Description In Prose: The Screenplay Template
One last post on writing description. Really. For real. Then I’ll go and talk about theme, or poop, or the business of being a writer, or maybe even poop.
So. If you know me, you’ll know that I am obviously trying to spread my seed as a writer. I’m trying to, erm, “pollinate” a number of industries — my writing partner and I have film work bouncing around, we have a television property in motion, I’ve worked in games, and I seek to conquer the fearsome mass market novel. (Next: cookbooks, witty coffee mugs, and neurolinguistic programming.)
It’s not a bad way to be. It at least gives you a few new tools in your toolbox. Working with scripts — screenplays and teleplays — has taught me a lot about writing prose, actually.
Were you so inclined, you might head over and read an essay I wrote, “It Is What Is Is,” about the differences in writing novels and screenplays. Were you not so inclined, just know that I’m aware that the two are very different in theory and practice — your novel is the end, final product. The screenplay is basically just a precise, precious outline, and serves purely as an interim step.
Still. Some value can be gained from that terse precision of the screenplay.
Take, for example, writing description in your prose.
You could do worse than modeling your prose output on what you might see on a screenplay’s page.
On the page of a script, you’d likely see some variation of –
Open on the scene location and time of day, and then move into some brief description about the area, the room, the objects, the people, the actions of those people, and so forth. Short, punchy. Nothing poetic, nothing fancy. A little something like this, from the Almost Famous script –
6 INT. LIVING ROOM -- DAY 6 She's almost to her bedroom down the hall when mom catches her. We now discover ANITA, 16, up-close. She is an alluring young Natalie Wood, with a suspicious and sunny smile. ELAINE You sure? I'm making soy cutlets. The words "soy cutlets" sends a small shiver through the girl. ANITA I'm fine. Already ate. William stands in the doorway now, watching, monitoring, as Mom moves closer to his sister. She sees something curious about her daughter. ELAINE Wait. You've been kissing. ANITA (too quickly) No I haven't. ELAINE (peering at her lips) Yes... yes, you have... ANITA No I haven't. ELAINE Yes you have. I can tell. ANITA (boldly) You can't tell. Mom steps closer and examines the lips even more carefully. To her, everything is a quest for knowledge. ELAINE Not only can I tell, I know who it is. It's Darryl. Anita is stunned silent. She turns slightly to look at herself in a hall mirror, searching for clues, implicating herself immediately. ELAINE (cont'd) And what have you got under your coat? This is the booty Anita didn't want to give up. Mom picks at the corner of an album cover now visible under her jacket. She withdraws the album. It's Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends. ANITA (busted) It's unfair that we can't listen to our music! ELAINE (weary of the issue) Honey, it's all about drugs and promiscuous sex. ANITA Simon and Garfunkel is poetry! ELAINE Yes it's poetry. It's the poetry of drugs and promiscuous sex. Look at the picture on the cover... CLOSE ON BOOKENDS ALBUM COVER Mom's fingers at the edges. We examine the insolent faces on Richard Avedon's classic album cover. Even Simon and Garfunkle look guilty under her scholarly inspection. ELAINE (cont'd) ... honey, they're on pot. ANITA First it was butter, then sugar and white flour. (beat) Bacon. Eggs, bologna, rock and roll, motorcycles. Nearby, William squirms as he watches the gently escalating conversation. Anita glances at her brother. He silently urges her to downshift. She can't. ANITA (cont'd) Then it was celebrating Christmas on a day in September When you knew it wouldn't be "commercialized." ELAINE That was an experiment. But I understand - ANITA What else are you going to ban? ELAINE Honey, you want to rebel against knowledge. ELAINE (cont'd) I'm trying to give you the Cliff's Notes on how to live in this world. ANITA (simple and direct) We're like nobody else I know.
Reads pretty well. Doesn’t have a lot of flourish, and in a prose situation you certainly might want to insert a few more details –
But, all told, you could translate that pretty directly into prose form. (You want homework, go ahead and try it. I’ll wait. Post your attempt in the comments section! I know, none of you are going to do it. Nobody ever does my homework. God damn you. God damn you in your smug faces. *sob*)
So, having a hard time knowing where description goes and how to handle it in the context of a chapter? You could do worse than model a chapter after a scene in a screenplay. Description, dialogue, description, dialogue. Hell, check out one of Christopher Moore’s novels — a lot of his chapters frame out in exactly that way. Open and set the scene for a paragraph or three, then right into dialogue. Dialogue ends up with a few bridging descriptors or flavor-text, but a lot of his work plays out that way.
Is it the best way? I dunno — it’s certainly not the most dynamic, but it can get you right into the meat and potatoes of a chapter without much fucking around. It gives the page a nice jagged stagger, and it ensures you’re not spending overlong on big chunky shit-blocks of description. No walls of text, here. It’s lean and mean, and that’s especially good in mass market prose where you want to get people into the action, the events, the great dialogue. (You won’t find it in something like, say, Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road, which has very spare dialogue and lots of meandering description — it’s a great book, but it doesn’t lend itself to being an easy read. That isn’t a bad thing, but it is a thing.)
So, check it, try it, see how it lays for you. At the very least, it’s a good way to write a chapter in an easy first draft — you can dress it up or inject more dynamism in later drafts.