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On Writing Description In Scripts

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Today I'm going to talk about writing description in scripts, a common hangup for inexperienced writers. Even though a person may be naive to the format and syntax of a script, almost everyone has some concept of what goes into them, because they see the results on television or in a theater all the time.

As with prose, scripts contain dialog between characters, description of objects and places, and narrative, called action, which describes what happens in the story. The simplest difference between the two is that a script is much shorter. Even the lengthiest screenplay will only be around 120 pages, with one hour episodic dramas on television being about 48 pages. Because of the stringent format you are constrained by, you simply don't have enough space to give detailed descriptions or lengthy monologues.

Another reason for brevity is that scripts are written for an entirely different purpose than books are. Prose can be as long or as short as you want, giving you virtually unlimited words and pages with which to stimulate your readers imagination. It's not just a yellow school bus, it's a yellow school bus thats at least ten years old; loud as a freight train and smells worse than a lawn mower thats belching exhaust directly into your face. There's graffiti sprawled all over the side and you'd swear it's the one you rode to school when you were a kid.

Sadly, those are 59 words you simply can't afford, and ultimately don't need. There may not be time to find a bus that has graffiti on it the way you described it, or they might not be able to find someone with the skill necessary to make it look authentic. If the production budget is small, it may not even be a yellow school bus, or even a school bus at all.

A couple of months ago, I was showing around a new Act I had just written for a spec script to a few friends of mine, soliciting their opinions. A person who was not familiar with the script asked for -- and I provided -- the teaser and first two acts, so they could become acquainted with the story. Almost immediately I was asked why I had not been more descriptive, and said they weren't able to visualize this one scene because of it. It was the very first slug line and description of the script.


Scientists are photographing and studying stone ruins covered
with centuries of plant growth.

This is the actual text, and is indeed as brief as it could possibly be. It was in fact one of the more difficult parts of the script I had written, precisely because of the constraints I knew I was facing. I told the reader first that they weren't supposed to be visualizing the script, that's not really what scripts are written for. I said they are like blueprints for making movies, almost in the literal sense. You write down where it happens, what happens, and what people say, and thats it. The set designer and technical people don't care what the bus looks like, because frankly its their job along with the director to decide what it looks like, based on their own constraints, such as how much time they have to shoot the picture, and how much money they have. That's not even taking into account their own personal ideas on how things are to be done, only their professional ideas.

The original beginning of that script went through many iterations.

"A small clearing surrounded by dense forrest. A half-dozen SCIENTISTS are studying OBELISKS engraved with ANCIENT SYMBOLS."

"Mildly dense tree lines with a few open pastures. A lone person-sized obelisk partially covered in foliage is being studied by DOCTOR RODNEY MCKAY. He's making notes on a paper pad."

"A base camp has been erected around several puddle jumpers. Search teams are forming. MCKAY and SHEPPARD are already deep in the forest."

Some were just different; some I no longer have were longer and more detailed. I described what the ruins looked like over and over searching for the right feel and visual cue, and gradually I realized it simply didn't matter how descriptive and clever I was, the target of the script wasn't going to care how I wanted it to look and probably wouldn't have liked being boxed in like that anyway. This way, they can fill in those blanks any way they like, and it doesn't change the story one little bit.

I did put some serious effort into consistently reducing description and action to the absolute bare essentials, and I believe it payed off in the end. Though many people would consider 11th place not all that great -- out of some 17,000 contestants overall -- I think my dedication to the craft of the script played a significant part in keeping the art side of it alive and viable. Sci-Fi doesn't go over well with most people it seems, and undoubtedly original material is valued over that of spec for existing properties. I made it tight, then I made it tighter; squeezed until all that was left was what had to be there for it to make sense. It really is better for it, because now there's plenty of room for useless speeches. (Lesson 2: Write shorter dialog.)

The important thing to remember from all of this is that a script is not your vehicle to transfer your vision -- what you see in your head -- to another person. A script exists, like a play, to tell a story in as few words as humanly possible, to the people who actually have to make the thing. Where do the actors stand, what are they standing on, and what do they say. Keep it simple. If you can't be at peace with that, then you should probably go write a book instead.

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Apr 19, 2006, 10:04:00 PM
OUCH! I can feel you giving me the evil eye every night when I'm writing.
Thanks to you I now have two post its on my monitor. One says: Oh just make it up for god's sake.
The other says: I don't need no stinking description.

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The text of this article is Copyright © 2006,2007 Paul William Tenny. All rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Attribution by: full name and original URL. Comments are copyrighted by their authors and are not subject to the Creative Commons license of the article itself.