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SUBMISSIONS INSANITY: The One Craft Element That Can Kill Your Screenplay's Chances DEAD

Script editor Lucy V Hay examines how scene description too often kills screenplays' chances in the submissions pile & what writers can do about it.

Click the pic for a video from veteran screenwriter John August on improving your scene description

NEWSFLASH: Your scene description is RUINING your screenplay. In fact, I'd wager it is the number one craft element that means your screenplay is getting returned to you, "unread" (which, as we all know, means **someone** has opened up your script or PDF, skimmed through it, then sent a "thanks, but no thanks" email … IF you're lucky).

“WTH?” I hear you all wailing… “But I am being ECONOMICAL with words and ensuring there’s lots of WHITE on the page! And chucking out camera angles! Oh and I’m checking my goddamn spelling, grammar AND punctuation!! WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT FROM US, EVIL SCRIPT READERS?!?”

So, why is scene description a screenplay killer? Well, turns out we evil readers want all this TOO my put-upon writer friends … Read it n’ weep (or start doing it and improve your screenplay's chances in that submissions pile INSTANTLY!):

1) Imaginative Vocabulary. The obvious: writers write, so you gotta write INTERESTINGLY. Doh! Yet too often scene description reads as if it’s the poor relation of dialogue (especially when so many pages won’t even HAVE any scene description in??). But even when it’s there, scene description will be bland and boring. You need to put as much thought into the prose you write as every other part of your screenplay, especially as you’ll probably write more scene description than just about everything else, even if it is lean! So broaden your vocabulary, quick smart. MORE:Build A Bigger, Better Vocabulary

2) ACTIVE Verbs. You remember what a “verb” is from school, right? A DOING word. But too often, scene description in a spec screenplay is reduced to utility, ie. characters DO something simply to break up dialogue and/or introduce the “idea” there is actual movement in the scene. Nooooooo! Utilitarian (aka vanilla) scene description is the DEATH of your screenplay’s chances in grabbing a reader’s attention. Not. Even. Kidding. Why? Because your characters are reduced to mere automatons, simply “doing actions” (usually moving various body parts, too: an arm; an eyebrow, a smile … Or worse: “sitting” or “standing” at the window and “staring out.” ARGH!). There is no potential for emotional connection and frequently, the scene will end up horribly static. If you want your characters to DO STUFF, you must use active verbs in your scene description; it’s non negotiable. MORE:Screenwriting Mistakes: Non-Active Verbs 

3) Striking Imagery. So many writers are in love with their characters and dialogue, they seem to completely forget that screenwriting is about being VISUAL. As a result, scenes will simply begin with characters walking into rooms or just talking, as if we’re watching a play in the theatre. We’re NOT. You cannot rely on great dialogue to sell your story “off the page” – yes, EVEN IF it’s a “talky type” of film! You must consider the visual potential of every single scene you write and take it to the max via your scene description. MORE:How To Make Your Screenplay Visual

4) Amazing Arenas. Arena refers to the “storyworld,” not just its geographical location – and obviously, your scene description performs about 90% of creating it. The most obvious element is time period, but you’re not off the hook if yours is set in “present day.” Though Arena may refer to science fiction and fantasy (or acres of backstory ie. “The Marvel Storyworld”), *your* story is not excused if yours is drama, or you DON’T want to create a stack of sequels, prequels and reboots. EVERY story has an arena: a set of expectations **within** that story, “narrative logic” if you will. This is why not every film or TV show “feels” the same. Your story’s Arena may directly inform the plot, or it may relate to theme instead; you may make use of storytelling devices like motifs or allusion. But whatever you do, don’t leave your arena to chance! MORE:5 Tips For Writing Period Movies by Neal Romanek

5) Terrific Tone. Whatever theme or arena you end up going for in your writing, you can often pinpoint it by the tone you use: a Horror screenplay should be infused with dread and a Comedy with humour, obviously … But ALSO a dramedy with whimsy; a devastating drama with melancholy and so on. Scene description doesn’t *have* to have its own tone – some writers argue dialogue is the principle way of showcasing tone, especially those who practice Whedonesque dialogue. But given so LITTLE scene description has its own tone then, is giving your scene description its own distinct “flavour” a good idea (especially when you can relate it back to your Arena and “Storyworld,” thus giving your script “layers”?) I’d put money on it. MORE:All About Theme 

6) Colourful character intros. How are you using your scene description to introduce your characters? Because too frequently, I read intros like this:

i) Any – introduced in scene description by the clothes they wear, or as Julie Gray calls it, a “laundry list”. This tells us virtually NOTHING about their personalities or who they are, guys. Yes, yes, arguably colours or style can give us *some* impression … Or it may not. How many people do YOU know in real life who can be defined by their clothes alone?? (NONE for me). MORE:Character Introductions & Voice 

ii) Male (adult) – usually defined by strength/capability. Whilst it could be argued this *essentially* a positive representation, this also means a line is drawn down the middle between those who “can” and those who “cannot”, creating a massive divide between what we apparently think a real “hero” is, I’d wager. Not. Good. MORE:5 Reasons Male Characterisation Needs An Overhaul Too

iii) Female (adult) – you guessed it, she’s defined by how sexy she is; the size of her breasts; or even just those ubiquitous words, “beautiful” or “attractive”. I don’t even need to go into why this is an issue, surely – but for the record, the main problem for me has never been the so-called “male gaze”. I like to look at sexy women every bit as much as the next (wo)man and in some storyworlds – gangster/mobster possibly the most obvious – the Sexy Moll can be a justified addition to the cast. The problem is the LACK of alternative, especially in storyworlds that arguably play waaaay too much emphasis on it, ie. the number of “MILFs” and “Teenage Hottie Older Sisters” that infest spec scripts AND produced content destined for family audiences, especially action/adventure, which is pretty grim IMHO). MORE:Girls On Film 

So it’s a GREAT START if you’re working on your scene description in your spec screenplay by cutting out those extraneous details like camera angles, or ensuring your spelling, grammar and punctuation is top notch. But that’s all it is: a start. Now you need to INVEST in your scene description via the six elements I list here for your screenplay to stand its best chance in the submissions pile. Do it any way you want; there are no rules, remember. Just make sure you don't kill off your screenplay's chances before it gets read properly!

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