched brass rail at the back of the room. Twelve stools are lined up in front of the bar, each with seats covered in worn or torn Naugahyde. Seven round tables, each with seven captain’s chairs set around them in haphazard fashion, fill the open space. Upon each table is a bowl filled with a mixture of peanuts and pretzels. Most are only half full. The walls of the bar are painted white, but the white paint has turned brown from all of the cigarette smoke that has wafted through the place over so many decades. The restrooms are located against the left wall and each is illuminated with a cheap neon sign indicating which one is for men and which one is for women. The front door to the place is against the right wall. It is made of wood, with a stained glass window in the center. There’s a rusty spittoon next to the door, positioned at a ninety degree angle between the door jamb and the wall.
Write something like this instead:
INT. FRANK’S PUB – NIGHT
Frank’s Pub is a real dive.
The production designer, art directors, and set dressers will do the rest.
Along similar lines, it is better to describe a character like this:
Steve is a quick, smart, attorney at law.
Rather than like this:
Steve is six feet, two inches tall. He has blue eyes, freckles, and curly red hair. He has tremendous biceps, but his left leg is a half-inch shorter than his right.
The problem with being this specific is: what if there’s no six foot, two inch tall, blue eyed, befreckled, red-headed actor with great guns and mismatched legs available? Would you prefer the part go uncast and the movie unmade? No, of course not. And it doesn’t matter anyway – the director and producer are going to cast the best actor (and biggest name) they can find for the role. If they think Sandra Bullock is the best person to play Steve, then that’s who’s going to play the part, no matter how precisely you describe him in the text. So it’s better to just describe the essence of the character and let the director and producer do the rest.
Likewise, don’t waste your time (and page space) incorporating elaborate descriptions of shot compositions, camera moves, music, and editing cues into your screenplay, because the director and his creative team (cinematographer, editor, composer, etc.) are just going to ignore them and shoot, cut, and score the piece the way they see fit. Better to describe the dramatic content of the scene as best you can and leave the cinematic interpretation to the others.
In order to keep your reader’s attention, write your stage directions in lively fashion – while always making clarity and simplicity your main priorities, choose interesting words and craft punchy, energetic sentences that grab the reader and move the story along. However, avoid using a smartass voice in your writing. William Goldman and Shane Black famously employ a loose, hip narrative voice in their screenplays – wordage full of quips, asides, in-jokes, and winks at the reader. This style is very entertaining and both writers are very adept at it, but their success has led many other writers who are much less adept to employ a similar style and the results are usually pretty dire. It’s much better for you to put your energy into telling the best story with the most interesting characters speaking the cleverest dialogue possible than squandering it trying to be a wise guy, because if your tale doesn’t grab them, then all of the attitude in the world won’t make a bit of difference.
Don’t compress time in your stage directions. Many new screenwriters pen lines such as this:
INT. JOE’S BEDROOM – DAY
Joe gets up, does his morning workout, takes a shower, and then has breakfast.
The problem is that these are four separate scenes taking place over a relatively long period of time in at least three and possibly four different locations that are written as if they are one scene that takes place instantaneously in the same set. This means that the timing of the script is all off – the action is going to take a lot longer to unfold on screen than the page count will indicate – and so is the set count and both mean that the budget is going to be way off as well.
Separate actions should be written in separate sentences to make sure that they read as separate occurrences and not just one. Also, any change in setting (including moving from one room in a building to another) or time (even if it’s a jump of only a few minutes) must be indicated with a new scene heading (a.k.a. slug). Keeping all of this in mind, the scene above should be written as follows:
INT. JOE’S BEDROOM – DAY
Joe wakes up and gets out of bed.
INT. JOE’S BASEMENT – DAY
Joe lifts weights in his home gym.
INT. JOE’S BATHROOM – DAY
Joe takes a shower, making sure to get all the hard to reach spots.
INT. JOE’S KITCHEN – DAY
Joe eats a bowl of Lucky Charms while reading a newspaper.
(Remember, a slug is not just a storytelling device, it’s also a production management tool. Slugs not only let a reader know where scenes takes place, but also let the production team know what locations or settings are required for these scenes. This information affects a lot of things – the budget, the shooting schedule, crew size, the camera, lighting, and grip equipment packages, how many days or nights the company will need to work, and so on – and it is your job as a screenwriter to provide it).
Likewise, don’t summarize. Many newbies write lines such as this:
Bill rushes in and tells Andrew about everything that happened at the party.
A line like this suggests a long scene full of dialogue and action and all of this material must be dramatized – written out in a combination of action, images, and dialogue – in full detail. For all of the reasons mentioned above and because, if you – the screenwriter – don’t write this material, who do you think is going to do it? The director? The actors? The key grip? Would you really want them to? No, it has to be you. After all, you’re the writer.
Check out my new books A Quick Guide to Screenwriting, A Quick Guide to Television Writing, and A Quick Guide to Film Directing. All three are handy primers to the art, craft, and business of creating for the big and small screens.
©2014 by Ray Morton All Rights Reserved
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