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A Little Less Description, A Little More Action Please


I’m not fond of those “scriptwriting sayings” that gurus, websites, seminars and books bark at writers, since so many need much more clarification (“Show It Don’t Tell It” anyone?), especially for the new writer. There is one however that I do make an exception for and that’s @wcmartell’s:

Scene description is scene action.

I love this one. It sums up exactly what it means. It’s the Ronseal method of writing here in that it does exactly what it says on the tin, no further clarification required. Even the complete writing novice can look at that and say: “Ah, yes. In all my description there should be action. Case closed.”

And action is what we watch films for, right? Action does not necessarily mean oodles of sex and violence (though that’s always good as far as I’m concerned, wahey); but importantly, even the kitchen-sinkiest drama has action in. If you want hours of psychological analysis and contemplation about general stuff over a certain time frame that may or may not be important to the central thrust (oo-er) of the narrative, you’d read a book. Not that I think books are worse or better than films I might add, just what goes into each is different.

Which is why your scene description and how you write it, counts.

Too much scene description does the exact opposite of illuminating your reader as to what is going on in your action. It confuses them. Whilst this might appear bizarre, think of it this way – if there are too many details, which are the important ones? The reader did not write your script, they don’t see it in their head as clearly as you will see it in yours.

Often, so much attention is paid to detail by way of building up character or arena, the reader is then lead down a blind alley in terms of story. This is frustrating. If your story is a child’s toy shoved in the cupboard under the stairs, the script with too much black is akin to opening said cupboard door and everything coming piling out when it’s opened. Which toy is the story? Yes there’s some nice stuff there, but which is the one we’re actually looking for? We could be there all day and still not know, which is why entreating a reader to go over your script again will not neccessarily work.

But what is action? This is the problem for the writers unable to differentiate between “The Black stuff” and “The Good Stuff”. After all, there’s all that conflicting advice and/or pointers: do be poetic/don’t write asides to the reader. Do use your extended vocab/don’t write a novel. Do be visual/don’t overdo it. Just what is it we’re supposed to do?!

I find it useful to think of action as those things that:

a) have a place in the story (ie. you can’t understand what’s going on otherwise)


b) reveal character

OR best of all:

c) do a bit of both.

I *usually* have the physical stuff for pushing the story forward, whilst I save my “poetic-ness” *generally* for the revealing character. This seems to work for me. That way, I don’t have too much flowery stuff whilst people are enacting the story and I don’t have characters relying on physical actions and/or traits to reveal their character. I don’t tend to have people doing random actions like eating, raising eyebrows, waving, smoking and whatnot unless it relates directly to how the story is playing out; I feel that I would be directing from the page that way. As far as I’m concerned, it’s more for me to “sum up” that all-important “feel” of the scene, not nail down every last detail on how it looks when that is largely down to interpretation anyway. To underline this point, here’s some coverage I received on one of my scripts, from different readers:

“I really liked the scenery – Cornwall, right?”

“The Scottish Highlands backdrop was great.”

“The valley scenes in The Peak District were a nice touch.”

Which reader was right? None of them; I had actually envisaged Devon – I’ve never even been to The Highlands or The Peak District. But who cares? I was going for a rural backdrop and the readers read into it what they knew. And that’s the beauty of it. This is why I think you don’t need those minute details.

But anyway: like I said, this works for me. Maybe it won’t for you. But if you’re wondering how in the name of all that is holy you still have too much black (and we’ve all been there), why not give a, b or c above a try.

Good luck!

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11 thoughts on “A Little Less Description, A Little More Action Please”

  1. So you’re saying: don’t have characters doing random things for the sake of it, only have them doing “stuff” that actually figures in the context of the story? So, to labour the point, don’t have a character smoking unless they’re gonna die of lung cancer?

