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What bad science fiction can teach us about writing screenplay description

24 Jun , 2011,
Chip Street
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7 comments

Why too much detail destroys screenplay description – and pisses readers off

I just finished slogging my way through another script as a judge for a screenplay competition.

Yes, slogging. It was painful. It was boring. Frankly, I couldn’t finish it. I gave it a “pass”.

Because the writer gave me too much description.

Exactly how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop

too much hyper-specific screenplay descriptionThe screenwriter told us just how many steps a character took to cross a room (11), whether the couch was on the right or the left of the doorway (left), how many seconds a dog barked (5), and precisely how much space is between the lights in an alleyway (30 meters). I learned that the kitchen table is rectangular, and how big it is (approximately 33 inches by 60 inches).

I wanted to shoot myself in the head. For the record, this is not how you want to make your reader feel.

Perhaps because this was a sci-fi script, the writer fell victim to the classic hyperspecificity of Golden Age authors like Arthur Clarke (whose penchant for detailing the precise number of rivets in a spaceship might make for good geekery, but doesn’t make for good Literature [opinion] or screenwriting [fact]).

But consider this: even between the covers of a sci-fi bestseller, there’s such a thing as too many words. Too much specific description. Too much time spent on details that are not story critical, and that actually disrupt the rhythm and pacing of the read.

The Larry Niven reference

Once, many years ago, I had brunch with acclaimed sci-fi writer Larry Niven, and he shared a story about the writing of the bestseller Ringworld. He said that he spent days writing about a detailed and lavish banquet. Every exotic food, roasted creature, colorful fruit, bizarre drink, strange and alien utensil. He loved it, and was so proud of it.

Then he  turned it over to his sometime writing partner Jerry Pournelle for some honest feedback. Jerry, he said, was a ruthless editor. Jerry reduced the scene down to two words:

They ate.

Larry laughed. He said Jerry was right. He didn’t need it. He had to kill his baby.

But I see the movie in my head

I know, I know. The writer saw the movie in her head and needed to share it. Every moment was crystal, the dramatic void of silence as the protagonist thoughtfully crossed the room was critical to pacing and mood. I get that.

I get why the lights were 30 meters apart, I do … because that vision of a black alleyway punctuated with pools of yellow light was mysterious.

So say that. In that minimalist syllable-counting haiku that is (or should be) screenwriting. In the way that makes every word count. In a way that’s artful. In a way that doesn’t suck the life out of it, and devolve into a soul-less mechanical blueprint for the set designer.

In a way that doesn’t make the reader (and that’s your audience) roll his eyes and shut your script on page four after you’ve pulled him out of the story because you can’t get to the fucking point.

And no, it won’t be easy. That’s why not just anyone can do this. As I said in Writing Screenplay Description with Personal Style:

… it’s a tricky balance… Style (with a capital “S”) can’t supersede the screenwriting tenet of direct simplicity.  It’s an interesting challenge, to introduce enough of your Style to create a personal voice, while avoiding the hyper-specificity of extraneous detail that slows down the real-time pace, and readers hate.

It’s not your job

Here’s what you need to know, young newbie. It’s not your job to design the sets. It’s not your job to costume the talent, or do their hair.

It’s not your job to choose camera angles, or block the action.

It’s not your job to direct.

Yes, sometimes, it is story critical to drop in a hyper-specific detail like “the couch was on the left”. If you’re writing Memento, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Run, Lola, Run, those details may resurface, and make themselves important to the story.

But as a reader, let me say this: If you specify that the couch is on the left, or that he takes 11 steps across the room, or the dog barks for 5 seconds, those details damn well better be story points. ‘Cuz I’m going to be waiting for them to justify themselves in some important way.

And they better.

But I like to write all that description

I got the feeling, reading this painful script, that maybe what the writer really wanted to do was write a sci-fi novel.

Then write a novel. Seriously. Maybe that’s what you excel at … maybe that’s what really stokes your creative embers. Maybe sorting out and displaying all those fabulous details, all that texture, is the language of your art. And good for you, dammit. Go forth and do it. Between the covers of a book.

But remember Larry’s story … remember that even there, less can indeed be more.

BY THE WAY: I am compelled to assure you, dear reader, that I did not actually lift any lines verbatim from the script. I paraphrased, to create a representative example. No inappropriate plagiarism to see here. Move along.

7 Comments

  1. Yolanda Lindeque-Strauss July 15, 2013 at 2:15 am Reply

    Hi, would you mind if we put your article in our next Writers’ Guild South Africa magazine? It would really help our readers. It’s a free publication. What do you say?

    • Chip Street July 15, 2013 at 12:01 pm Reply

      Hi, Yolanda —

      I’ve emailed you directly. Yes, I think that would be fine, thanks for asking! Please look for my note for specifics.

      • Yolanda Lindeque-Strauss July 16, 2013 at 12:59 am Reply

        Got it. Thanks!

  2. Susanna November 6, 2013 at 3:05 am Reply

    Hello! you are talking about a movie with real actors, but what about an animated movie script? I read somewhere that they should be more descriptive than the other ones, is that true? I don’t know to what extent we have to explain what we see for example in a construction site. If the vehicles or objects on it will be important for the actions that will follow do we have to name them first or they can just appear on the action lines? Thank you!!

  3. Writing Screenplay Description November 26, 2013 at 11:15 am Reply

    [...] on my post What Bad Science Fiction Can Teach Us About Writing Screenplay Description, Susanna  asked a great [...]

  4. Jonathan Siege February 13, 2014 at 7:01 am Reply

    Hey Susanna,

    A piece of advice I found useful was to learn from your predecessors. If you go to http://www.imsdb.com you can look up the script for a variety of different movies. Take a look at the scripts and you should be able to find out what you need. Hope this helps!

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