The Perils of Scene Description – And How to Improve Yours
by Tim Schildberger, Head Judge of Write/LA
Here’s a simple truth: to become a paid screenwriter, you’re going to be read by people who don’t know you, don’t care about you, are earning at best minimum wage reading your words, and have about fifty other scripts waiting for their jaded eyeballs. Doesn’t matter if it’s a competition, an agency, or a producer. That’s reality.
Your job as an unknown writer is to avoid pissing them off.
Believe it or not, readers want to like your work. They want to discover the next great script. But you can make their life harder – and scuttle your dreams – if you don’t master scene description. It’s harder than you might think, it requires a degree of humility and a lot of skill, but with these simple tips you can take your scene description from a potential liability to an asset.
If your script starts with two or more pages of mostly solid scene description, your script has almost zero chance of getting a thumbs up. I hear you screaming, “But I have to set up my world” or “I have a big action set piece that will be super exciting on screen.” To which I say – I don’t care.
If you need four pages to set up your world – or three, or two, or more than a paragraph – your script is already sinking. Your job is to engage the reader – not bore or overwhelm them with backstory, set up, or the rules of the world. If we don’t care about any characters, a big action set piece is simply dull.
Use short sentences, minimal description, and break it up with dialogue. Show us your character in action as soon as possible. You can fill in the world as needed as you go along rather than fully setting the stage upfront. That’s how you get your reader to lean in.
No Unnecessary Details
A few telling details paint a much more compelling picture than trying to describe every last aspect of your story world. Do not spend any time telling us what shade of purple the flowers are in your magical realm. Put your focus on your characters – we’ll pick up the rest as we go.
Here’s a way to guarantee your script is cast aside by a reader before page two. I call it “cheating” – using scene description to tell the reader something the viewer couldn’t possibly know.
“Betty, 26, a recent graduate of NYU but now struggling to find her true calling, granddaughter of Rose, and an avid cat lover and crossword puzzle enthusiast.” Writing that when all we see on screen is a woman drinking coffee is DEATH for your script. Instant DEATH. There is no recovering because you’ve just told the reader you are lazy.
Use all of the tools of the medium to share only what the audience NEEDS to know at that moment to keep the story moving. “Betty drinks a coffee while doing a crossword in her tiny apartment as her cat disturbs her.” That’s visual and gives us a look into what Betty’s life is like.
Same with story. I read a script once where the scene description said the female character got in her car to drive to church. All we saw on screen, though, was a woman getting into a car. How are we supposed to know she’s going to church? That’s cheating, it raises a red flag to the reader, and your script is sunk.
Get to the Point
This isn’t a novel. Or a chance to show off how many fancy words you know. People say to inject your personality into scene description… and you can. Just be aware of the risks.
If you’re using literary phrasing about the light cascading off her golden hair like a glowing, radiant beam of loveliness – just don’t. If you decide to tell jokes in your scene description, you better make sure the rest of the script is hilarious. “Cute” can quickly move to “annoying.” I would prefer the script reveal your natural command of humor without forcing it in scene description. Like I said – risky.
It’s okay to try and inject your “voice” – just be sagacious. And don’t use words like “sagacious.” No-one likes a show-off.
Stick to the Active Voice
Try to avoid the passive voice in your scene description, for example, “Betty is drinking coffee.” The active version is “Betty drinks coffee.” Everything in your script should be happening right now – we’re along for the ride. It’s cleaner, crisper, uses less words and makes your scene description way easier to read.
Don’t be Sexist (or Anything-ist)
It’s 2019. If you describe a female character like this: “Betty (40s), still pretty despite the years/fading beauty” or “Betty (26), hot with amazing breasts” – then don’t.
Your character descriptions deliver a thumbnail of information you’ve determined the reader needs to know to keep the story going. Judgment calls on a woman’s appearance are thoroughly unnecessary. 40s Betty is simply attractive. Or tired, bored, ugly, overwhelmed, whatever you need us to know. 20s Betty can be beautiful or sexy, if it’s relevant. If it’s not – then choose other words so we get to know who she is, and why we need to care about her.
If you are in doubt about whether a character description is sexist, racist, or offensive in any way – then assume it is and change it.
Scene description serves a valuable function in scripts. Take it seriously and, with some practice, you can make it work for you – and not against you. Good luck!