All About Scene Description
Scene description is arguably the most problematic, yet most important, element of your screenplay. You probably write more of it than anything else (that’s right … even if you subscribe to the notion “less is more”!).
I’ve been writing a fair bit about scene description lately in notes for people lately. I thought I would write a dedicated post about the pesky things that can interrupt the “flow” of the story and/or make the page look messy.
So, good scene description should:
- Push the story forward
- Reveal character
- Do a bit of both
- writing too much scene description
- Or writing too little!
- or they concentrate on the “look” of the scene too much, telling us where characters are standing, what they’re wearing, how actors should say the lines
- specify how the filmmaker should shoot it
- or even how the reader read the godammn thing!
10) Double-check your tense usage/ grammar/ punctuation/ spelling
In scripts it’s best to use the present simple tense: it’s snappier and “flows” better. The present simple is the /s/ formation, ie. “Lucy read/s/ a script”, rather than “Lucy /is/ read/ing/ a script.” Avoid “is” and “ing” wherever possible; the perfective aspect (“to have”) rarely has a place in screenplays too.
Get on top of your grammar, punctuation, spelling. It’s worth it. Take a test a day and you’ll be proficient in a manner of weeks. And British writers: avoid American spellings, especially the /z/ formation (ie. “realize“), but also words like “favorite”, “theater” and “check”. You have a UK dictionary in your software, make sure it’s turned on (oooh Matron).
9) Economise on words
Make every single word count. Again, durr. But how to know when you’ve cut down? Well, when it comes to word economy, I think the “rule of half” works well. In other words:
- Want to use 20 words? Use 10
- How about 10? Use 5.
- Want to use 5? Use 2.
- How about 2? Use 0.
8) Rip out those Title/Credit Sequences
No need to reference stuff like credits and titles in TV scripts (or scripts in general); these are production decisions. It all comes down to this: I have NEVER seen a spec screenplay that “needed” a title or credits sequence. End of.
7) Rework those Teasers
If you need something story-related, better to go with a Teaser, but make sure it ACTUALLY teases us with some interesting hook or info! In the specs I read, 9/10 a Teaser is “just” the beginning of the story as it plays out. Think CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION or NCIS when it comes to Teasers:
i) Shots of the victim alive
ii) Victim’s dead body
iii) Team arrives and examines said dead body
iv) Some sort of interesting observation or quip is made
v) CUE TITLES
Now, your Teaser needn’t have a dead body in it – that’s not my point. Instead, think about what your Teaser SETS UP in terms of story (ie. the case, in CSI and NCIS). It’s called a “teaser” for a reason, so tease us.
6) Chop up those “notes to reader” in scene description
Get rid of any “notes to reader” you have in there. Seriously, we read all day. We don’t need to be told *how* to read your screenplay, Mofos. Oh wait: there’s some special information we need to be made aware of?? THEN PUT IT IN THE STORY. And as for freaking out about various layout things, especially dialogue/different languages? DUDES. Just make sure it’s not too messy on the page and it’s easy to read and you’re done. Honest guv!
5.) Surgically remove all the extraneous information
Again, make every single word count: I can’t stress this enough. Think about what words you’re using and how. Don’t include info that doesn’t relate to the story.
FYI, I don’t care what characters are wearing. I don’t care whether they have blonde hair, blue eyes or braces on their teeth. I don’t care they have “character building” scars over their bodies relating to past traumas and I don’t care whether they’re fat, thin, beautiful or ugly. Look beyond the external … Give us the PERSON – but don’t reduce them to a single element either, like their sexiness, race, gender or religion or I’LL BE HUNTING YOU DOWN FORTHWITH.
4) Have your characters actually DO stuff!!
And another thing: avoid characters “starting” to do anything, like “starts to hand out the leaflets”. Characters should DO stuff: what they do and how they do it tells you something about what is going on in the scene and the mood of the characters within it, ie.
Tracey shoves the leaflet into Johnny’s hand.
Tracey hands the leaflet to Johnny, avoiding eye contact.
Two VERY different actions, showing us Tracey’s POV re: Johnny.
