Truly great screenwriting lets us see the movie on its pages. When the craft of screenwriting is taught, scene and action description is probably given the least consideration, and yet it can make the biggest difference in whether or not your story comes alive for the reader. Here are four tips for more dynamic scene and action description:
1. Lose the adjectives and adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs often water-down your screenwriting and make it less effective, not more. Instead, try to find more precise nouns and verbs to describe your action.
"He walks quickly across the alley" gives me a limited picture. But what if you wrote: "He dashes across the alley" or "He scampers across the alley" -- doesn't that give you a more nuanced visual? Instead of "big, expensive boat," how about "yacht"? It's two fewer words, and yet I can see it in my mind much more vividly.
2. Limit your use of the word "is"
Generally you want to use only active verbs ("She runs, skips, stumbles, stampedes," etc.) Occasionally, you may want to show that an action is already in progress when a character (or the reader) enters a scene, and in that case you might use what is known grammatically as the continuous aspect, which uses '"is" or "are" with a participle (the verb form ending in -ing). "He is washing the dishes" and "She is fixing dinner" are examples.
The only other time you would use "is" would be when describing someone or something: "Sharon is the tallest of the kids" or "His desk is old and worn." Frankly, that makes for boring screenwriting, especially when it is used often. As much as possible, everything should be active. Sharon should be doing something when we meet her, and not just be being the tallest kid! "Sharon, the tallest of the kids, rushes up to him" is a better introduction for her.
Even the desk can be made a more active part of the scene. Let's try: "His old, worn desk sits in the corner." In a literal sense, it's doing the same thing as the previous desk, just being there, old and worn. But describing it as sitting makes it seem more present and almost active. "Sits" suggests to me that perhaps the owner placed it specifically in that corner. His desk belongs in that corner, and it's almost as if it's waiting for its owner.
Okay, I may be pushing it with the waiting, but I think you'll agree with me at least that it's a less boring, more active sounding sentence than the previous one. The point is: try to use active verbs even when describing inanimate objects for more dynamic screenwriting.
3. Avoid “blocky” description of action
“Blocking” is where, when, and how the actors move and "do business” during the shooting of a scene. It’s something the director figures out with the actors on the set or in rehearsals.
When you describe in your script what your characters are doing, don’t let it get too “blocky.” You want to convey an overall sense of their physical behavior and the essence of any required movement, not march your characters around step-by-step like marionettes.
And you don't need to write in movement for movement's sake -- that's the director's problem, not yours. Take a close look at the script of your favorite movie (I'm sure you know you can find lots of scripts easily on the Internet). I'll bet you'll be surprised at how little the characters' movement is described. In screenwriting, you only need to write movement that is essential to the telling of your story. It's not your job to worry about what all the characters are doing at every moment.
4. Keep description proportionate in length to its payoff
You don’t want to get too detailed in your scene description. If I read a half-a-page description of a bedroom, it had better turn out to be one important bedroom!
In other words, don’t describe anything for any longer than it’s going to pay off for your reader. If we’re only going to be in this bedroom once, you just need a phrase: “A bare, grungy bedroom.” If, however, we’re going to come back to this room again and again, and in the resolution we're going to witness the protagonist O.D. there, it merits a little more description ("….spent needles litter the filthy cement floor…." etc.)
Also, keep in mind that just as you don’t want to treat your characters like puppets when writing action, you don’t want to dictate the set design. Your job is to evoke the world of your story, like a dream unfolding in front of us, and not to impose your production design ideas.
Jill Chamberlain is a professional screenwriter, story consultant, and script doctor, and she's the Founding Director of The Screenplay Workshop, where professional screenwriters teach concrete methods and straightforward tools in group classes and one-on-one. See also Jill's previous cameo, Three Secrets of Great Storytelling. Jill's next workshop will be in Austin, Texas and starts June 21.