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.

13 comments

  • You never have written a witty doormat, have you?

    I feel so used. I don’t do homework for people that use me so. YOU BEAST.

    • I’ve tried. The doormat outside of our home reads: “Fuck Your Mother.”

      That’s not expressly witty, though.

      A guy’s gotta try, though.

      — c.

  • Please tell me that you’ve read “Which Lie Did I Tell” by William Goldman. (There’s a “prequel” of sorts to that one, too, but the name escapes me.) It’s an absolute must for anyone that wants to write a screenplay, imo.

    I think one of the hardest things for a non-writer especially is to get it in their heads that a screenplay adaption is COMPLETELY UNIQUE from the original source. Not the point of your post, but it works in. A screenplay should fly when you read it. You should barely be able to flip the pages fast enough as you soak it in. If you find yourself spending a few minutes on a page read, going back over lines, trying to get the direction, X that out and start over. Meat and bones, meat and bones. But delicious meat and fragrant bones.

    (And I absolutely loved The Road, and refuse to see the movie because there’s just no way it can translate, I just don’t see how.)

    I actually prefer to read things in screenplay format – that’s where you can see all the strengths and weaknesses front and center. You can’t hide behind a four paragraph allegory for the trees.

    And here’s your witty doormat: “Oh, go ahead and wipe your feet on me, what’s it matter?” That’s the NYC version. It would be better if you could put a sound chip in it to sigh long-sufferingly.

    • Damn, no, I haven’t read that. (makes mental note)

      The Road — I’m not sure how the film will translate, but I think it might. I don’t know that I want to see such misery on the big screen, though.

      As for that doormat — well, there you go. Cafepress that shit. Get out there. Make some bank. You’ve found your meal ticket!

      — c.

  • The book is just what you’re talking about (well, kinda.) He shows you scripts and why they work, but the main focus is adaption FROM prose to screenplay. I can’t remember if The Princess Bride came as a book first, or movie, but that’s a terrific example of how to trim and yet maintain the elements of the story and all of the details, too.

    The book is so much exposition – so much description and inner dialog, I think it will suffer on screen as a result. You have something like No Country For Old Men that is pretty spare, too, but there is so much action and so many characters that you can use to further the story, and The Road centers on The Man. I dunno, I think it would take a pretty spectacular screenwriter and director to pull that one off.

    NICE. I should make a solid 10 bucks in nine weeks time, SWEET!

    If you’re comfortable with it, I’d love to hear about your screenplay, but I also completely understand the need to play those cards close to your vest on a public blog.

    • I don’t want to say much about the screenplay. The good news is, we have a producer, we’re scaring up financing, so the stars seem aligned to get this puppy made. I’ll just say that it’s a… unique take on certain horror film conceits.

      I will definitely find that book and eat it. I mean, read it.

      — c.

  • The very first movie I did was a horror movie that was a unique take on film conceits. In other words, YOU HAVE AN AUDIENCE OF ONE, GUARANTEED. (If you have comcast, you should be able to view it on in demand: Blood on the HIghway. Note: not for people that don’t appreciate a coarse dick joke.)

    GOOD LUCK. The Hollywood machine can be brutal, but there are some awesome producers/financiers out there.

  • Personally, I think both of Goldman’s books are great. My only wish is that he’d write a new one that reflects the current state of the industry (even _Which Lie…_ is dated now).

    They are about Hollywood as much as writing, if memory serves, and are certainly much more engaging than Robert McKee’s _Story_ (which gets a lot of praise, but goddamn do I find it dry).

    There’s a fine balance between how much description to put down and how lean to make it. Shane Black’s screenplays are a delight to read, for example.

  • Yes, read the Goldman books.

    I’ve been tinkering with a quasi-screenplay format for fiction meant to be read online — something that’s quick and jaunty, high on action, but able to offer more lingering visuals than a screenplay usually does. A new hybrid form, if you will. This is the form that I’m riffing on for that “Playing On A Wave” post at GPW, too.

    The trouble is that anything that’s faux-screenplay is going to look like it’s just desperate to get optioned, which isn’t quite the point. (But, like all writing publishing online, is part of it.)

  • I’ve read parts of the Goldman books, and liked them… I think I live and die by Stracizinsky’s book though (even though it’s title eludes me).

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