The scene descriptions in your screenwriting have a tricky, sometimes tumultuous, relationship with script readers. How so, you ask?
Some script readers scan through screenplay scene description to speed up their reading process. I’ve spoken to studio level readers who read scene titles and dialogue. This approach tells them the story and gives them an idea about casting.
Why Is Scene Description So Important?
It allows your reader to experience the story as it unfolds. More importantly, it allows them to visualize a movie on the big screen.
Scene description should do the following:
State the locale, time period, production design. This is all background stuff that stimulates the visualization process. Imagine these scene descriptions.
Outer space. Black. A vast expanse of nothingness. A lone astronaut drifts. Lost. She is a speck in the universe.
This description captures the essence of the scene and allows your mind to wander. It conveys freedom, exploration, and solitude.
What emotions does it convey? Fear, hope, peace, terror. All of these are possibilities, but none are clear. This can either create anticipation/ wonder or confusion. Maybe it’s a problem for the audience who insists on specificity? Maybe it’s not to the audience who doesn’t like to color in between the lines. You’re the writer. You decide.
What are the KEYWORDS in this description?
Outer space – This gives the locale, a sense of place.
Nothingness – Creates anticipation of nothingness eventually becoming somethingness. It adds some tension. It also regulates the speed at which the story gradually unfolds.
Lone astronaut – This gives us a sense of character.
Lost – This tells us something about the possible back story. The astronaut may have become detached from the base station, an accident happened, they were on an expedition and got banished, they were attacked and they are the only survivor, or they escaped. One or none of these options may be true. But they do titillate and engage your reader. They’ll want to continue reading your screenplay to satisfy their curiosity.
Drifts – Not speeds, races, floats, charges, moves, but DRIFTS. This sets the action and tempo of the scene.
She – Where you expecting a male astronaut? Statistically, probably. This is a pivot point in the scene description. How does a female astronaut differ from a male one? How do their choices and decision-making skills differ?
Speck in the universe – This is filmic poetry in your scene description. It gives an insight into the theme of your screenplay, the conflict and the character’s journey. It suggests the astronaut is insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but may ultimately save the world; a significant outcome.
If you’re thinking that most words in my scene description are keywords, you’re correct. My point is that your word choices are critical. Consider how your reader might feel after reading them. You’re a screenwriter. Every word matters.
This can be achieved through several means. Words can be CAPITALIZED for added emphasis. Which words would you capitalize in the above scene description?
You can also reinforce some words by putting them in a single line. Consider how the tone of the scene description changes when the word “lost” has its own line. It totally captures the main character’s state of mind. Imagine if it was capitalized too.
ACTION AND MOTIVATION
Consider this scene description:
A yacht bobs in the soft waves. The glistening sun completes the perfect date. A seagull lands on the hull.
Herbert scoops an oyster into Cherie’s mouth, It glides down her throat with a seductive smile.
Herbert rubs the sharp edge of the scooping knife with his forefinger and gazes into her eyes; not with love, but with hate.
Cherie checks her back pocket. A handgun is neatly tucked inside.
Her eyes widen as she leans over the edge and throws up. Herbert nods with satisfaction. His date is playing out exactly as he intended.
What’s going on here? Hardly a good example of romance.
Some writers may claim that this description is over-written. Maybe so, but it does give the reader a sense of character dynamics.
We know they are on a date which isn’t really a date. Why does Cherie have a gun? Is it protect herself or to kill Herbert?
Did Herbert poison her or did the oyster disagree with Cherie? These actions raise all sorts of questions about this screenplay. They propel the story forward.
Although I generally advise against overwriting, there are some exceptions. If some description acts as a footnote to guide your reader, it can work. The last sentence in the above examples plays a summary of the entire scene. Most importantly it doesn’t leave any doubt in the reader’s mind what’s happening,
Will the scene work if it’s deleted? Yes. But it does add a nuance to it.