  2. That’s probably going a little TOO far Anon, there is that pesky question of interpretation again. Taking smoking as an example, I only have my characters smoke if they’re evil now you come to mention it. And usually immortal so wouldn’t die of cancer anyhow. So in this scenario, I use smoking as a revelation of character, not to push the story forward. And thinking about it, lots of other writers do the same; Cynthia smokes in SECRETS AND LIES because she is ill-educated thus is more “likely” to, whereas Hortense, as an educated woman does not. Of course, this does not nec figure at all when it comes to “real life”. I know lots of people who have PHDs who smoke. Some writers however say it is part of our responsibility to NEVER have characters smoke since there is no justification of it story-wise unless, as you say, there is a specific point to be driven home, like dying from cancer.

    What I’m saying is, don’t have TOO MUCH detail of characters wandering around, picking stuff up, eating, smoking, whatever… Just as too much poetic stuff also becomes a bit much. It gets dull to read. Of course a bit is fine, it’s just one of those “all things in moderation” wotsits as far as I’m concerned.

  3. Darren (formerly eat my shorts)

    If you don’t have your characters doing random stuff, then what are they doing? Isn’t this the point – to make actors act?

  4. Thought I’d pop my head above the parapet and see who shoots it off! 😉

    I agree with much of what you say so just a couple of things really: I rather like the idea of the poet-type script but it’s just not appropriate but I still believe that some nods to poetry are allowable in as much as finding the perfect choice of word. Why have a character ‘walk’ or ‘walk slowly’ when you can have them ‘saunter’ or ‘skulk’ as appropriate? (All actions!)

    The one fly in the ointment (for me) is the notion of place as character (e.g. the city in film noir, the ‘terrible place’ in horror, etc.) which must surely require a little more description. (I’m sure people will have field day disputing this!)

    Lastly, I had an excellent tutor (and before people say tutors don’t know anything… he has several feature film credits to his name) who made the point that a feature film should tend (on the Final Draft script report tab) to come out with approx. 30% dialogue and approx. 60% action (I know that doesn’t add up but it could be 10% scene headings, etc.) whereas TV tends to the inverse. Make of that what you will!

  5. Are you being ironic when you talk about Cynthia and Hortense in Secret and lies or the fact you only have evil people in your script smoking?

  6. Well Anon, perhaps that’s a matter of interpretation too? ; )

    While we’re on the subject – and this goes for everyone, not just you Anon (I’ve no idea if you’re the same Anon each time anyway) – if you want to take issue with anything I say, by all means go ahead… But pls do own your comments, even if you just put an initial or nickname. That way I don’t attribute comments/ideas to anyone inappropriately, like I did DD the other week by accident.

  7. Place as character – why not have place as character… Firefly (TV series) Serenity is a character, as much as any other member of the crew is.
    In “The Thing”, the arctic white could be deemed to be a character.

    I think any script where a location informs the story, that arena can be viewed as character. Not in terms of being a human being, but in terms of bringing aspects to the story that wouldn’t otherwise be there…?

  8. Arena as character is a great device and exists *almost* solely within scene description (though of course it can get into dialogue: the crew’s talk of Mother could be included here in ALIEN), but in my experience it IS often a device overdone, especially when it comes to the “poetic” nature of prose within scene description. Far better to have a few bits of this dotted about your script than big chunks throughout, which is how I am likely to see it more in scripts.

  9. “if you want to take issue with anything I say, by all means go ahead…”

    In that case, I regret to inform you that you have “most” with the (presumably) superlative adjective (if indeed it is a word!) “kitchen-sinkiest” to describe “drama”. However, since I doubt extremely “kitchen-sinkiest” is an actual word, I think I can be charitable and let you off.

    Just being facetious, obviously, loving the blog – what are you working on at the moment, then? You’ve been rather shady with details of late…

  10. Very astute Corrector – not least on the details. But you aren’t getting any more… Let’s just say some exciting stuff is happening at the mo, but it’s all at “that” stage where it could go either way and I don’t want to jinx it! ; )

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