In a screenplay, dialogue is one of the few things that survives “as is”, albeit in a different format. Of course, actors and directors often change dialogue to suit, but, on the whole, dialogue is meant to transfer to the screen.
Scene descriptions, on the other hand, have a different function. A scene description tells the director, art director, cinematographer, actor, and so on, how to render a performance, select or construct an environment, light and move through the set. The words on the page, do not, in themselves, appear in the final product. Rather, they are used as instructions for constructing a movie.
Yet, a screenplay has to be read and enjoyed first if it is to have a chance of being made into a movie. Exceptional descriptions certainly help your story and may prevent it from ending up in the slash pile.
Three Levels of Description
For the sake of brevity we may condense the sorts of description that occur in a screenplay into three main categories:
A. Describing of what is seen and heard on the screen: the environment, characters, action, and events.
B. Descriptions that convey the emotion, tone, attitude, and subtext of the scenes.
C. Descriptions that grant insight into the characters, their relationships, and the overall story.
The Basics of Scene Description
Listed below are some of the specific guidelines that operate within the above categories.
1. Describe your scenes in the present tense.
2. Limit your descriptions to four lines or less. No one enjoys unpacking dense paragraphs.
3. Be economical—describe only what is essential to your story.
4. Convey the essence of what’s occurring on the screen. Lengthy descriptions about the leading lady’s golden locks will fall by the wayside if the director decides on a brunette.
5. Make every word count. Brevity and efficiency is more impactful. In one of my screenplays, I describe my male lead as “a panther in jeans and teeshirt.” Those six words evoke more about the character than I could say in one rambling paragraph.
Descriptions in a screenplay function as instructions for making scenes; they also help to draw in the reader through their vividness, brevity, and appropriateness.
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