Stop Writing Scene Descriptions. Start Writing Scene Action
When the update for Final Draft 10 came out, one of the most significant changes went by almost unnoticed. It seemed inconsequential at the time, but by simply changing the name of a single element from “Description” to “Action” Final Draft shifted the way that screenwriters think about how they write action scenes. Because a good action scene isn't something that you just describe. It has to be more than that.
I was lucky enough to hear Scott Myers from the Go Into The Story blog at the London Screenwriters’ Festival, and his advice made me entirely rethink how to write scene descriptions. Here are five simple tips you can do to stop writing scene descriptions and start writing dynamic scene action.
Good scenes are active
In a film, the audience is drawn to characters who are doing things—people who drive the narrative momentum forward capture our attention. The same is true for your script. Readers are drawn to verbs since verbs—especially "action" verbs—are the most active elements of most sentences. Pay attention to the verbs you use to tie your scene together. Because the right verb can transform an action sequence.
Pro tip: Search your script for "ly" words. If you find too many adverbs, it's usually a good indicator that you aren't choosing strong enough verbs to describe your action sequences.
Less is more when it comes to scene action
One of the first things that you learn when writing for the screen is "show don’t tell." And that's because it's important. Right alongside that is the maxim, less is more.
Great screenwriters are economical with their descriptions—especially for scene action. You need to be exact 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 remove even one word and give a reader the same experience, get rid of that extra word.
The script for ALIEN is a trail of monosyllabic breadcrumbs and on the page. And it's 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 should have that job. A sugary sweet kids movie might sit better with Tom Hank’s dulcet tones whereas a punchy action franchise with edge calls for a Samuel L. Jackson-type reading out those *expletive* lines.
Making this decision really will help you decide the tone of the piece and shape the vocabulary you want to use as part of your scene action. Try it. You'll like it.
Scott Myer’s tentpole lesson on how to craft better scene action is wrapped up in a word of his own creation—"imagematic." In other words ensuring that your scene action:
“…conveys 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. 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/italicized passages, or even entire pages of just a lone word are all on the table.
Just make sure that the decisions you make are there in the service of the story rather than detracting from it.
Sign up for our newsletter for more screenwriting tips and advice from industry pros every single week to take your craft to the next level.
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