The Basics of Scene Description

Building blocks
Description Basics:
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.

Summary

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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Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

3 thoughts on “The Basics of Scene Description”

  1. Thanks for the comments Paul. Yes, I agree. One can suggest viewpoint and focus via deft description, without inserting camera instructions, which is, after all, what the shooting script is about.

  2. To clarify my post above, I don’t mean to direct the camera in the screenplay by using film directing terms like wide, close-up, focus-pull, etc.

    Subtle suggestions of vantage point, closeness and camera movement are enough:

    “The guard enters the room scanning its volume suspiciously, unaware of Penelope hiding in the shadows this side of the couch.”

    The above sentence suggests a wide shot with the person hiding in the darkened foreground. Or perhaps a camera track from medium shot of the guard to wide shot including the hidden girl in the shadows.

    “Penelope hides in the shadows this side of the couch as the guard enters the room. The uniformed man scans around suspiciously.”

    Camera wide on girl in the foreground showing guard entering the room in the background. Cut to closeup of the guard’s expression.

    Of course there’s still scope for the director to interpret things, but the text reads more like a movie than a novel.

  3. Excellent post, Stavros!

    I believe succinct writing is key. As a writer-director I like to treat the screenplay reader’s mind as the screen, with the reading / viewing pace controlled by my writing. A slow revealing shot meant to linger will be described with a panorama of descriptive text, while for a quick shot a snappy phrase will do.

    In the end my writing structure as well as the content suggests not only the story but how I see it filmed and edited for screen; carefully selected words able to place, point, and focus the camera.

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