The first step is asking this very question: how detailed should it be?
Next you decide what is important for the understanding of the scene and what should be left to the design team.
Finally: stay close to the 1 page per minute rule.
The first step may seem a bit lame but it really only is about staying aware of the fact that you need to stay as close as possible to the amount of detail needed. Not more, not less.
bottom line really is: give us enough detail so the reader and audience can visualize the scene and understand what will go on the screen.
INT. HEAD OFFICE – DAY
That’s it. Apparently we’re closing down.
They say this every Summer.
What do you know? You’re new.
He’s right, Lance. Start thinking about your new job.
We all getting fired?
So, how many more characters will there be?
At the beginning of the scene, we need to know what the situation is. Describe the room they’re in briefly. Is it modern or classic. Simple or ornate? Where are the characters? Do they all sit or stand?
Next, it would probably benefit this scene to describe some body language. How do the characters respond to the news? Do they put down their work? Sit straight?
ACTION vs. DESCRIPTION
INT. BERNARD’S ROOM – NIGHT
The Sony alarm clock radio-CD on the bedside table shows two large ring-shaped coffee stains. They must have been there for a while as no coffee mugs are in sight. The lamp above is switched on and its green, soothing light spreads across the room. The glass of the lamp shows a small, almost invisible crack on the side. On the wrought-iron bed, a thick mattress is covered by a simple set of squeaky clean white sheets seem as if it has just been straightened.
In the middle of the room, a Transformers rug draws our attention. A pair of sneakers lies casually on the floor next to the rug.
On the other end of the room, there’s a desk but it’s light is not switched on. On the desk: an unfinished letter and books on car racing. Above them against the wall hangs a poster of the movie LE MANS. There is no sign of any family photographs.
Bernard stands by the window, on the phone with Alex, trying to convince Alex to come over.
A knock on the door.
Oh dear. If this were the first scene of the script, a professional reader would probably not make it to the ‘knock on the door’. The irony is that the opening is cluttered with seemingly useless detail but the essence of the scene is brushed over, rather than spelled out in dialogue.
It is important to describe the action rather than things stationary, unless the plot calls for it. If the slug line states we’re in a restaurant, we know there will be tables and chairs. We get it, so be economical. Give the reader just enough information and let them imagine the rest.
In the following example, Joseph Stefano, the writer of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” carefully describes the action, leaving the physical layout of the bathroom to the art director.
Lying half in, half out of the tub, the head tumbled over, touching the floor, the hair wet, one eye wide open as if popped, one arm lying limp and wet along the tile floor.
Coming down the side of the tub, running thick and dark along the porcelain, we see many small threads of blood.
Using an active description like “down the side of the tub, running thick and dark along the porcelain, we see many small threads of blood” gives the reader a sense of action. After reading this excerpt from Psycho, I can almost guarantee next time you describe the dead girl to someone, you will refer to her eye as being “popped”. Find the exact word to match the appropriate action.
HIDE DESCRIPTION WITHIN ACTION
Through that paragraph the reader is focused on what is happening with the poor girl’s body, and probably won’t realize the writer sneaked in a description of the bathroom. This was done without giving the feeling of describing a still object.
Remember, we are describing things happening, not just things per se. That’s why we call it “movies”.
(with thanks to Vi Truong)
If you found this tip useful, check out the Screenplay Checklist, an A-Z of commonly made mistakes by aspiring screenwriters.
Check this 12p. list of errors and annoyances to perfect your spec screenplay.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.