Hopefully my last article encouraged a few writers, far to fearful of accidentally directing, to use the power of scenic description to bravely walk their characters out of empty rooms and into the wider world.
by Margaret M. MacDonald.
But does your scenic description flow with the rest of your script or does it sit on the page in a blocky chunk of text? Does it contribute to the mood and feeling of your story, or does it read like the facts in a police report? Scenic description is more than just the objects in the room or the weather outside. It is atmosphere, it is character and it is an essential part of your story.
More than the Camera’s Eye
There is a no-fail way to write your scenic description, simply write the shots. It is true that what you put on the page should be what the camera sees, never less, and with rare exception, never more. Sometimes the camera will focus on just one character or just one object, and sometimes an entire room or an entire planet.
Just because the shots are wider doesn’t mean your text should get longer, nor does one simple object require any less description than a whole city. But how do you decide what to describe and when? How do you make sure you’ve painted a full picture for your reader without the thousand words?
Follow Your Character
In 90% of your screenplay, you will be writing from the point of view of your protagonist. As he experiences events, has encounters with other characters and walks into new settings, what the camera will focus on is what he sees. Don’t think that this means every shot should be written as a POV, or that you have license to put as many “he sees” or “he notices” into your script. In fact, a strong script will never use either.
If you think about entering the world of your screenplay the same way your protagonist does, and describing the world of your story as your protagonist discovers it, then the scenic description will flow smoothly along with the unfolding of your plot.
In a film like Die Hard, the set and the plot are inextricably linked. Without the Nakatomi building there would be no seven lock vault and exploding rooftop. But the details about the building, the obstacles it presents to McClane, and the advantages it gives him, are all revealed gradually throughout the course of the story as McClane discovers them.
As McClane enters the building for the first time, the audience does as well. We see and experience no more than McClane does. But words are not wasted on presenting this new setting to the audience. It is simply beautiful, sterile, and seemingly deserted, a rather unassuming introduction for a building that becomes the center of the entire film. Those few words still evoke a clear picture of this new setting.
This brief scene also tells us some very important story points. The touch screen computer is a piece of technology both McClane and the guard seem at odds with. It’s clearly high tech, which indicates there is more cutting edge technology in this building and probably a lot of money to back it up.
The touch screen computer also confirms McClane’s suspicion that his estranged wife is now using her maiden name, a fact we learn at the same time as McClane, thanks to his interaction with the setting.
Finally, as McClane moves further into the building, we see the security cameras because he has noticed them with his “experienced eye.” We are not only clued in to the nature of the building, but also that of McClane himself. There is no need to describe exactly how the cameras are incorporated into the decor of the building, simply that they are and that McClane still notices them.
Very little scenic description is used in this passage, but the importance of the setting still becomes apparent, and the story continues to flow uninterrupted.
Be A Mood Maker
Scenic description is also much more than what your protagonist sees. It is also about what she experiences. A vast ocean is freedom to a sailor, anticipation to a traveler, and purgatory to a castaway. If you want your audience to feel what your protagonist is feeling, the tone and emotion of your description should align your reader’s perspective with that of your character’s.
Just imagine if you were a rookie FBI agent, sent in to talk to one of the most dangerous killers in a hospital for the criminally insane. Wouldn’t every long corridor, every shadow and every distant sound, make your fear rise despite your desire to remain the consummate professional?
As we follow Clarice into the hospital, we experience a build-up of tension and fear right along with her. She is not only being warned about Hannibal Lecture as she enters, but she is also traveling into an environment that grows more and more foreboding as she walks. Once through the heavy steel gate everything gets “darker” and “grimmer”, sounds become more apparent and her pace quickens.
The camera never sees the photo that Chilton hands Clarice, even though it “stops her in her tracks” but the simple fact that it’s dog-eared, tells us volumes about this small prop. Chilton has been pulling this act for quite some time, and is attempting to get an emotional response out of Clarice. All it took was the addition of one simple word, to give us an entire history of both the photo and Chilton.
The photo, the restraints on the wall, the surrounding surveillance cameras and her encounter with the Dark Figure, are all tests of Clarice’s professional drive and ability to overcome fear. The environment is presenting warning flags and road blocks at every turn, and she must respond appropriately to continue her journey towards Hannibal’s cell. Without this long walk into the depths of the hospital we would never experience the tension, anticipation and fear along with Clarice.
Few Words Big Picture
When you write scenic description, you must be mindful not only of what the camera is seeing, but also of what your protagonist is seeing and experiencing as they move through their world. What will he notice and when? Will a particular object stand out to her and why?
What sort of emotional response does it generate in your protagonist and how can you get your audience to relate to that? It doesn’t take a lot of text to effectively use your setting to enhance your story, just a few descriptive words, written in the right tone, and put in the right place on the page.
-Margaret M. MacDonald
Margaret M. MacDonald is a production designer and award winning screenwriter. She has lived and worked in Los Angeles, New York and currently Sydney. She aims to use both her writing and designing to create cinematic worlds. She also loves to discuss the past, present and future and filmmaking and isn’t afraid to disagree with you.