Sunday, 20 November 2016

SCREENWRITING FUNDAMENTALS #15 HOW TO WRITE DESCRIPTION

This is a really important aspect of screenwriting that is far too often overlooked. 

How do you write the description of a scene?

The very first thing to remember is that you're writing word pictures.

You must only describe what can be seen. 

This is TAKEAWAY #1 for you today.

Go to your script, go through your descriptions in each scene and go line by line.

Highlight any description that CAN be SEEN on the screen.

Highlight anything that CANNOT be seen on the screen.

Now, go through and re-write all the things that cannot be seen on the screen in a way that can be seen.

Example...

You might have written, 'Michelle is unhappy with the way John spoke to her.'

There's no way for the audience to SEE that sentence on the screen. So, essentially, that's a wasted sentence.

Now think how you could visualize that...

‘John's comment causes Michelle to squeeze the glass she's holding so much that it cracks.’

That's an action that we can see on screen. 

OKAY...

Now that you've gone through your script and identified all the non-image moments and changed them to something that can be SEEN on-screen, now you need to look at how to focus attention in a scene.

How do you let the director know where you want the focus to be in your scene?

This is where amateurs write camera directions such as - 'The camera follows Michelle's hand as she grabs the knife."

It's superfluous to write 'The camera follows...' - just write what it is that you want the camera to focus on...

'Michelle grabs the knife.' - is fine - but it doesn't imply a close up on the hand grabbing the knife. 

To bring the focus onto Michelle's hand, try something like this...

A sickle-shaped scar on the back of Michelle's hand stretches as she grips the knife tightly.

Here, we have to be close enough to see the scar on the back of Michelle's hand.

BUT, here's the thing... you should only be directing a close-up if it's important to telling the story.

If there's no reason to show a close-up on Michelle's hand clutching the knife, then don't do it.

What you need to do is identify the IMPORTANT ACTIONS in each scene.

Once you have done that - then you need to write your descriptions so they serve to describe these actions. 

That's TAKEAWAY #2 today... 

Go through each scene in the script you're working on and look at the actions you currently have. 

Now go through and start removing some of the actions. 

If you can remove an action and the scene still makes absolute-perfect sense - then odds are you don't need that action and you can delete it. 

The most common mistake I see amateurs make when writing description is to start wide THEN find the focus of their scene.

Example...

Say you have an outdoor scene.

The focus on your scene is one person palming a small note to someone else. 

The wrong way to describe the scene is to start out wide and describe the area where the moment takes place. I.e...

"The neon lights illuminate Times Square. Hundreds of people gather to bring in the new year.  It's a medley of chaos, people singing, shouting, arguing, kissing. 

Among the mess, Mike palms a small note to John. The exchange goes unnoticed."

In this example, we started by describing a wide-shot of the environment. 

We have then come into the focus of the scene - the palming of a note. 

I would recommend you write this scene in reverse order. 

Start with the note being passed off to John, THEN describe the environment. 

WHY do it this way?

If you start with the focus of your scene and work your way out, it anchors your scene. 

We know immediately what it is that we're focusing on in the scene.

If you do it the other way - start wide, describe the setting, then come into the focus of the scene, there's a moment where the audience isn't sure what they're being asked to focus on. 

When this happens there's a moment of disconnect between the film and the audience.

Remember that it's your job to engage your viewer from the first line and to keep them locked to your story until the end. 

The best way to do this is to not allow them a moment where they can wander off, mentally speaking. 

If you write a scene by zeroing in on the focus on the scene from the first word, then your audience will be engaged from the get-go. There'll be no moment for their minds to wander. 

THE TAKEAWAY #3

Go to the script you're working on now and go through scene by scene.

Identify the MAJOR ACTION taking place in each scene.

Start by describing that action first. 

Once that is done, THEN write the rest of the scene. 

You'll find that the scene is anchored better, there'll be less ambiguity and your reader/audience will know exactly what the focus of each scene is.