16 STEPS TO BETTER DESCRIPTIONS

By William C. Martell


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There are dozens of books, seminars, classes, and articles available on how to improve your screenplay's dialogue. By now your lines should have the pluck of Parker, the bite of Benchley and the soul of Steve Zaillian. Every line of dialogue you write is brilliant. But film is a visual medium, and your script will probably have as much description as dialogue. Readers frequently complain about "too much black stuff" (description) and reject scripts for being dense and verbose (description again!). What can we do to improve the writing that comes between those brilliant lines?


THE WORD IS ACTION

My first step is easy: Don't think of it as DESCRIPTION, think of it as ACTION. Movement. Things happening. Describing a stationary object is not only boring, it's probably not necessary. The Production Designer will decide the floor plan of the house, the Set Decorator will decide how to furnish it, the Prop Master will add the details like family photos and nick- knacks. It's not our job as writers to describe any of this stuff (unless it s REQUIRED by the plot). If the slug line says:


INT. JOE'S LIVING ROOM -- DAY

The reader will imagine a sofa, some chairs, a TV, and most of the details. We don't have to mention them. Our job isn't to paint the whole picture, just give the absolute minimum amount of information required to set the location. Sometimes, the slug line does it all.

Which means what comes after the slug line is ACTION. I use the Movie Magic program, and that's what it calls the element between patches of dialogue. We are writing MOTION pictures, and what we are describing is people and objects MOVING.

So the first step is to remember you aren't describing THINGS you are describing THINGS HAPPENING. When we use our words to paint pictures, we aren't painting still lifes.

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS

There are times when INT. JOE'S LIVING ROOM -- DAY is too generic. The reader needs additional information. The trick is not to bore the reader by completely describing the living room. Instead, find the one (or two) details which give us clue to the rest, and let the reader s imagination fill in the rest.



INT.  JOE'S LIVING ROOM -- DAY

Pizza boxes and empty beer cans litter the floor.

***

INT. BOB'S LIVING ROOM -- DAY A vase of fresh cut flowers on a doily on the baby grand piano.

***

INT. KEN'S LIVING ROOM -- DAY A sleek sofa with built in remote controls faces a wall-sized flat screen TV.

***

INT. TED'S LIVING ROOM -- DAY Wall-to-wall bookshelves create a fortress around an easy chair and lamp.

Four very different living rooms. Do you think these guys hang out together? Did you get a clear picture of Joe's sofa from the description of his living room? I didn't mention it in the description, but I suspect it's early Goodwill or maybe something found on the side of the road. Now let's wander into Joe's Kitchen... let's take a look in the sink. What do you see? Now let's go into the bedroom... is the bed made? Are there dirty clothes on the floor? With *nine words* I've described everything in Joe's apartment!

Now let's look at Bob's sofa. Does it look anything like Joe's? Imagine Joe's carpet... and compare it with Bob's carpet. Or did you imagine Bob has hardwood floors and Persian rugs? If we were to look in Bob's kitchen and bedroom, what would we see? Again, a handful of words are used to paint a picture.

Though I describe Ken's sofa, would you be confused if halfway through the scene Ken went to the wet bar in his living room and mixed a drink. Even if you didn't initially imagine the wet bar, it completely fits in the room described. You don't have to describe everything up front, you can sneak in description later on through actions. If I looked in Ken's kitchen, I suspect I'd find a bunch of gourmet gadgets. Ken probably grinds his own coffee beans.

Is Ted's living room brightly lit? What color is his easy chair? What we are doing is looking at the location as if it's a character, then finding the essential details that create the character of that room or place. The same way Lawrence Kasdan in *Body Heat* describes Teddy Laurson as a "Rock and roll arsonist". Those four words give us the essence of the character and sparks our imagination to fill in the details. Long hair? Tattoos? How is Teddy dressed? Four words and we *see* him!

They key is to carefully choose a detail which implies other details. To find an example or metaphor which sums up the entire location. That way you can describe the whole room in one short sentence. Notice that this gives us clues to character as well. These are four very different living rooms and four very different people.

MOVING PICTURES

Because that element of the screenplay is *action* rather than *description*, the best way to describe a location is through action. Instead of a boring static image, give the reader some action and sneak in a little description along the way. So, we combine the first two steps, and come up with a third. The best place to hide a description is within action.


