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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How descriptive would you/should you/ do you have to be when describing a setting? The first scene of my script takes place in a Morgue. I have a 10-lined paragraph describing the room (autopsy table/sink/bio-hazard boxes, etc) that seems a bit long, but it does describe the room. The character in the scene isn't using anything in the room. And really only spends about a page in this room before leaving.

My rule of thumb is: describe only what we need to know for the story or to set the scene. "A squalid morgue with one flickering flourescent." "A brightly-lit, state-of-the-art morgue." "Your basic down home back-country morgue. A variety of stuffed animals suggests it doubles as a taxidermist's workshop."

The production designer and set decorator will do the rest.

Thing is, we've seen dozens of morgues on TV, and we can fill them in with scales, steel gurneys, etc., for ourselves. Give us more details if it's something we can't fill in for ourselves -- a geomancer's workshop, for example. But even there, give us just enough to set the scene. One or two striking details are worth more than ten lines of description.



I've noticed that feature film writers (especially John August and his commenters, who are ostensibly in that category) have extremely verbose setting and character descriptions, particularly on the first page. Is that convention among feature writers? I've read mostly TV, so I've only seen very short sluglines.

By Blogger Morley, at 1:50 PM  

I'm not sure that's true. John August may do it, but just looking at random, neither MEN IN BLACK nor THE DARK KNIGHT nor Frank Darabont's script for the latest Indiana Jones movie start with verbose settings. They start with action sequences.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:08 PM  

I had a similar experience describing a nightclub. At first, I described every detail -- the music, the beautiful people, the cathedral-like space, blah blah. Most people know what one looks like; even if they've never been in one, we've seen places like this in film/TV.

So I kept paring it down to the essentials: what 2 maybe 3 elements that capture this setting. My final description was almost haiku-like. Worked for me and more importantly, got me to the meat of the scene that much sooner.

By Blogger daveed, at 3:13 PM  

Established writers may be able to get away with long scene descriptions, but newbies shouldn't do it. I'll just leave your with a comment I was given for an early script by a script reader...

"A lot of people will not read screenplays with such large description at the beginning. They see all that black text and they get very turned off."

I think that says it all.

By Blogger Tim W., at 3:27 PM  

I see -- for some reason I thought it was a cultural or philosophical difference between feature and tv writers. Though I was probably just reacting to the entries of one of his scene contests.

By Blogger Morley, at 1:46 PM  

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