Screenwriting : Text descriptions in scripts- no's and yes's by Laura Tabor-Huerta

Laura Tabor-Huerta

Text descriptions in scripts- no's and yes's

I have been thinking a lot about how writing groups and articles can say one thing but I often see it done a different way in actual screenplays, even good ones. For example you often see someone telling screenwriter's this for example "You don't tell your audience your story, you SHOW them. You must learn to write a screenplay VISUALLY. Write what they will SEE and what they will HEAR. You might love your characters and know what they are thinking, but the discipline of screenplay writing is how to show it on a screen. When it happens, it may be just done with a look, often improvised on the movie set. So just write the pictures, sounds, and speeches, and leave the rest for the filmmakers." However then you see in taxi Driver this: "He has the smell of sex about him. Sick sex, repressed sex, lonely sex but sex nonetheless. He is a raw male force." So I seem to notice a lessening of rules when it comes to character descriptions allowing it to convey essences. However if I try and do the same in my writing my local group can be harsh and I sometimes think they miss the point, they get so into being technically perfect and not breaking rules but forget the soul.

Geoff Webb

This is a very good question Laura. My first comment is that Taxi Driver is nearly 40 years old and fashion in script writing changes, so reading modern scripts might help. The whole thing gets cloudy because a writer/director or a well established writer can get away with much much more than an unknown. Plus published scripts are changed during shooting, so you might not actually read the original version. My only suggestions are to read modern scripts in the general genre of the your script and to have your own voice. Listen to working Producers and Directors etc their opinion can be gold, but I imagine the people who are in your writing group are trying to be as helpful as they can but ultimately they are just giving you their 'unproduced' opinions. I've noticed that some people get really hung up on technicalities....keep your voice Laura :-)

Ian Lynch

I think if the description is something you can understand and picture in your mind's eye, then it's fine. That description of Travis helps us picture him with a kind of sleazy arrogance, but it's masking some inner shame. I just read the Dallas Buyer's Club screenplay, and there's lots of little bits of description that don't literally spell it out for you, but they give you the right kind of idea of a charater's expression or thoughts at that moment. For example, instead of "John watches helplessly as the child runs out onto the road. The car swerves, missing the child by inches, and John breathes a sigh of relief." I think it's fine to just write "John watches helplessly as the child runs out onto the road. The car swerves, missing the child by inches. Thank god." It tells you what you need to know about John's reaction, and I think it adds a little character to the screenplay. But it's when you write something like "As he drives, he's got the events of last night on his mind..." then that obviously doesn't work. He may look lost in thought, but we have no idea to see what he's thinking. But hey, that's just my two cents.

Kerry Douglas Dye

What Ian said. The key is communication. If you're communicating to the reader what will appear on screen, then you're doing your job. If you're bringing a little personality or "voice", so much the better. Most of these absolutists are amateurs who learned this rule somewhere and don't quite understand it. That said, be careful in this area. If you're uncertain, err on the side of the rule. But if you truly believe you know better than the absolutists... well, it's quite possible that you do.

Alex Bloom

Lines like those found in Taxi Driver are fine if they convey EMOTION which this one does. Sounds like your writing group are being a tad precious about things. The #1 reason why I don't join writing groups...

Dave McCrea

That's a rookie criticism in my humble opinion. Certainly when you first introduce a major character, you have freedom to give un"shootable" semi-abstract description to orientate the reader and the actor playing it. Here's a couple of my descriptive lines:
Jake keeps pace with CHLOE (late 20s). She's a babe and a go-getter who probably sleeps in her 5" heels.
I could have put:
Jake walks with CHLOE (late 20s, attractive).
I know which one I prefer and I'm sticking with it!
Another example:
Chloe, in panties and a cropped t-shirt, presents a plate of toast and a mug of coffee. Not a bad way to wake up.
No, you can't shoot "Not a bad way to wake up." but now the actor has a whole lot to work with as far as how he responds to this - without telling him what expression to make.
At the same time, you don't want to overdo stuff like this. Once every 10-20 pages is probably OK, once a page would be way too much for example.

Laura Tabor-Huerta

Thanks y'all for your good words.

Padma Narayanaswamy

Laura pl dont things to heart . Seperate the wheat from the husk. Take the good ones and leave the bad ones

Royce Allen Dudley

Description of a character as to mood, style, affect is one thing.. it's a good idea if the details matter ( if they do not, leave them to the casting director and filmmaker ). Description of visuals is another; "She looks out to sea and recalls the long lost love of her youth". A viewer does not know if she is looking at a whale or thinking about what groceries to buy. That is I believe the point- and people write the unseen constantly. SHOW the audience... it's not a novel, it's a blueprint.

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