INT. JOE'S LIVING ROOM - DAY

Joe brushes away old pizza boxes, plops down on the sofa.


The reader is focusing on Joe, and doesn't even notice you slip in the description of the living room. No static writing, no "still life" feel. Economical writing which manages to do three things at the same time: Show things happening, describe the location, and illuminate character.

TWITTER IT

Screenwriting is distilled writing. Using the fewest number of words to create the greatest possible impact. Novelists can spend pages describing something in minute detail (Proust wrote seven volumes on a fellow eating a cookie and remembering his past), but we've got about 110 pages to get our entire story across. Economical writing is probably the most important part of our job... And the most difficult part.

But how do you get rid of flabby, lazy writing? How do you fight the writer's natural tendency to be verbose?

One of my tricks is to imagine I'm sending a tweet - and I have 140 characters to get my message across. Instead of splashing words on the page, I have to pick each word carefully. Relate the maximum message with the minimum characters.

Screenwriting is similar to Haiku, you have a limited number of words to paint your picture. The trick is tho chose words which IMPLY other words. Words which can not only carry their own weight, but are strong enough to carry entire ideas and/or images. If there's an art to screenwriting, it's knowing how to pick strong but simple words.

Either while writing, or rewriting, I will take every sentence and try to find a more succinct way of relaying the information. In first drafts I might use a half dozen words to do the same job a single word can do, or use extraneous words, or beat around the bush instead of finding a direct route to what I'm trying to say. By imagining each sentence as a tweet I decide exactly what I want to say and figure out the briefest way to say it.

CHOOSE YOUR WORDS CAREFULLY, MR. BOND

The key to economical writing is word choice. I may splash words on the page for my first draft, but while rewriting I try to find the EXACT word to match the situation. This accomplishes two things at once: creates quick, easy to read sentences... which have greater impact than their flabby counterparts.


Joe walks into the room.

"Walks" is too generic. There are probably a hundred synonyms for "walk", each describing a distinctive type of ambulation. If Joe saunters in, strides in, struts in, strolls in, marches in, paces in, or bounces in; not only does this give us a specific type of walk, but adds to the action and character while removing boring overused words from your script.

ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING

Another trick is not to describe how something LOOKS, but how it FEELS. The Production Designer will decide what a room looks like, the Casting Director will decide what a character looks like... That leaves us describing ATTITUDES.


The script I'm currently writing, HARD RETURN, takes place in the future. Instead of trying to describe an entire futuristic world, I used these sixteen steps to give the reader a quick impression, allowing the reader's imagination to fill in the rest.


     
EXT. URBAN JUNGLE, 2019 AD -- EVENING
The wreckage of civilization. Crumbled buildings, burned out cars, streets pockmarked by war. Downed power lines arc and spark on the street. This place makes Hell look like Beverly Hills... Except the battered twisted metal sign reads "Beverly Hills". Night is falling. Fingers of shadow reaching out to grab anyone foolish enough to be in this part of town.

That's the only time my future world is described in the script. Slug lines and action take it from here. Between the arcing and sparking power lines and the fingers of shadow I show you how the future FEELS... frightening, ugly, dangerous.

A LITTLE POETRY

Goes a long ways. Using imagery, alliteration, homonyms and other forms of word play helps spice up your descriptions, but use them sparingly. Too much poetry reeks of "cutesy writing".

Writing asides to the reader is also usually "too cutsey". Shane Black can get away with it, but chances are the rest of us can't. Remember, our job is to involve the reader in the story... Not jerk them out of it with wry asides or amusing allusions. The real problem with writing stuff like Shane Blake or Quentin Tarantino is that you aren't either of those people. You are *you* and need to write like *you*. Delevop your own style and don't try to mimic others.

Your writing should be both interesting and invisible, which means the word play should service the script, not show what a clever writer you are.

BLACK STUFF

An easy step for getting rid of dense "black stuff" is to remember the Four Line Rule. No passage of action should last longer than four lines. If you have a big action scene, which lasts a page or more... break it up with spaces! Every four lines, put in a blank line. This instantly adds more "white stuff" to your script!

Another quick trick for long action passages is to have at least one line of dialogue on every page... even if it's just a character yelling "Watch out!" This breaks up the page, and gives the reader a break from reading actions described.

STYLE ON THE PAGE

The best way to make descriptions easy to read is to make them FUN to read. To create the excitement you envision on the screen, right on the page. Develop your own personal style of writing action passages. Style breaks up the page and makes your writing distinctive.

