Making Description Count

About a month ago I reported on this very blog that I’ve rewritten the first act of my screenplay after months of redevelopment. While I have continued writing, moving into the second act, I’ve also printed the 32 pages and read them out loud. One of the first problems that jumpped out at me is that some of my descriptions are weak; and while some would say that it leaves things open for the director to work his magic, I believe descriptions need to be sharp and visual.

Description in a screenplay is very different from the same description in prose. Prose allows the author to use all of the reader’s senses when describing a scene. A screenplay is limited to just two, sight and sound. In prose you might take a paragraph to describe the lead character’s choice in aftershave, describing the scent as musky and heavy and how it reminds the character of his father. In your screenplay, the audience will not be able to smell anything through the screen (with exception of those smell-o-vision films) so there’s no need to use description to talk about the fowl order the lead character has to contend with. Instead you would write that the Hero twitches his nose a couple of times before the vent in the far wall catches his attention. A screenplays description must be limited to what the audience will see and what the audience will hear. If the main character walks into a room where there’s a gas leak, not only will he screw up his face and wave his hand, he might also hear the hissing sound of a strong gas leak.

When talking about screenplays you may have heard the term ‘white space on the page’. This means that the screenplay has a fairly equal ratio of ink and blank areas. This is done by breaking your description down into small chunks of information. I like to keep my description to a maximum of four sentences per paragraph and then one paragraph per subject matter. Four sentences ensure that I get the most important information written down. If it can be done in less than four sentences then by all means use fewer sentences. When there is a lot to describe, such as the first time we see a location, it might be a good idea to break it down into two or more paragraphs divided by topic. A good rule of thumb is to keep it under four paragraphs if possible. There are no hard fast rules when it comes to the amount of description, however, you want to make sure your screenplay flows at the same pace the movie will. Large passages of description will slow down your reader as well as the pace of how your screenplay reads.

Choose your words carefully. This can be said about any piece of writing, but what makes it important is that a screenwriter has a limited number of pages they can use. Sure you can write a 170 page screenplay, but will you be able to find a studio that would be willing to read it? A first-time screenwriter, such as myself, should always keep their screenplays between 90 and 120 pages. If you aim for 105 pages that gives you a little room to fall short or exceed by 15 pages either way. If you’ve written a passage of description that goes on for over a page you’ve wasted a page of your screenplay.

Sometimes you need a full page to describe the events on the screen and there is no dialogue to break up the lines and lines of description, what do you do? I use call-out Slug Lines to add white space to my page. A call out slug line is used to direct the reader’s attention to something unusual, specific or required.  In the example below we start by defining the location with a standard slug line. Since there are small windows in the basement walls we use the MIDNIGHT to ensure it is night when the scene is shot.

INT. RALPH’S HOUSE – BASEMENT – MIDNIGHT

Ralph is rumaging through a box in the corner of the basement when SUDDENLY the power goes out and the basement is plunged into darkness. Ralph stands up and looks around the darken basement. He reaches out in the darkness, groping for the wall closest to him.

Following the wall Ralph begins searching for the

FUSE BOX

located right in the corner of the wall. Once found Ralph flips it open and tries to feel which of the fuses may be out. Nothing feels out of place.

BASEMENT DOOR

The darkness is breached as someone slowly opens the basment door at the top of the old wooden stairs. Light pours through the slowly opening door.

RALPH

looks to his left as he hears the CREAKING of the door opening.

You can see by the call outs FUSE BOX and RALPH that it is done directly as part of the sentence. This allows the reader to continue the natural flow of the screenplay without being jarred out of the story by a standard slug line. Call out slug lines are all a sub-section of the larger, main screen, in this case the basement. We’re asking our reader (and the audience) to focus their attention on a particular location for a moment so they don’t miss something important.

When you’re finished with the called out slug line you have two options. You could either cut directly to a brand new location using a completely new slug line or you can use RETURN TO MAIN SCENE to return back to the original wide view of the basement. This works great for a character’s apartment. You can start by introducing the apartment location and then as the character moves about the apartment you can call out specific locations, such as the KITCHEN, LIVING ROOM or BATHROOM.

Always remember: If it’s not written in the screenplay it will not appear on the screen. Never assume that the director or the actor will do something just because it’s ‘human nature’ or that the action is just naturally called for in the scene. If you need the character to roll their eyes at something your hero had just said, then write it down. Just make sure you don’t waste any words when doing so.

What are your thoughts about writing description in a screenplay?

– Steve

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