Film making is a visual medium. Screenwriters are always told that less dialogue is more. Does this axiom also apply to scene description too? Well… kinda sorta…
Dialog constitutes the primary colors of your film or TV script. The scene description is the shading. It is more than simply describing physical action. It needs to draw the reader into the story world and story trajectory.
Scene description in your screenplays needs to be visual. But most importantly, it must be EVOCATIVE. Think about how you want your reader to feel after reading it. Is awe, amusement or sadness?
Consider these examples describing a small room:
1) His room furniture consists of nothing more than a cold, steel bunk bed with a two inch worn mattress tossed on top of it, a tiny wash basin with cold water only, and rimless toilet.
2) He sits cross legged with his eyes closed in his six by nine room. It’s all white and chrome. There’s a cosy futon in the corner, a quaint wash basin and a minimalist toilet.
One describes a prison cell with its stifling sense of claustrophobia. The second describes a zen room, free of clutter and restriction.
The action lines in your scene description must also keep the plot moving forward. They also modulate the rhythm of your screenplay by controlling how fast the reader moves through your script.
A long-winded description can slow down a read. This can be effective in a slow, dramatic, tender scene.
So I guess you want an example? Of course.
His index finger hovers over her porcelain skin as he gently traces the outline of her lips. Gently prising them apart. She melts. Tonight he will take her.
A short, snappy scene description can rapidly spice things up.
He thrusts his index finger into her mouth ready for action.
Also think about adding snappy commentary or side notes for the reader’s benefit. Shane Black pioneered this with ‘Lethal Weaponesque’ quips like “You’d better pull out your check books for this scene.”
How about this character description for an aging rock star? He plops himself in front of the dressing room mirror. Sucks in his belly as he tightens his belt a notch. He’s getting fat; maybe portly? Chubby? Nah, he’s fat. And bald… ing. Nothing that a few months of “Insanity Workout” can’t fix.
Not only does this description illustrate your scenes and capture the essence of your character, it also entertains the reader and infuses your personality into your writing.
Also consider breaking your action into separate lines. This came from a horror script I wrote:
She runs deeper into the forest… Rapidly picking up picking up her pace…
See how much emphasis the last two lines signaling impending danger brought to the scene. Readers love white space more than chunks of text.
Why don’t you play around with capitalizing? Which word would you capitalize? ALONE or VULNERABLE? Which generates the most emotion and interest?
Script format is especially important in action films when the action to dialogue ration is likely to be high.
In order to avoid reader fatigue, see if you can keep you action blocks to no more than four lines. Either continue the action in a separate paragraph, or break it up with dialogue.
There are other senses to play around with in your scene description. So far we’ve looked at touch and sight. What about taste smell and sound?
How about this from a screenplay I wrote?
SWIIISH. CLLLIICK. KERBOOM! The muffled gun fires.
The prisoner gags from the acrid smoke and foul stench of dead bodies in the trenches.
Can you feel this scene? I sure hope so. Because the words in your screenplay must translate to images on the big screen. That’s what makes you a great screenwriter.
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