Screenplay description. It’s one of the most overlooked, and consistently neglected, aspect of screenwriting.
And as somebody who started off as a playwright – where dialogue is king – I THOUGHT screenplay description was just something to give the stage manager something to do.
But screenplay description is VITALLY important to displaying the:
- Visual Potential
…of your screenplay.
And while dialogue can snag an A-list actor or two…screenplay description is what attracts DIRECTORS and STUDIO HEADS.
Unfortunately, most screenwriters royally screw their screenplay description up.
a) Write too much screenplay description…
EXT. DESERT – DAY.
A small horned lizard, approximately 5 inches in diamater, sits on a limestone rock. Its face glistening with the morning dew. A small glimmer in its left eye. (Does it know about the approaching danger?)
b) Write too little
EXT. DESERT – DAY.
c) Their screenplay description is unfocused. Moves around too much from close up to wide shot..and back and forth.
EXT. DESERT – DAY.
A vulture flies overhead. CLOSE UP ON JIM MYERS, 23, lies in on the side of the Arizona Highway.
SMASH CUT TO Cars DRIVE by.
PULL BACK TO REVEAL we are just outside of Yuma.
The harsh truth is: you only get good at screenplay description by writing a ton of it. By sharpening your visual description eye.
So, let me give you an exercise that I’ve been doing for the last 15 years. I do it everyday. It only takes five minutes but it’s great for keeping my visual eye physically fit and makes writing screnplay description a hell of a lot easier.
And it’s called The Location Scout Exercise…
HOW THE EXERCISE WORKS
Basically sometime during your day, take five minutes and just write a brief description of your current location. (As if you were sketching it as a location scout for a film.)
It can be ANYWHERE. Just TRY to write it WHILE you are in that place.
Here’s one I wrote tonight:
EXT. EL CAJON BREWING COMPANY – COURTYARD – DAY.
Happy Hour at El Cajon’s second most popular bar. The gated courtyard full to capacity. The haze of non-filtered cigarettes sits over the crowd like a rain cloud.
A GROUP OF YOUNG CIVIC CENTER EMPLOYEES toast a colleague on his last day. It’s a whir of high-fives, smartphone pictures and yelling over the outdoor speaker system that blares an odd mix of Katy Perry and Lynard Skynard.
A MAN WITH A MOTORCYCLE JACKET sits in the corner. Alone. Sipping his Miller Lite. (Straight from the can.)
He stares at the Civic Center Group. Seething. Then CRUMPLES his can of beer in a violent gesture.
Okay, so it ain’t exactly William Goldman.
But a couple things:
a) Did you notice how I started out wide (or farther away) and slowly moved in? (Did you notice how I did that WITHOUT doing things like “PULL BACK” or “SMASH CUT.”
b) Did you notice how we then went to a medium, or close on the group. (No one person in particular, we are just building information slowly.)
c) And did you get a sense of the attitude of the guy with the motorcycle jacket? (You know, without me saying “He hates them..”
We don’t know exactly WHY he resents that group. (Maybe they took over his bar. Maybe he used to work for the city? Maybe he just hates people.)
But screenplay description isn’t just a laundry list of details. You are trying to exude feel and mood visually. Without being so frickin’ obvious about it.
So go ahead and give the location scout exercise a try…
And remember: you can pretty much write it anyway you want. If you want to do a little bit of mind-reading, and try to get inside the heads of your characters. That’s totally fine too.
Just…don’t use dialogue. Dialogue will get you off track. (And won’t help you with your screenplay description skills.)
You may not be TOTALLY awesome the first time out. (Or the second, or the third, or the fourth…)
But stick with it and you’ll find your visual screenwriting getting better than 99% if the other crap out there.
What do YOU think is the secret to good screenplay description…? Let us know in the comments below!