How to Write Better Descriptions

 

How to Write Better Descriptions

Writing description in a screenplay is a delicate balancing act. You want to give the reader enough information so they understand what is happening in the scene, and you also don’t want to overload them with unnecessary details. But what is necessary to describe, and what isn’t?

THE TECHNICAL PART

Description in a screenplay should be short and punchy. A general rule of thumb is that each section of description should be contained to four lines or less. If possible, try to avoid having ‘orphans’ in your description. An orphan is a word or very short line that appears at the end of your description. Example:

INT. JOE’S APARTMENT – DAY
Pizza boxes and beer cans litter the floor. Joe sleeps on the
sofa.

In this example, the word ‘sofa’ is the orphan, and repeated instances of this can disrupt your page count. The description could be edited to this to remove the orphan:

INT. JOE’S APARTMENT – DAY
Trash litters the floor. Joe sleeps on the sofa.

If you find that you are unable to remove the orphan, then you can use more of the line it’s taking up to add more pertinent information, so the line doesn’t exist purely for one word. Example:

INT. JOE’S APARTMENT – DAY
Pizza boxes and beer cans litter the floor. Joe sleeps on the sofa, snores loudly.

DESCRIPTION IS ACTION

When someone reads your screenplay, you want the story to unfold for them visually. It should feel like they are watching your movie or TV show, and can see it in their mind’s eye.

Rather than thinking of it as DESCRIPTION, think of it as ACTION. Try to use an ACTIVE tense instead of a PASSIVE tense. This will make your description leap off the page and feel like it’s happening in real time.

Here is an example of ACTIVE TENSE in scene description:

INT. JOE’S APARTMENT – DAY
Joe sleeps. BANG! A loud sound wakes him. He gets up.

Here is an example of PASSIVE TENSE in scene description:

INT. JOE’S APARTMENT – DAY
Joe is sleeping when suddenly there is a loud noise. It wakes him up.

See the difference? The active tense feels more immediate while the passive tense feels slower. Another benefit of writing in active tense is that passive tense usually requires using more words, which lengthens your scene description, as well as making for a less punchy read.

WHAT TO DESCRIBE

Scene description doesn’t need to describe every element in the scene: only the important ones. The reader will be able to fill in for themselves most stationary objects so there is no need to list them unless they play a key role in the scene. For example, if the Scene Heading says:

INT. JOE’S LIVING ROOM — DAY

The reader will most likely imagine a sofa, some chairs, a TV, and most of the details. Your job isn’t to paint the whole picture, just the absolute minimum amount of information required to set the location. Sometimes, the Scene Heading does it all, which means what comes next after the Scene Heading isn’t description, it’s ACTION.

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS

There are times when a Scene Heading is too generic and the reader needs additional information. The trick is not to bore the reader by completely describing the location. Instead, find the one (or two) details that give us clues to the others, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest.

Here are some examples:

INT. JOE’S LIVING ROOM – DAY
Pizza boxes and empty beer cans litter the floor.
*****
INT. ALICE’S LIVING ROOM – DAY
A vase of fresh-cut flowers on a doily on the baby grand piano.
*****
INT. JENNIFER’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.

These four very different living rooms should give you insight into the characters who inhabit them, merely by describing a few items. The key is to carefully choose a detail that implies other details, to find an example or metaphor that sums up the entire location. That way you can describe the whole room in one short sentence.

LESS IS MORE

Ultimately the best way to describe a location is through action. Instead of a boring static image, give the reader some movement and sneak in a little description along the way. Example:

INT. JOE’S LIVING ROOM – DAY
Joe brushes away old pizza boxes, plops down on the sofa.

Here we have a description of the room that is illustrated through action, thus progressing the scene and giving it motion. You may also notice that the example above is a fragmented sentence. In Scene Description, it is acceptable to use incomplete sentences as long as the meaning is understood. ‘He plops down on the sofa’ can become ‘plops down on the sofa’ and the reader will still understand what it means. This technique will help your scene descriptions move faster and more effectively.

As an exercise, go back through your script and see if you can apply these tips to the blocks of description in your script. When you are finished, there should be far fewer blocks of description and more short, engaging action lines that make your script a great read. Remember – the more white space on the page, the better the read.