How to Write Better Descriptions
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 knick- 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. 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 that give us clues to the others, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest.
Here are four examples:
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 ‘n’ roll arsonist.” Those four words give us the essence of the character and spark our imagination to fill in the details. Long hair? Tattoos? How is Teddy dressed? Four words and we see him!
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. Notice that this description gives us clues to character as well. These are four very different living rooms and four very different people.
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.
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.