Using sounds like "BLAM!" or "CLANG!"

Writing single sentence action blocks.

One.
Word.
Sentences.
Which.
Draw.
The.
Reader.
Down.
The.
Page.

Anything that makes the script more exciting to read, and involves the reader in the action. Experiment. After a few scripts, you will develop your own style and your own 'voice' in descriptions. Developing a 'voice' is an important step in taking command of the page (more on that, later).

CHARACTER

Do you think you could completely describe a character in four words? Lawrence Kasdan managed that amazing feat in his script for "Body Heat". This is one of the best examples of clear, succinct writing I have ever read.

"Teddy Laurson, rock and roll arsonist."

Kasdan manages to convey Teddy's occupation and attitude which allows us to imagine details about everything from number of tattoos to hair length and personal grooming to wardrobe in ONLY FOUR WORDS! If he can do it, so can the rest of us.

In my script "Heart Of Glass" I described Lt. Bobby Mazeppa as a "Beach boy homicide detective".

Your turn.

ACTIVE WORDS

A basic, but I've read dozens of scripts which would have been greatly improved had the writers stayed awake in their high school english classes when the teacher said: Use active verbs.

Joe doesn't TRY to sit on the sofa, he SITS on the sofa. In fact, he PLOPS DOWN on the sofa. "Try" is a weasel verb... it takes the power from the active verb.

("starts to" "begins to" and "ing": WALKS is stronger than walking.)

KILL THE WIDOWS!

In the wonderful world of typesetting, when the last word of a sentence carries over onto a new line of print it's called a widow . A single word which takes up an entire line of space. How wasteful!

I always do a rewrite to kill all of the widows. If one or two words from the end of a sentence end up taking up an entire line, I rework the sentence until I can get it to fit entirely on one line. My goal is a widow-free script. Not only does this force me to choose the correct words, eliminate useless or fatty words, and write clear, concise sentences; it also trims my script, allowing room for more important elements. And the script looks cleaner on the page!

NO BUTS!

The easiest two words to trim out of a sentence are AND and BUT. Usually these words are completely unnecessary. Cut them when you can.

CONFIDENCE

Know what every sentence and every word means, and write clear enough so that anyone who reads your script understands what you have written. Write strong sentences and strong images. Remember: You command the page. You control the words. You control the reader. This is writing with confidence.

A reader friend of mine frequently complains about writers who don't command the page. They seem unsure of what they're writing, filling their script with weasel verbs and beating around the bush with long, run on sentences. Don't fall into that trap. Know what you're going to write, write it.

YOU are in control of your script.

PAGE TURNERS

Not Paige Turco, that beautiful actress from "NYPD" and "Party Of Five", but page TURNERS. Little cliff hangers at the end of your page which force the reader to turn to the next page.

I have been known to add extra spaces or trim entire lines just to end a page on a moment of suspense. If there s a moment where the hero is about to be killed but saves himself, I want the about to be killed at the end of one page so you have to turn the page and keep reading to get to the saves himself part.

In fact, I've even added artificial suspense to the end of a page to keep those pages turning. One of my thriller scripts had a scene where the hero comes home, and his girlfriend suggests they go out to dinner. Boring! The hero enters his apartment on the second to last line on the page... So I added "Hands reach out from behind the door and grab him!" (page ends). At the top of the next page, we find out it's his girlfriend. Lines like this not only turn your script into a page turner, they add suspense, reversals, and excitement.

LAST ONE

Fifteen different ways to make your descriptions as exciting as your dialogue. I've saved the most important step for last:

Screenwriting is similar to Haiku, you have a limited number of words to paint your picture. So imagine your location. Now look for the "high points" - the elements that distinguish this location from every other location. Make a list of all of the things that show the "personality" of the place. These are the things that expose the "character" of the location and turn it from a place into an active part of the story. Now pick the most vivid and evocative things on your list and use them in a one sentence description of your location. Something that sums up the place and the people who live there or frequent this location. The trick is to chose words which imply other words. Words which can not only carry their own weight, but are strong enough to carry entire ideas and images. Not just any word - the *right* word. If you think your description could use a little trimming, take a chainsaw to it. Cut without mercy. Most of us are so in love with our own words that we don't cut enough. Remember: Your writing can never be too lean or too exciting.

FADE OUT

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