18 Tricks of Description

1. Write action, not description

Don’t think of writing description, think of writing action – movement. Describing an inanimate object is boring to write and boring to read. And especially boring to the reader with the chequebook!

Remember, your job is to inspire the entire cast and crew. One of the key people on the crew who has to visualize your script is the Production Designer. It is the Production Designer’s job to create the actual sets you have described. Sometimes the log line of the scene will do it:


Aside: Most screenplays are static and the scenes do not flow. Writing movement into a scene makes your script more interesting to read, immediately distinguishing it from ninety-fine percent of all the other screenplays in circulation.

From this simple line, the Production Designer will know to create a room with desks, telephones, and computers. The Props master will add further details, like the clutter and knick-knacks. Here is where you, as a writer with the biblical quote, can use your creativity to inspire.

It is not your job to describe the clutter, the furniture, and knick-knacks, unless required by the plot.

If the slug line says INT: RAINDANCE OFFICE – DAY the reader will imagine desks and office furniture. You do not need to mention them.

If the slug line doesn’t convey all of the information necessary, then you need to add some simple description.

A puddle of water is growing in the middle of the floor.

Now we have some important information we need about start to get a more detailed picture of the set, but it is still openambiguous enough to allow for the collaboration of the Production Designer and Props Master.

Once you have all the necessary description of the scene, you move on to action. You are still writing description, but you are creating pictures with movement in them – your characters and objects moving in their world. By creating movement you will also enable the reader to visualise the scene. GettingAchieving visualization in your reader to visualise will enable himthem to seewatch your movie playing in his head.

You aren’t describing things, you are describing things happening. When we use our words to paint pictures, we are painting moving pictures – and that is interesting to a reader. Which means that you have a better chance of selling your script.

Hint: Action is the element between patches of dialogue.

2. Attention to details

There are times when INT: RAINDANCE – DAY is too general and tic. The reader needs additional information. The trick is not to bore the reader by completely describing the setting. This could lead you to an overwritten scene – one of the fatal flaws of scene writing (see overwriting below). Instead, find the one (or two) details that give us clues, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest.

Files and half empty coffee cups litter the room.


A lonely paperclip partners a vase of flowers on the boardroom table.

These are two very different offices. How is the first office different from the second? Imagine yourself as a Production Designer. What sort of table lamp would you use in the first place? How would that differ from a lamp in the second office? The carpet is different, the curtains are different, the pictures thumb- tacked to the wall in the first are very different from the lithos and expensively framed posters in the second.

Hint: Carefully select a detail which implies other details. Try to distil the entire situation. Then you can also sum up an entire room in one short sentence whilech giving clues to also explains character as well. Notice how there are two very different Elliot’s n the following two scenes.

3. Paint movement

If you describe people and objects as moving pictures, you can hide the descriptive passages within the action and, within the movement.

Instead of a boring, static still life, you give the reader the excitement of action. You can hide the description within the action.

ELLIOT slumps amongst the cluttered files and trash.

The reader is focusing on Elliot, and doesn’t even notice that you wroite the description of the office. No static words in this scene – just movement.

Hint: Good descriptive writing does three things at once: – it shows things happening, describes the location, and illuminates character.

4. High school English

Readers in the industry are accustomed to an easy read. The language used is of the same level as in a high school English essay. Avoid complicated words and convoluted descriptive passages.

5. Maximize your vocabulary

The key to economical and dynamic writing is word choice.

During your first draft, you may write a dozen words to explain a situation. Later, you may hone it down to one or two words that explain exactly what you mean. You have hit two birds with one stone: – you create quick, easy-to-read sentences coupled with greater impact than your puffed-out original.

6. Avoid wimpy verbs

Elliot walks into the room.

Walks is not specific. Walks is too general. How many words can you think of for the word walk? Does Elliot limp in, stride in, jump in, sneak in, jog in, slide in?

If Elliot saunters in, strides in, struts in, strolls in, marches in, paces in, or bounces in, not only does this give us a specific type of walk, but adds to the action and character while removing clichéd words from your script.

7. Classified ad

Screenwriting is a very pared down and sparse art form. The challenge for a writer is to create the greatest possible impact with the fewest possible words. A novelist can spend pages and chapters describing the minutest of details. A screenwriter has just ninety to one hundred and twenty pages to get a complete story across.

Hint: Economy is the creative challenge.

Economy is not only the most important part of a screenwriter’s job, it is the most difficult to learn.

How do you learn lean, compact and dynamic writing?

One of my tasks at Raindance is to write copy for the various ads we use to promote the film festival. As you know, newspapers charge by the word. A good trick when you start to write a scene is to imagine that you are writing a classified ad for a newspaper, and that you only have a limited budget – say $10. This particular newspaper charges 0.75 per word. Try to see if you can describe the scene and leave yourself enough change to buy yourself a coffee! While writing or rewriting, I will take apart every single sentence and try to find a bolder, fresher, quicker way of saying the same thing. In a first draft, I might have six or seven words that end up being replaced by one. I try to recognize every time I have used unnecessary words or am beating around the bush. You will learn how to get directly to the point.

Try to write the scene description like you are writing a classified ad.

Hint: Scene writing is like writing a haiku where you have a very limited number of words. Try to use words that imply other words.

8. Find the emotion

Don’t describe how something looks, but how it feels. The Production Designer will decide how the set looks, the Casting Director decides on how each character will look.

The writer describes the attitude of the scene, the feel, and the emotion.

One of my favourite writers, William C. Martell, writes dynamic description filled that seeps with emotional resonance. Consider the opening of
Hard Return:

The wreckage of civilization. Crumbled buildings, burned out cars, streets pockmarked by war. Downed power lines arc and spark on the street.

This place makes Hell look like Beverly Hills…

Except the battered twisted metal sign reads BEVERLY HILLS.

Night is falling. Fingers of shadow reaching out to grab anyone foolish enough to be in this part of town.

The only time the future is mentioned is in the slug line. Every other word in this scene describes how the future, this scene, feels: frightening, ugly, and dangerous.

Did theyour skin on the back of your head crawl when you read this? Did you get a visual image of the scene? If you were the Production Designer, how many different possibilities would you have in order to recreate this scene?

Suppose you were an actor who had to walk down the street? How would you do it?

Part 2 of 18 Tricks of Description

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