It’s every scriptwriter’s dream to see their script go into production. With every chance of that happening, writers stress over how much of their concept will be lost in the filmmaking process. Unless the screenwriter accompanies his work to its final stages, there’s no guarantee the scene descriptions on the page will get translated to film with the original intention intact. So you might ask, if someone will change your script, why should you care what the narrative text looks like? Why spend time fussing over it? If the writing is okay, someone will buy it for the story, right? After all, someone bought the academy award-winner, Casablanca. Based on a stage play, this project is a good example of an excellent story and wonderful dialogue. But if you read the script, you might wonder how such weak narrative ended up in a sold script.
EXT. RICK’S CAFÉ – NIGHT
The neon sign above the door is brightly lit. Customers arrive and go in through the front door. From inside we hear sounds of MUSIC and LAUGHTER. The song is “It Had To Be You.”
Again we isolate on the neon sign.
INSERT SIGN: “Rick’s Café Americain”.
We follow a group of customers inside.
Unfortunately, this writing does not offer visuals as brightly lit as the neon sign above Rick’s door, nor does the narrative style draw us in like the music draws customers inside the cafe. Casablanca’s scene description is often redundant with writing so passive it would require a major transfusion to bring it to life. When talking about success, Casablanca is a major exception because the weak script resulted in a classic that people watch again and again. But there was a good reason that a less than powerful script became such a hit film – it was written on the fly while filming was in process. A completed production script does not exist. If you get your hands on a full screenplay, it’s likely the result of someone piecing together working versions. And this may well explain the weak narrative. When the story is being filmed as you write it, there’s little need or time for imaginative scene descriptions. The objective at this point is only to direct action, not engage a reader with the hope of selling the project.
This short Casablanca scene is a good study because it beautifully demonstrates a couple of important things to avoid:
1) Repetition: The word “door” is used twice unnecessarily, as is “customers” and “neon sign”. In a description as brief as this one, repeated words give the narrative an awkward cadence. Also, while the word “music” and “song” are not identical, they are a duplication of thought. Another repetition -- the act of following the customers inside duplicates the visual we’ve already seen where customers arrive and go through the front door.
2) Camera Direction: The phrases “again we isolate” and “we follow” pull us out of the story momentarily, calling our attention to the mechanics of the camera work. This of course, is acceptable in a shooting script because filmmakers want to know where the camera is headed, but it should not appear in a spec script.
What could have been a quick scene reads more slowly than it needs to because of the way the sentences are ordered and their almost perfect construction. Without losing its initial intent, it could be rewritten many ways to make it leaner, less repetitive and more lively.
The profile of the film script has changed dramatically since 1942 when Casablanca hit theatres. We’re seeing things on the big screen now that would have thudded onto the cutting room floor in those days. Stories are vastly different, script readers are more jaded, and audiences are increasingly more sophisticated in the film making process.
Flip through film scripts today that have sold, and you will see many consist of incomplete sentences that convey stories using very simple language. This might lead you to again question, why scene descripition matters.
Scene description is as much a breeding ground for images as it is for any text you’ll find in a book because its objective is the same: to implant images in the reader’s mind. But the contrasts between book manuscripts and film scripts are gargantuan. Book manuscripts are end products that undergo very little transformation between the writer’s hand and the bookstore’s shelf. The screenplay has a more elaborate odyssey that includes a transformation to yet further media, the big screen, and along the way it passes through many hands.
Another important difference between film scripts and book manuscripts is length. There are few boundaries on the number of pages a novelist can fill to write his story. A screenwriter does not enjoy such a luxury, which is one of the obstacles that make scriptwriting a challenge. Each script page represents one minute of screen time and a script is limited to around 120 pages, although there are exceptions. The screenwriter’s mission is to create powerful images with as few words as possible.
Most studio readers will flip through the pages of a script before reading it. What they’re looking for is “ink”- too many pages that contain nothing but long paragraphs of scene description or dialogue. A script worth reading generally contains a sprinkling of dialogue, scene headings, and scene description, and a quick flip through the pages will offer a good balance between black and white.
The most basic and important concept for screenwriters to understand before sitting down to write is that there are only two ways to put a story before an audience: with visuals and with sound. How much dialogue is too much? How much of the setting does the reader need explained in order to visualize the scene? Only one person gets to answer these questions - the writer. They determine the appropriate balance between visuals and sound and make the decision as to when to use either.
When Charlie Chaplin first waddled onto the big screen in his silent films, the goal of cinema was to exhibit moving pictures. That goal hasn’t changed and probably never will. In light of this, the writer’s first choice in creating a script should be to offer visual information at every opportunity. And the only means for accomplishing that is scene description, which is why, in a nutshell, scene description matters.