First, what will be visually interesting? We’re writing for film, remember. Maybe you have a scene of a girl telling her boyfriend she wants to break up. Initially you’ll probably think about setting this scene at one of their houses or at a restaurant. But wouldn’t it be more visually interesting if they were on a trail above a waterfall? Or in a mall? Or at an ice skating rink?
Second, the setting can enhance the dramatic or comedic elements of the scene. What if the break up was happening at church during a service? Or in front of a line of parents bringing their kids to sit on Santa’s lap at the mall? Or while they’re attending a wedding? You’ll get added mileage from the setting that will add to the dramatic conflict.
When writing description and action, it’s important to remember that you can only write what we can see and hear because film can only deliver visuals and audio. You can’t write smells or textures. You can’t say, “The room is hot and smells of rotten eggs” – how would the audience know that?
Similarly, you can’t tell us what a character is thinking or feeling. You can’t say, “Marcus enters, feeling frustrated by a long day at work and the fact his girlfriend didn’t return his call.” Again, how will the audience know that?
There is a bit of a grey area here. You could say, “Marcus enters looking frustrated.” My rule of thumb is if an actor can express it, I can write it. An actor can express frustrated. They can’t express “I had a long day at work” without some dialogue or behavior. If that fact is important, you better figure out a way to get it out in exposition.
Writing physical action like fight scenes, shootouts or car chases is a tricky balancing act. Imagine you have a fistfight in your story. Some writers will write out every blow, feint and stumble. Others will simply say, “They fight” and leave it to the stunt coordinator and director to sort things out – after all if the film gets produced that’s what will happen on set anyway.
I think the best approach is something between these two. You want to describe the action in enough detail to bring it alive for the reader, but not so much that it’s tedious and slows the pace. Here’s how I might write a fistfight:
Andy and Pete circle each other, fists clenched, feinting and testing each other.
Finally, Andy has had enough -- he makes his move, catching Pete with a thundering roundhouse.
But Pete barely staggers. And now they are both going at it, trading vicious blows, blood and bruises spreading across their faces.
Pete is bigger, stronger -- but Andy is faster and meaner. He keeps it going longer than he has any right to. In the end, though, Pete lands a blow straight on Andy’s nose.
Andy crumples to the ground, senseless.
There is a widespread – and not unfounded – belief that development execs and producers skip the action/description lines and only read the dialogue. I even once had an exec say she skipped the action scenes in my adventure script because, “all action scenes are pretty much alike.” She then went on to complain that the script felt “disjointed.”
This rather clueless exec aside, I think the best way to prevent people from skipping your action lines is by writing efficient and evocative description that contain valuable information. Any decent reader is going to read the action lines on the first couple pages. If what they read there is vital and entertaining, they’ll keep reading them. But if your description is bogged down with excessive and irrelevant detail, the temptation to start skipping or skimming is enormous. Remember, development execs, agents, managers and producers read dozens of scripts a week so they need to get through them quickly.
There’s another reason to be judicious. If you throw a bunch of detail at us, we might miss the important stuff. If you want us to know a character is married because she’s wearing a wedding ring, then you need to highlight that fact – say something like, “She absently fingers a wedding ring with a very large diamond.” And don’t bury that line in three paragraphs describing her appearance and clothing or we’ll likely miss it.
Another thing to consider is the use of camera direction – things like:
We cut to a close up of Sam’s face.
The camera tracks along with Megan as she rides her bike down the street.
Most of the time this is to be avoided. This is the realm of the director and cinematographer and they don’t like some writer telling them how to do their job. First of all, you’re probably not as good at determining shots as they are. Second, it’s too early to really know what the best shot is. You haven’t seen the actors rehearse and you don’t know the layout of the location. Also, bringing up the camera takes the reader out of the story and reminds them they are reading a screenplay.
There are exceptions when a very specific camera angle is crititical for telling the story. For example, when you are following the feet of a killer through a scene because you don’t want to reveal their identity yet. And you might come up with an awesome opening shot that sets the stage for the movie visually that’s so good it’s worth describing. But you should use these extremely sparingly.
Like most things in writing, the more specific you are, the better. You are painting a picture in the reader’s mind and creating a guide for the people who will produce the film. Don’t just say, “Sam climbs into his car,” say, “Sam climbs into his late model Mercedes E.” Or “Sam climbs into his rusty Ford Pinto.” It’s an important distinction, don’t you think?
Finally, most screenwriters have a rule of thumb: no more than four lines (not sentences) of description in a paragraph. You want to leave a lot of white space on the page so it reads easy.