A movie script contains two things: dialog and text describing what the audience sees and hears. The latter is often referred to as “action lines”.
In a movie script, the descriptive text has to be brief and to the point. There is a common misunderstanding that this means that it should not contain any literary qualities. This is not the case.
A movie script is just a blue print for a movie, but as such, it needs to inspire and paint images in the reader’s mind. There is nothing more devastating for a script than “He walks into the room. He sits down.”
When every word counts you should make them count. Nobody "walks" into a room. Everybody walking into a room has an agenda, a purpose, a need, a goal. Your job is to visualize this in the text; with every word make the characters and the story come alive.
What do you want to tell?
An action line has to be brief.
There are two reasons for this. One is tempo, which I hope I will discuss in a later blog entry. The other is the need to convey an impression of an image, rather than an exact replica.
As a writer, you probably see the scene immensely clear in your mind. You know every piece of furniture in the room, you know the view out of the window, and you probably know if there is a vase or not on the table.
If you were writing a novel, you might find it appealing to tell the reader about all this, since the written text is the only source of information the reader of a book will ever get.
This is, however, not the case when it comes to a movie script. The viewer of a movie will see a moving image and hear sounds complementing it.
The reader of the script is a maker of this movie; or at least a potential one. It is the director’s task to create the moving image and its sound, together with the actors and crew. The writer’s job is to tell a story in a way that brings out the best of everyone working with the movie.
Your job is to tell the story.
In that task is to find those key elements that count. Those are the essential words to put on paper.
In general, color of a shirt, brand of the car and exact time of the day are not these key elements.
What you should focus on, is what kind of impression a room or a person gives, and do so without getting into details.
If you want a home to appear wealthy, listing brands and specific object may very well miss the target. A brand may be expensive, but if the reader does not know about the brand, it does not give the reader the information needed. If you think a room filled with exclusive vases is an insignia of wealth, this might just as well be misinterpreted.
Far better is to describe the home as simply “wealthy” and add one or two more adjective, like “modern”, “clean”, “prominent”, “neglected” or any other word that add vital information to your picture.
If we continue with the example about the home, you could begin with telling it is a home, and then consider, for the story to work, what are the minimum of information needed. What kind of story will it become if the home is bohemian? Will it be another story? Or maybe it doesn’t matter if it is bohemian or conservative? This can be hard to do, because it is not always easy to look beyond your very own image of the movie.
Always keep in mind that your image doesn’t necessarily represent the best way to tell the story either. By question your own ideas you can find those core elements needed to transfer what you want to tell.
Maybe you see a character as a male hippie in pink jeans and blue shirt and bow-tie smoking a pipe. Ask yourself why for every part of the character, even his sex. Change a man into a woman and see if that works, change the hippie to a prince and so on. If the story still works, you have not found the core elements.
The story you want to tell doesn’t work for any characters any place with any props. There are certain things you need to tell about the characters and places used. Your challenge is to find those essentials.