Writing Great Visual Descriptions: Less or More?
When practicing writing visual descriptions, the scriptwriter works towards applying the few technical rules that are required by scriptwriting standards:
- scene heading with indication of time and space
- use of active verbs in the present tense
- brief paragraphs
- no camera directions
- describe only what can be seen and heard
Their application aims at shaping the script as an ‘instruction manual’ for the producer, director, actors, etc.; they also ensure that the reading pace is in line with the story’s pace as it unfolds on screen.
Industry-wise, they are the first, tangible sign that the scriptwriter has employed the rules of the job in a professional manner.
However, first and foremost, the scriptwriter is a storyteller and, therefore, not dispensed by the essential task of writing evocatively; telling a story is creative art in itself.
Whoever is going to read your script, will have to fall in love with it, if they are going to invest their efforts and money into producing it.
And, let’s be honest, nobody has ever fallen in love with an instruction manual.
So, how do you come up with visual descriptions that are rich and compelling, without falling into prose? How can you keep them brief and simple, without venturing into banality?
When we talk about ‘visual descriptions’, we imply everything in your script that is not dialogue: actions, characters’ introductions and characterisation, locations.
Basically, the core elements of your story are expressed through description; the substance of your story depends on how you present it to the reader.
And by ‘presentation’ I don’t just refer to proper formatting – which is essential.
I am referring to the style of your writing.
PAINT A PICTURE
These two paintings are both a portrait of a woman, produced using the same medium and the same tools. Is one too sketchy? Or is the other one overly detailed? Which one is painted in a great way?
The answer is both (or neither, depending on your taste). The difference is in the style chosen by the two painters: in both cases, the protagonist of the portrait is presented according to the vision that each painter wanted to get across. Both backgrounds reflect the interpretation that the painter gave of the world surrounding these two women.
The same approach can be applied to scriptwriting.
Very often we are so busy building the dynamics of our story (character arc, structuring of the plot, etc.) that as soon as we have those established, we jump to the page and type away, confident to have done all the preparatory work.
It’s easy to forget to address our writing style, which is possibly the most immediate indicator of our talent as storytellers.
Style, as much as the content of your story, reveals theme. It reveals your voice.
Now, you might be one of those writers who manages to perfectly capture a visual description on paper at the first attempt, using just the right words and images, with no need for further editing.
If, instead, you find yourself entangled in the dreadful dilemma “Am I writing enough? Is it too much?” then the following approach might help you.
THE ATMOSPHERE OF YOUR STORY
Look back at the overall “picture” of your story and ask yourself: what kind of world am I envisioning here? What energy do I want to recreate? Fast paced, exciting, with crescendos and downfalls like a rollercoaster? Quiet, steady, light-hearted?
This is not just about the genre you’ve chosen; write down the words – verbs, adjectives, adverbs – that evoke that energy and that pace. Think about the punctuation: is there a way that you can use punctuation as the metronome of your descriptions? Full stops, ellipsis, hyphens, exclamation marks are there to mark the pace of your narration and to suggest to the reader the right speed at which to absorb your story.
For example, you might want to write a horror story set in a world where the characters move quietly and carefully in order not to the attract the attention of monstruous creatures that are trying to hunt them down; caution must be applied to everything they do. The visual writing of a story like this one could therefore benefit from short sentences with slow, measured actions, often separated by ellipses…
That is what the script of the film A Quiet Place (2018) does (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AoMwFsD56Lw). Despite the script being technical, notice how the choice of words – verbs, nouns, adjectives – reflects the atmosphere and the world where the characters live. Observe how the sentence structuring dictates the pace of the reading according to the story’s pace on screen.
CHARACTERS and LOCATIONS
Once you have decided what the atmosphere of your world is, describing characters and locations can be easier: your characters will either be part of that world or stand out from it, and your locations will either be an external projection of your characters or a contrasting backdrop.
Keeping the atmosphere of your story in mind, imagine you are taking an inventory of everything you see and hear in the scene, as if you were standing in a corner of your chosen location where your characters can’t see you: even the knick-knacks on a shelf or the colour of your character’s shoes.
While doing this, you are probably realising that a lot of objects and details are not that important.
Do you really need to mention every single object on the desk? Is the colour of your character’s coat relevant?
As an example, see the famous scene with the girl in the red coat in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993):
In this case mentioning the colour of the girl’s coat is required by the plot and it delivers a powerful message within the film.
Looking at your inventory, decide which descriptive elements – for the location and for your characters – are crucial in your story; if you remove any of them, will the scene (and the story as a whole) become less powerful or, even worse, lose its meaning?
TURN IT ALL INTO ACTION
As a final step, imagine what is happening in the location you’ve chosen with the characters you’ve decided to include in the scene.
Think of your scene as action; set characters and objects into motion using the words and the pace that you had picked when establishing the atmosphere of your story.
That’s how your list of words and your inventory can turn into a cinematic description of events, at the narrative speed that suits your story.
As an example, see the opening scene of the script for Guillermo del Toro’s film The Shape of Water (2017):
Despite the scene in the film being quite static, the description of it is not; every element within it is part of an ongoing action.
APPLY THE RULES TO YOUR DESCRIPTION
After having poured out your creative juices, it’s time to refine, tighten and tidy up your description by applying the technical rules that we’ve mentioned at the top of this article. They will help your work look professional and they will make your story read cinematically.
DON’T FORGET TO…
Visit art galleries and study paintings: they are a great example of static visual descriptions of subjects and events in motion.
Scriptwriters are painters who use words instead of brushes.
Read poetry and study how distilled, structured writing evokes images and suggests pace. Scriptwriters are poets, who simply work in a different format.
Happy visual writing!