COLUMN D: Writing Description Part 1

Drew Yanno is a screenwriter, author, script consultant and teacher. Follow Drew on Twitter @drewyanno.

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In my next three monthly articles, I’m going to talk to you a bit about writing “description” in your script.

I realize that a lot of this might seem elementary for some of you, but my experience has told me that even writers with a few scripts under their belts slip up from time to time. That applies to what I’m going to talk about today.

First of all, description is one of the three elements of a scene.

The second is the scene heading (often called a slugline).

And the third is dialogue, which is the only one of those three elements not required in every written scene.

So what is “description”?

Simply put, description is what the audience will see and hear as it is taking place on the screen. It is the “moving pictures” that make up movies.

This post is about what doesn’t belong in description as much as what does.

For instance, I often see writers put history or backstory in their description. You know, they’ll describe their character and tell us that he was the captain of the football team and dated a cheerleader back in high school.

That’s nice, except it doesn’t belong in description. Why? Because we can’t see or hear that. It’s backstory. It happened to the character before the start of the film. It’s not taking place on the screen right now.

If that part of a character’s history is essential to the story you’re telling, it’s going to have to come out some other way. You can’t just write it in your description.

In one of my previous posts, I told you about how to get backstory in front of the audience. But for now, know that you can’t simply write it in description. If you do, you’ll give yourself away as an amateur.

Another mistake newbie writers often make is writing in description what a character is thinking. Again, no! Remember: description is only what we can see or hear taking place on the screen. We can’t see or hear what people are thinking. Therefore, it doesn’t belong in description.

That’s not to say that what a character is thinking isn’t important. It just means that you can’t simply tell us in description. Telling the reader a character’s thoughts is perfectly fine in a novel. In fact, that’s what that form of storytelling is best suited for – narration and internal dialogue, meaning thoughts. Film is moving pictures. A story told in images and action. (And sound.)

I will tell you in a future post how you can show an audience what your character is thinking without simply writing it in description. Until then, just know that you can’t write thoughts into your description.

Similarly, you cannot tell us in description what a character feels. Once more, that is internal. We can’t see it or hear it. It’s inside and therefore can’t be shown on the screen.

Or can it?

There’s a difference between thoughts and feelings in this regard. Namely, you can’t tell us that your character is “sad.” That’s a feeling.

However, you can tell us that your character “looks sad.” That is perfectly acceptable. Why? Because any competent actor can show a “feeling” such as “sad.”

The same doesn’t apply to thoughts. There isn’t a way for an actor to “play” a thought. They can appear to be deep in thought, but you can’t write what that thought is because thoughts aren’t as easily expressed facially or physically. There are methods by which you can convey what a character is thinking. But they go beyond simply “looking” a particular thought.

In sum, when writing description, only tell us what can be seen or heard and what is taking place in the moment. Forget history, thoughts and internal dialogue.

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2 thoughts on “COLUMN D: Writing Description Part 1

  1. Tammy G

    Great stuff, as usual. However, I would respectfully disagree in part about the “look” thing. When I see “He looks sad” in action it’s an eye roll. Without writing a whole article myself, I submit that saying any character looks like any emotion is very off putting for the reader. Most spec scripts I read average 100 variations of the word “look” in the narrative in a script of under 100 pages, which is very tiring for a reader. There is nothing wrong with “He is sad.” The reader can see it, & it leaves plenty of room for the actor to interpret. But the main thing is that we feel with the character. Just my 2 cents.

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