15 Tips for Writing Scene Description

Think of a screenplay’s narrative description as visual poetry. It should be clear, direct, minimal, and emotionally effective.

    Tip 1: Don’t describe feelings and thoughts
    A screenplay is not a novel. The viewer cannot see a character’s inner thoughts or feelings – they must be shown through action, conflict, and dialogue.

    Tip 2: Cut excessive use of the words "the" and "that"
    For example: As the car pulls into the driveway, the kids dash across the street and present the homemade cookies to Mrs. Smith. ‘The word "the" is used five times in this sentence. The rewritten version: As the car pulls into the driveway, kids dash across the street and present homemade cookies to Mrs. Smith - creates a more engaging read.

    Tip 3: Do not describe dialogue
    Unless it is background noise, dialogue must be written. If an actor is going to speak the words, then write the dialogue.

    Tip 4: Ensure the images evoked are inserted in the correct order
    Images are created in the reader’s mind, in the order they are read.  Be sure to present the narrative in the correct order. For example: Molly and Jane shoot one another playing paint ball, creates confusion. The reader's first image is that Molly and Jane shot one another. The rewritten version: Playing paint ball, Molly and Jane shoot one another – or – Molly and Jane play paint ball and shoot one another places the images in the correct order.

    Tip 5: Less is more
    Create an instant picture for the reader with minimal words. Don’t describe every detail. Your job is to evoke images – not describe them.

    Tip 6: Avoid camera directions
    Directors don’t like to be directed - so unless you are the director, avoid including camera directions in your narrative. There are many ways a writer can subtly ‘direct’ a scene without using “ANGLE ON”, “CUT TO”, “CLOSE UP ON”, “PAN TO”, and “INSERT”.

    Tip 7: Avoid the passive voice
    The active voice reads better on the page – and is more engaging for a reader. Here’s how to distinguish between "active" versus "passive" sentences: The subject of an active sentence performs the action of the verb (for example: I drive the car) while in a passive sentence the subject is still the main character of the sentence, but something else performs the action (for example: The car is driven by me). Determine if the main subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb or if something else performs the action. If the main verb is a linking verb (is, was, are, seems, to be, becomes) then there is no action and the verb simply describes a state of being.

    Tip 8: Use positive descriptions
    You create more impact with positive descriptions (rather than a negative description). In other words, write what IS instead of what IS NOT. For example: He was not a good-looking man vs. He had the face of a bulldog.

    Tip 9: Get rid of adverbs
    Adverbs are verb modifiers. They weaken your writing.  Avoid them and choose strong verbs instead (run quickly becomes dash, falls heavily becomes collapses, etc.)

    Tip 10: Avoid Intensifiers
    Intensifiers modify adjectives. They are meaningless. Cut out: very, actually, really, usually, awfully, generally, basically, mostly, ultimately.

    Tip 11: Stay away from present participles
    Verbs ending in ‘ing” – talking, walking, etc. Use: she talks, he walks.

    Tip 12: Don’t use "starts to" or "begins to"
    Using starts to or begins to is considered amateur writing. Create more impact on the page by eliminating those phrases from your writing. Instead of she starts to run down the alleyway, write she runs down the alleyway.

    Tip 13: Don’t use the phrase "there is" or "there are"
    The phrase there is or there are is an unnecessary use of words. There is a car and there are people should simply be a car and people.

    Tip 14: Avoid "we see" and "we hear"
    We see and we hear eliminates the fictive bond between the reader and writer.  It removes the reader from the experience. Instead of we hear a group of men shouting, write a group of men shout.

    Tip 15: Use an online or print Thesaurus
    Compile a list of words you use frequently and create a list of alternatives to use.

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