top of page
  • Writer's pictureMic

How to Write With the Screen in Mind (part 3 - character and scene descriptions)

Last week, we discussed one of screenwriting's greatest evils: parentheticals.

We covered the basics of the purpose of them, when and where they should be used, and when and where they shouldn't be.


But there's still some more ground to cover to help you write with the screen in mind.


In my first post for this series, I laid out some of the basics for how a writer can tell if they're being a little extra in their scripts and therefore not allowing the other creative people who will make their movie to do their jobs:


Looking over your screenplay, if you're noticing a lot of minute details like: - how to frame a shot (cinematographer's job) - parentheticals that explain the delivery of dialogue (director's job) - staging + actions the scene already calls for (actor's job) - full descriptions of a character's wardrobe (costume designer's job) - very specific aspects of how a location looks (set designer's job)


This week, we'll get into these three bolded points!



 

Implied Staging + Actions


Remember our practice scene from last week's post? Where a barista finds out his boyfriend has a wife when said wife angrily approaches him at work?


Let's take a look at it again:


Chances are, based on just what's written here, you have a pretty good idea for how these characters would act and move around during all this.


We don't need specific staging and acting details to paint a clear picture for how the scene will play out. The reader, and actor, will be able to naturally fill in the blanks themselves.


Let me show you what *I* think these characters could do here:


This probably isn't exactly how you pictured it, but pretty close.

And even if it isn't, the specific actions I wrote likely convey a similar meaning/feeling as the specific actions you imagined these characters would do.


Which means................ those actions were implied.


Reading this version of the scene, did you feel these smaller staging and acting details were important for you to know? Did they help clarify anything? Did they enhance the reading experience?(these would be the ONLY reasons to include details like this)


I'm willing to bet not.


If anything, these details slowed down the pacing of the scene, and made it more difficult to visualize because you had to put in extra mental work to imagine all these little actions instead of just being in the moment of the scene.




However, there is something in my scene that requires a bit more detail to accurately convey some important information.


Which conveniently leads to my next point:


 

Lengthy Character Descriptions


In the example scene, I didn't lay out a very clear description for what these characters look like.


Without some description as to what a character looks like, the reader has to fully use their imagination to visualize them.


This is fine for smaller roles that are only present in a scene or two, or if the way they look literally has zero impact on the story and is never referenced at any point.


But for major characters, it's important to give the audience an idea of what they look like so you can avoid any discrepancies between your perceived image of the character and the reader's perceived image of the character.


And trust me, without a strong enough description, there WILL be discrepancies, which will 100% lead to confusion when your protagonist wins a beautiful brown hair pageant but your reader imagined them as a red-head.




How can we give just enough information for the reader to see our vision, but not so much that the important details are lost?


Here's how I could describe these characters based on how I imagined them:



I've used three different methods here to describe characters briefly while still painting a clear enough image of who they are:


  • Compare the character to a well-known figure (key word: WELL-KNOWN)

  • Hint at the character's personality (which implies a certain look)

  • Describe a unique feature about the character (which can imply personality)



For WOMAN, I could have said "model-esque with long, blonde hair, wearing a designer black dress."


But that's probably close to what you imagined when you read "Paris Hilton's evil twin," which is fewer words and a funnier description.


Be careful when using this technique -- not everyone may be familiar with the figure you're referencing. If they're not, you've already lost your reader.

Better to be safe than sorry; choose someone that literally everyone is likely to know that compares to your character, even if a more obscure reference is a closer match.




For BARISTA, I could have said "Lanky and uncomfortable in his own skin, always trying to hide in his oversized clothes."


But by telling you his clothes swallow him, you likely assumed this personality trait about him (or at least it would feel natural to you as this trait came out in stronger ways later in the script).


Because why would this character opt for oversized clothing that hides his body? Most likely: he's insecure, trying to be unseen.


Sometimes we want to write out personality traits in a character's intro to make it super clear who this person is quickly. But as a general "rule," a character's personality shouldn't be written into the description, because their words and actions should show it.


You could write in your character's introduction that they're smart and funny but a little awkward. Unless they act in ways that evoke that, no one watching your movie will ever know it was written into the script.




For JACK, I could have said "Most average-looking white dude alive, with blonde hair styled so well you question why he cares about his appearance so much."


But by saying "youth-pastor-looking-ass dude," you probably had that exact image in your head (and you probably assumed what his personality was too).


Although I'm picturing the most average person ever, looking like a youth pastor is a unique feature that implies a very specific appearance.



Of course, there are many, many, many, many, MANY other effective ways to introduce your characters.


These are just the three methods I use when I want to introduce someone briefly but effectively.


 

Excessive Scene-setting


If your location is particularly interesting/unique, or if a certain prop or aspect of the set design will serve as a story point, then it is necessary to call attention to it in the action description (Unless, of course, you're making a point out of your character failing to notice a really obvious thing until someone else mentions it).


But if you're finding yourself writing a lot of scene-setting details, it's a good idea to check the content of your scene to see if any of the things you described are being discussed or interacted with by the characters. If not, you probably don't need to be so specific.


Now....

I like to write SUPER concisely in my scripts and only relay information that is absolutely crucial to include.....

Like, if I could simply transfer a vibe through the page instead of using words, I would.

So this example of what I consider to be excessive scene-setting may be an extremely hot take.



Here's how I imagined the locations in the example scene to look, and how I would describe them if I were writing a freakin' novel:


And this doesn't meant I think your writing is bad if it's more descriptive than mine; it just means we have different styles. Not everyone will like a super concise script, and not everyone will like a super dense one.



You could argue some of these details help with the scene-setting, and honestly I would agree with you (just this once 😏)


But I find that, although reading these descriptions helps me visualize the locations, having all this information to process is distracting from what's actually going on in the scene.


Also, I firmly believe that anyone who read the scene headers "CAFE" and "CAFE - BACKROOM" imagined something pretty close to what I wrote here.


Why is that?


Well, I'm describing a pretty standard cafe.




There's nothing extremely unique about these things being called out in the action description.

Except the rooster painting, but there's no reason we need to know about that during this scene.


Which leads to my main point: none of these descriptions have anything at all to do with story.


So, as the writer, whose job it is to tell the story, I personally don't find it necessary (or in my job description 💅) to also build and decorate the set.

But if there's an object or aspect of the location that the characters interact with in a significant way, it IS my job to call that out.


 

And look at that. We defined our job as writers.


I guess that means we're done with this week's post.....


Now go ahead and fight me in the comments about all those super specific details you want to keep in your script but you know you don't need after reading this post ;)



Recent Posts

See All

3 Comments


Guest
May 04

Me preparing to fight then realizing you have a point



Like
Mic
Mic
May 05
Replying to

no, i want u to fight me


Like

No fight here. Great advice.

Like
  • Youtube
  • Instagram
  • LinkedIn
  • X
bottom of page