If you’re a screenwriter in Los Angeles, it’s a pretty good bet that sooner or later you’re gonna meet OTHER screenwriters in Los Angeles, and that some day in the future one of them will ask you to read a script. The first time it happens, you’re flattered—"they TRUST me," you think. "They need MY OPINION to make this script better." The second time it happens, you think—absolutely—I’d love to help, and maybe sometime soon THEY can read one of MY SCRIPTS in return. The tenth time it happens, well… Let’s just say you hope they can write.
I still get a kick out of reading my friend’s scripts, but it’s always a little scary when it’s someone’s work you haven’t read before, and you flip over the cover page to see this:
INT. FARMHOUSE – DAY
A warm, cozy, hand-built farmhouse, built circa 1940. Floral wallpaper covers the walls. Some is peeling off, exposing many layers of wallpaper underneath. The main living room is built around a stone fireplace, and the ashen remains of two-months worth of burnt wood has piled high, and is now overflowing onto the room’s oak wood floors.
On a far fall, a single bed is pulled taught against the wall under a small window. Early morning light has begun to sneak through the cracked-plastic shudders that hang jauntily behind old green curtains, pulled taught with a pair of old shoe laces. A cat MEOWS somewhere in the distance. Birds sings. It is morning in Vermont--
Ugh. THAT one just fell to the bottom of my read-list, and I’ve only made it through 1/3 of the FIRST PAGE!
Screenwriting is not novel writing, folks. If what you really want to be is a 21st-century John Steinbeck, but your Uncle Bill told you screenwriting was more commercial, STOP RIGHT NOW. Return your copy of Final Draft, and choose another venue for your talents.
The very first thing newbies need to understand is that the essential tool for screenwriters is DIALOGUE. My rule of thumb is that any reader should be able to squint their eyes and SKIP EVERY LINE OF DESCRIPTION in a script, and still know exactly what the screenplay is about. And guess what? That’s EXACTLY what most readers do. It sucks—I know. All that time fading-in and dissolving-out, cutting to this, and ending that montage—for what? So that some nineteen year old assistant at Gersh can skip right to the good stuff, and ONLY READ THE DIALOGUE?
Get used to it. And better yet—take control of the situation!
When writing description, all that matters in a script is what’s gonna end up ON SCREEN, and a good writer should be able to paint a picture in short, tight, punchy sentences. It’s slightly different for television, but in movies, a writer should never say in description blocks what an actor FEELS, and should refrain as much as possible from offering blocking suggestions or body gestures. Sure—you may need to give some basic directions:
The car pulls to a hard stop, and Samantha CLIMBS OUT. She glances back at her partner, who looks nervous.
But you do not need to fill in every nuance of their movements:
The car pulls to a hard stop, and Samantha CLIMBS OUT. She tucks her hair behind her ear, and closes the car door behind her. She steps up to the curb, then glances over her shoulder at her partner, smiling. He looks nervous. It’s his first day on the job, and Samantha knows it.
Noooo! Way, way too much. If you can’t communicate what’s going on in this scene with DIALOGUE, then you’re not doing your job. Don’t tell you reader what a character’s MENTAL STATE is – let them discover it in how your characters interact. Although I am sometimes guilty myself, using a facial gesture like SMILING is also a sure sign that you’re over-writing your descriptions.
Look how easily one line of dialogue expresses the point of this scene:
You see? I’ve used the same amount of space on the page, but I’d shown what the scene is about using DIALOGUE, and have even suggested the type of relationship that Samantha has with her partner. She is the professional here, and has the upper hand. He is the rookie. This is info we didn’t get from the run-on description. PLUS, you could totally skip the description and would still get a sense of what this scene is about. The characters are about to GO SOMEWHERE (“stay close”) and their relationship is one of leader and follower.
The other thing you want to avoid in descriptions is TELLING YOUR DIRECTOR WHAT TO DO. Remember—you will need a director to agree to make this thing, and it’s not your role to try to do their job. Not only is it unnecessary, but too many overt CAMERA DIRECTIONS or PARENTHETICALS can seem like you’re trying to box-in your director, or to direct the movie yourself through the script.
First let’s look at parentheticals:
Again: Nooooo! In this example, “reassuringly” goes without saying—it’s right there in HER LINE. She’s trying to reassure him. And “panicking?” Two things are wrong with that. First, we’ve already SAID he’s nervous in our description block. And second, “panicking” is a direction. If the director wants Peter to show PANIC here, he’ll tell him. That’s the director’s choice. Or he may go with “shyly” or “dismissively” or “defensively” instead – each interpretation of that line would give the scene and these characters’ relationship a slightly different feel, and that is a choice your director will make. THAT IS HIS JOB.
You also want to be careful with CAMERA DIRECTIONS:
A TIGHT SHOT on the hubcap of a RACING COP CAR PULLS BACK to reveal TWO COPS sitting in the front seat. CRANE UP as the vehicle tears away down a BROAD STREET.
Unless a camera direction is CRUCIAL to your story (and sometimes it is), you should avoid artistic flourishes such as these, because once again you’re trying to do the director’s job for him. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t SUGGEST where an audience’s eye might be focused:
A CAP CAR races down a broad city street, catching the glint of early morning sun in its shiny hubcaps. TWO COPS ride up front.
It’s basically the same thing, right? But what I’m doing in this second version is SUGGESTING camera angles without DEMANDING them. The “glint of early-morning sun” in the hubcaps SUGGESTS they may want to capture this in a close-up, and the “broad city street” suggests they want to use a high and wide shot. But I’m not directing the scene through the script, here.
There’s a lot more that can be said about writing description blocks, and I’m sure it’s a topic I’ll return to. The bottom line, though, is that new screenwriters often make the mistake of assuming their readers are DUMB, and therefore try to fill in every detail and connect every dot in their descriptions…
That is the wrong approach. You must assume that your readers will be VERY SMART, because most are. They read dozens of scripts per week, and don’t want to be beaten up by run-on prose. When it comes to description blocks, choose each word CAREFULLY and keep your script MOVING. Tell your story with DIALOGUE and avoid directing your director. Your readers will thank you, and from Page 1 on, they’ll know they’re in the hands of a competent professional who is able to do MORE with LESS.