Script Insights Article: 15 Techniques for Writing Scene Description

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

  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. Johnny thought about Mary and felt sad, he realized she was gone. The audience can’t see Johnny is thinking about Mary, that he feels sad or has a realization.  Rewrite: Johnny stares at the bedroom closet, empty except for his belongings. He grabs Mary’s photo from the side table and collapses on the bed. He cries uncontrollably.

  2. Cut excessive ‘the’ and ‘that’                                                             
    As the car pulls into the driveway, the kids dash across the street and present the homemade cookies to Mrs. Smith. ‘The’ is used five times in this sentence. Rewrite: As the car pulls into the driveway, kids dash across the street and present homemade cookies to Mrs. Smith.

  3. Do not describe dialogue
    Unless it is background noise (The crowd booed the outlaw and cheered the sheriff), dialogue must be written. The outlaw yells insults at the sheriff.  If an actor is going to speak the words, then write the dialogue.

    OUTLAW: You yellow-bellied coward, come and get me!

  4. Ensure image order is correct
    Images are created in the reader’s mind, in the order they are read.  Be sure to present the narrative in the correct order.  Molly and Jane shoot one another playing paint ball. “Molly and Jane shoot one another…” (OMG! Why did they shoot each other? And where did they get the guns?  What are little Davy and Tommy going to do without their moms? Oh, okay… I see, they were playing a game.) Rewrite: Playing paint ball, Molly and Jane shoot one another – or – Molly and Jane play paint ball and shoot one another.

  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. The City of Angels lays spread out in all its splendor, like a bargain-basement Promised Land (Shane Black, Lethal Weapon)

  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”. A lush, high-rise apartment complex. The moon reflected in glass. Billowing curtains lead into the inner sanctum of a penthouse apartment. Spread-eagled on a sumptuous designer sofa lies the single most beautiful GIRL in the city (Shane Black, Lethal Weapon). Without any camera direction, the reader (and camera) is subtly directed by the writer to see: the building from the outside, then the glass window, through the billowing curtains, into the room, and finally, the exposed girl lying on the sofa.

  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 (“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 (“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.

  8. Use positive descriptions
    You create more impact with positive descriptions (rather than a negative description). He was not a good-looking man vs. He had the face of a bulldog.

  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.)

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

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

  12. Don’t use ‘starts to’ or ‘begins to’
    Using ‘starts to’ or ‘begins to’ is a sign of amateur writing.  Create more impact on the page by eliminating them from your writing.  Instead of she starts to run down the alleyway, write she runs down the alleyway.

  13. Don’t use ‘there is’ or ‘there are’
    ‘There is’ and ‘there are’ is an unnecessary use of words. There is a car and there are people should just be a car and people.

  14. Avoid ‘we see’ and ‘we hear’
    Unless you are Shane Black, avoid this technique. ‘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.

  15. Buy a Thesaurus
    It’s a good investment.