3) “Clearly” you need help
Avoid the killer, “it is clear …” at all costs. Same goes for variations like “it is obvious” etc. Nothing should be “clear”, “obvious” or “evident”. Concentrate on telling us the story, not the “look” of the scene or the characters within them.
2) Apply a laser and burn off those camera angles
Yes, this includes OFF-SCREEN (O.S) and parentheticals. Avoid all references to the mechanics of filmmaking, such as the camera and camera angles, but also includes placing characters outside of shot or telling them *how* to say their lines, unless it is ONE HUNDRED PER CENT NECESSARY to the story.
When it comes to those pesky parentheticals, use them ONLY WHEN YOU HAVE TO – ie. the meaning is ambiguous without that parenthetical, ie.
ROSIE: I love you.
Great! She means it … except when she says it like this:
ROSIE: (sarcastic) I love you.
Ouch! See where I’m going with this?
And another thing …
Avoid the word BEAT in general – same goes for variations like PAUSE. If a beat is really important, then it can still be signified in a storytelling way, ie.
Jenny and Ken’s eyes meet. Did he just …?
Jenny slams the door shut in his face.
KEN: Wait! I didn’t mean it that way!
Also, watch out for those “hidden” camera angles in your scene description, such as:
OPEN ON a tub, the lid is removed roughly.
ANGLE ON a spoon, delving into the delicious contents.
PULL BACK to reveal Sally, eating all the ice cream.
Even if you don’t actually **write** camera angles/ filmmaking processes, you can still write ’em by accident, such as these tricky moments:
A balloon fills the frame.
Gerald (from the previous scene) walks in.
And so on. Keep your eye on those camera angles, ‘cos they’ll sneak in if you’re not vigilant. BARRICADE THE DOORS FFS.
1) Apply a weed-whacker to all your overwriting
What is overwriting … Well, that can depend. First up, look for those overly-specific actions, usually telling the actor *how* to convey their feelings. The most common ones I see are:
Exhausted, Kelly massages her temples, as if to ward off a headache.
Mark hits his head with his palm: he has an idea.
Sally clasps her hands to her chest in delight.
In other words, those moments where you tell an actor HOW to act. Avoid, avoid, avoid.
Think instead of how you can convey events and characters’ reactions in less specific, less prescriptive ways that allows the reader room for their imagination (and thus the actor to bring his/her interpretation to the role). Re-imagining my examples:
Exhausted, Kelly sighs: yeah, yeah whatever.
Mark stops. Lightbulb moment.
Sally trills with laughter.
More on Overwriting AKA ‘Black On The Page’
Yup, you guessed it … The old chestnut of including every single minute detail, so we’re not sure which are the important bits. For example …
Dressed in plaid and a work shirt, TOM opens the door. The local vicar, SEDGLEY, is on the doorstep. He is a thickset man with round-rimmed spectacles and an ominous air about him. Without a word he comes in and the two men go through to the front room. The room is 1950s-style in appearance, just like Tom: it hasn’t been updated since.
On the mantelpiece are a selection of photos of Tom growing up. In most of them, his mother looks on proudly as her boy makes his way through a variety of milestones until she finally disappears when Tom looks about a decade younger than he is now. There is a dresser with lots of cups and plates on it: Tom is quite the sportsman.
On the threadbare rug a dog sleeps and in the corner is a canary in a cage. There is steam in the air and a kettle whistles. Tom smiles at the vicar, who stares at him as if he has gone mad. Think that weird Nazi bloke with the melting face from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
This isn’t bad stuff, but it needs a far bit of trimming. Here it is, without the overwriting:
Sporty, with a whiff of “Mama’s Boy” about him, TOM, 50s, opens the door. The local vicar, SEDGLEY, is on the doorstep. He looks like the weird Nazi bloke with the melting face from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
Tom ushers him into the house. The room is 1950s-style in appearance, just like Tom: it hasn’t been updated since. A kettle whistles. Uncertain, Tom smiles.
So, all I’m saying *really*??
MAKE YOUR SCENE DESCRIPTION HELP TELL A STORY.
But do it in a vital way, that’s interesting and keeps the story “flowing”. And do it in as few words as possible. Boom! Done.
Easy, huh? Oh stop crying. You can do this … Shine up that scene description, STAT: GO GO GO!!!