Screenwriting Tip: Stop Writing Scene Description and Start Writing Scene Action

By June 19, 2020Blog, Screenwriting

When the update for Final Draft 10 came out the most significant change went by with little to no fanfare.

It seemed inconsequential at the time but by altering the name of a single element from “Description” to “Action” they began to help shift the conversation in screenwriting for what the bits between dialogue were actually there to do.

In 2018 I was lucky enough to hear Scott Myers from the Go Into The Story blog at the London Screenwriters’ Festival in 2018 and he made me entirely rethink about what it is that scene description action is there to do.

So, here are five tips to help stop you writing scene description and start writing scene action.

ACTION IS ENGAGING

In a film we are drawn to characters who are doing things – driving the narrative momentum of the piece forward.

On the page, we are drawn to the verbs as they’re the most active elements of any sentence.

Nouns, adjectives and adverbs are great to add a little flavour to proceedings but if you string the verbs that you’ve got in your scene together, the piece should still make some sense.

LESS IS MORE

It’s one of the first things that you learn when writing for the screen alongside show don’t tell.

Be exacting with the words you choose and make each and every one of them count.

Don’t be cheap, nasty and dirty (unless that’s called for), but if you can give a reader the same experience in one word fewer give them it in one word fewer.

Give it them in one word if you can. The script for ALIEN is trail of monosyllabic breadcrumbs and on the page, it is just as terrifying as the film.

CAST THE “CHARACTER” OF YOUR SCENE ACTION

At a table read it’s always someone’s job to read these lines – so draw up the dream person who would have that job.

A sugary sweet kids movie might sit better with Tom Hank’s dulcet tones whereas if you want to write a punchy action franchise with a bit of edge, you’re going to want to think about a Samuel L. Jackson-type reading out those *expletive* lines.

Making this decision will really help you as a writer decide the tone of the piece and shape the vocabulary you might want to use as part of your scene action.

IMAGEMATIC WRITING

This is Scott Myer’s tentpole lesson on how to craft better scene action.

A word of his own creation, you should use see that your scene action is there to:

“…convey the mood and tone of the moment, making it become that much more alive and vivid in the imagination of the reader.”

Stop just describing what the reader will eventually see on the screen when the piece is made but give them an idea of what it will feel like to watch it.

BREAK THE CONVENTION

After Beck and Woods wrote A QUIET PLACE the formatting glue which held together our craft seemed to lose its stickiness.

How you represent your scene action on the page has never been more open to interpretation. Play with hanging lines, bold/underscored/italicised passages or entire pages of just a lone word are all on the table.

However, make sure that the decisions you make are there in the service of the story rather than detracting from it.


Ted Wilkes is a writer and university lecturer from London, England. His areas of specialism are narrative design, Twenty-First Century visual cultures and the horror genre. You can find out more about his work over at tedwilkes.co.uk or watch his video essays on a variety of topics on his Youtube channel: www.youtube.com/sightunsound