Much is made of what a writer puts into a screenplay, but just as important is how the writer tells the narrative. The most important elements that a screenwriter can use in putting together an effective script, one that gets past the first read and one that hooks an audience are: action, characters, and setting. Narrative description, or the way you frame your story, is something that every aspiring writer should have a handle on before submitting a script.
Narrative description in a screenplay is written in present tense; your audience will be viewing the finished movie in the present, so allow whoever is reading your script the same luxury.
From a formatting standpoint, when writing narrative description, double space between paragraphs and do not indent. While many of the following tips apply to screenwriting in general, they are tailored for the spec script.
The Leaner the Better
Remember, write only what the audience can see, and keep the narrative description (and also the dialogue) as lean as possible. You should only provide what is necessary to move the story along while putting more importance on key actions and moments. Many writers get wrapped up in their own style, and it’s very hard to stand back and look objectively at what their screenplays actually need versus what they believe shows off their talents. It’s a very fine balancing act. Your screenplay may not be the final version of what the film will look like.
Formatting is also important when it comes to the narrative structure. "The Screenwriter's Bible," by David Trottier, offers these tips: paragraphs should be about four lines (not four sentences), and even less in some instances. Space twice after periods; make dashes with a space, hyphen, hyphen, space.
While it’s not a hard and fast rule, you should generally try to limit one paragraph per beat of action or image. It goes back to trying not to clutter the screenplay and allowing the reader to clearly understand, to be able to see in their mind and feel what you have described.
This is an excerpt from “The Godfather,” by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola:
The blinds are closed, and so the room is dark, and with patterned shadows. We are watching BONASERA over the shoulder of DON CORLEONE. TOM HAGEN sits near a small table, examining some paperwork, and SONNY CORLEONE stands impatiently by the window nearest his father, sipping from a glass of wine. We can HEAR music, and the laughter and voices of many people outside.
Notice that the room itself is not really described, yet you get a feel for the space and the people who are occupying it.
Writing lean does not mean to forgo all description. In an action sequence, you have to give the reader (and eventually the director and audience) a feel for what’s going on. Use short paragraphs, all the while emphasizing specific images, actions, and emotions.
The following is from “Point Break,” by W. Peter Iliff:
The window EXPLODES OUTWARD in a spray of sunlit glass. Utah and Warchild crash to the ground. The razorhead, with 50 pounds on Johnny, rises like a bull. Bleeding from superficial lacerations, Warchild plows through the hedge. Johnny dives after him.
What to Leave in and What to Leave Out
Use details that are only important to the plot or character development. Writing incidental actions (he leans against the doorway, she moves across the room) into the screenplay should be avoided.
Characters’ memories, thoughts and realizations are a few things that cannot be seen in a movie, unless the specific actions, expressions or gestures from those characters have been written in to suggest them.
Specific words and Action Words
Writing in the present tense can be awkward. It may take a while to develop that kind of rhythm as a writer. Try not to write in the passive voice, i.e. Ted is driving. You should write Ted drives, which makes it present tense and active.
As Trottier notes, you can write descriptively and still be lean. Instead of writing Ted looks at Jane, it can be Ted peers at Jane, or Ted gazes at Jane, depending on the mood and the context surrounding your scene. You’ve established some concrete parameters of the scene while still using the same amount of words, and without using a single adverb.
Write specific. Instead of a car, make in a 1969 Dodge Challenger, or a 1989 Yugo. Writing specific also helps define and develop your characters; eventually by describing how they do things, this will help establish their motives and personalities by using what an audience can see on screen.
Here is an excerpt from “Jackie Brown,” by Quentin Tarantino, based on the novel “Rum Punch” by Leonard Elmore (this is the original text; all errors in punctuation are Tarantino’s-ed.):
She breezes through Customs and we follow her with a STEDICAM as she strides through the airport.. She gets to her gate disappears inside the plane for a moment comes back out sans flight bag picks up the microphone.
By using the words “breezes” and “strides,” we already have a picture of the confident and sure Jackie, played by Pam Grier.
The first appearance of a character gives the screenwriter the opportunity to establish something about that character’s personality or something pertinent about them. In most instances, it’s not necessary to describe that character down to the nth degree. Most of the time, we don’t need to know their exact height and weight, eye and hair color, but it may be a good idea for us to know their age.
Don’t associate a character with a celebrity (as in, she looked like Julia Roberts) because it limits who could play the character. As a rule, try not to base your characters on other actors or actresses or derive their traits from characters that they might have played in other movies.
The first appearance of a character central to the action of your screenplay gives you the chance to really give the reader a sense of that person.
You want the description to be qualitative without defining who has to play that character. So go beyond she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen and give her some traits that make her live and breathe on the page. Here is an excerpt from “Ghostbusters,” written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd. This is the description of Dr. Peter Venkman, played by Bill Murray:
Venkman is an associate professor but his rumpled suit and the manic gleam in his eyes indicate an underlying instability in his nature. However, while a little short on academic credentials, Venkman is long on confidence, charm and salesmanship.
From a formatting standpoint, the first appearance of a central character’s name should be in CAPS (and all characters’ names should be in CAPS above the dialogue they speak). This applies for characters that don’t have names but are defined by their appearance or role as well (SECURITY GUARD, HOMELESS MAN). But when a character’s name appears for the first time in dialogue, it should not be in CAPS. Some older scripts will have every appearance of a character (during action) in CAPS, but generally nowadays, first appearance is sufficient.
It’s always a good idea to name your characters when they first appear in the script. You don’t want YOUNG GIRL to turn into JANE a few pages later; this might confuse a reader trying to track the action, and he or she might have already figured that YOUNG GIRL wasn’t important enough to name.
However, if your character’s voice appears off-screen before they appear, it is generally okay to not name them at this time; you might not have established who they are yet. In the screenplay for “Ronin,” by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet (as Richard Weisz), Larry (Skipp Sudduth) is first referred to as UGLY AMERICAN as he speaks off screen, but his character is soon revealed as important to the story:
LARRY, the Ugly American. He's got an obvious attitude, all of it bad. But there's something about the guy -- he's not all bluster, and he has the look of a seasoned tough guy who knows how to get rough and tumble. He's big, and yeah he's got a gut, but the rest of him looks solid.
It’s much the same as with describing your characters. The places that you use for settings are generally as important as the people that inhabit them.
Here is the opening from “In the Heat of the Night,” by Stirling Silliphant (based on the novel by John Ball):
The air is filled with quiet, country, night sounds, shattered by the distant blare of a diesel train. The light from the train gradually dances across the surface of the polished rails. We now SEE the railroad tracks more clearly, stretched out before us. As the horn blows again to signal on approaching station, the headlight grows in intensity and flares into the lens. As the train rolls by, the CAMERA PANS with it to reveal a weathered sign. We read the sign in the rapid flashes of light from the coach windows: You Are Now Entering The Town of Sparta, Mississippi. Welcome.
Very evocative, and it establishes several key points for the movie as Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, an African American detective who just happens to be in Sparta and helps the reluctant Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) solve a murder. The setting almost becomes a character in itself.
Mastering the art of the narrative is a long term process. Always read and re-read your work, to see what works and what doesn’t, and what can stay and what can be taken out. Writing descriptively is a skill, as is writing concisely, and your screenplay will benefit once you are able to find the balance between the two.
Segments of this article can be found in "The Screenwriter's Bible" by David Trottier