Ask the Expert – Writing (Not Overwriting) Description

Paul Chitlik, professional screenwriter and author on the subject, fields a question about writing effective description in your screenplay.

Question: How can a screenwriter write descriptions we can “see” without overwriting them?

Answer: Here’s one of the basic contradictions a writer has to face. You know that a reader, probably not the producer, is going to be the first person at the production company or studio to read your script, so you have to impress this person. We know that motion pictures are all about what you see on screen, so you’d think that the descriptive passages of a script would be important. And they are. But readers often skip through them to get to the dialogue because they think, sometimes correctly, that the character is shaped by the dialogue. And dialogue is easier to read. But harder to write.

So, does that mean you shouldn’t pay attention to description? No. Does it mean that you shouldn’t write visually? No, on the contrary. You should still make the reader see the movie as best you can, and that’s where your writing style for descriptive paragraphs will pay off. But you may lose the reader’s interest if he or she has to plow through dense and long paragraphs. So, you want to make your paragraphs as short and succinct as possible.

No one has ever been accused of having too little description. Screenplays should be terse, filled with short phrases emphasizing verbs always – always – in the present tense. Connor drags himself to the bed. Falls. Checks his arm. Blood spurts out of his wrist. He slams his other palm on it. Nearly faints.

Short declarative sentences. Fragments. Lots of verbs. But the scene is clear as a bell, isn’t it? You can see it, can’t you? You don’t need to know what kind of bed it is, or even what Connor looks like. You see the action, and that’s what counts. Let the make-up artist, the set designer, the production designer, the wardrobe designer, the director of photography, and the director fill in the rest. Let them do their jobs. Your job is to make them see the film, see the action, and move on.

Now, take a five-line paragraph of description (and you know you have one) and turn it into two and a half lines. Take out thoughts, feelings, extra adjectives, adverbs, and even nouns if need be. Leave action words. Now compare it to the original. Isn’t it better?

*Paul Chitlik is the author of Rewrite: A Step-by-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in Your Screenplay. The preceding answer was an excerpt, adapted from his book.

Screenwriter/producer/director Paul Chitlik has worked on hundreds of hours of television, been nominated for WGA and GLAAD Awards, and won a Genesis award. He’s written for Showtime’s Brothers, network shows Who’s the Boss?, Amen, Perfect Strangers, and Los Beltrán (Telemundo) as well as syndicated shows such as Small Wonder. He’s written movies for broadcast and pay cable and consults for government film commissions around the world. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University.

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4 thoughts on “Ask the Expert – Writing (Not Overwriting) Description

  1. Pingback: West Lothian Writers » Post Topic » Writing Not-overwriting Description in a Screenplay

  2. Alexander Merrill

    I’m always being told I “under-write.” Or, at least by readers and contest-running types. I feel like there’s a very real disconnect between what many people- readers and other wannabe screenwriters (not that the two are mutually exclusive) look for in a screenplay and what producers look for. Most “Writers” don’t value efficiency- and this isn’t just true of screenwriters- one need look no further than your average liberal arts college- or at the masturbatory silliness that tends to win “best screenplay” Oscar every year- to see that.

  3. Steve Turnbull (@adaddinsane)

    Um. I have been accused of not writing enough description.

    Frequently. In fact pretty much every time I get feedback.

    Ever since I started writing screenplays: “Under-written”.

    I can’t help it. I spent 15+ years as a magazine editor. Cutting is what we did. With a machete. Or a chain saw.

    I’m trying to do better.

    But

    You know

    There is no “try”.

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