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Screenwriting Description - What To Reveal When

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 3 9

What To Reveal

"First things first, but not necessarily in that order."

-The Doctor in Doctor Who 1963

Every good story has a beginning, middle and end, even when the story starts with the end, like in the movie Memento. The BME is critical to story telling because the beginning introduces the problem, the middle introduces the complications, and the end presents the resolution. Many jokes have a BME. The end is called the punch line because it packs the wallop that makes you involuntarily squirt milk out your nose.

A screenwriter molds their story around the BME model. Good screenwriters do the same for scenes. Excellent screenwriters take it a step further and do the same for every single scene description, crafting the order in which they introduce every prop and character. Considering there can be as many as 200 scenes in one script, that's quite an undertaking.

Nothing should be discounted in screenwriting. Since narrative is responsible for creating visuals in the readers mind, and later the images on the big screen, it's critical to plan what should be seen and when, in the writing process. As with a good joke, simply changing the order in which you introduce people or objects can have a huge impact on the way the story is received.

Beginning writers often make the mistake of populating their scenes with people and props before either is needed. Their written scene description looks like a sort of roll call, letting you know who is present, followed by a laundry list of props. Only then is the action tacked on. And that's exactly how it feels.

The ability to think visually, as though you are the camera, is one of the secrets to setting up effective scenes that play out in a logical and dramatic way. In most cases, props and people should not be “stacked” separately from the main character’s action, but instead should come only when they specifically impact the main character. Here’s an example of poorly constructed narrative in a short scene about Jimmy.

Sample 1

Int. Bus – Day

Except for two empty seats in the row in front of the bullly Mitch, the bus is full. Mitch has a snake tattooed on his arm. It overhangs the seat and his oversized shoe obstructs the aisle. The bus doors open and the driver gives scrawny, sweet-faced Jimmy a look of “Well?” He’s frozen at the curb with his shoelace untied.

In Sample 1, the camera is already inside the bus. The first things it looks at are empty seats, Mitch, his tattoo and shoe. Then it moves to the front of the bus where the doors open to see Jimmy outside.

How could such a short scene go so wrong so quickly? All these details are poorly ordered or “stacked”. Jimmy is the main character, yet Sample 1 could easily lead you to believe Mitch is the main character since the scene begins inside the bus, while Jimmy waits outside. It’s a mistake for us to meet Mitch before we meet Jimmy. Additionally, we learn things that would be better discovered as Jimmy interacts with them. For instance, when we see the empty seats, the tattoo, and Mitch’s shoe in the aisle, they mean nothing to the viewer without being filtered through Jimmy’s eyes.

Compare Sample 1 with Sample 2.

Sample 2

Int. Bus - Day

The doors open for Jimmy but he’s frozen to the curb. The driver gives him a look of “Well?” Jimmy boards finding two empty seats. They are in the row in front of the bully, Mitch. His tattooed arm overhangs the seat and his oversized shoe obstructs Jimmy’s path.

In Sample 2, the scene is approached in a very different and effective way. The bus doors open for Jimmy but he’s hesitant to go in. Right away we’re concerned for this kid, wondering why he’s holding back. We haven’t seen inside the bus yet and don’t know what awaits him. That quickly, we’re getting involved.

Next, Jimmy boards the bus and we see that he’ll be forced to sit in front of Mitch, a threatening guy with tattoos. Now the "uh-oh" impulse kicks in and we’re genuinely worried for Jimmy. We hardly need to see more of this scene to predict there may be trouble for our scrawny hero. But there is more to the development of this scene worth examining.

Jimmy sweats, slinking toward the seat. He steps over the shoe, then trips. His books and papers splash across the aisle.


Walk much, Doofus?

Jimmy can’t take his eyes off Mitch’s tattoo. He squeaks out two words.


Like Snakes?


Whadja say to me?


Do you like snakes?

Jimmy grabs one of his notebooks and opens it to show Mitch his sketch of a snake. Mitch’s steady stare turns slowly into an approving nod.


Got more?

Jimmy opens his notebook to reveal pages of drawings. Mitch sits in the empty seat next to Jimmy to look them over. He points to the floor.


You’re gonna kill yourself, kid.

Jimmy looks down to see the untied shoelace that caused his fall.

Jimmy’s scene ends with a nice little twist, which might not have been possible if the scene were structured as in Sample 1, where we were told Jimmy had an untied shoelace. With that information, it would be natural for you to predict Jimmy’s fall. But even if you didn’t foresee it, after he went down, you undoubtedly would have wondered if Mitch caused Jimmy’s fall or if Jimmy simply tripped over his own untied shoelace.

Sample 2 held back the shoelace information causing the audience to believe Mitch deliberately tripped Jimmy, which adds powerfully to Mitch’s bad boy image. And even if you doubted it was deliberate, you might at least have believed Mitch’s careless foot in the aisle was to blame for the fall.

Holding back the shoelace information until the end is a good example of BME. It’s such a small detail, yet carries a lot of weight. The rich punch line for the scene comes when Mitch says, “You’re gonna kill yourself, kid.” It’s here that we understand Mitch ultimately had nothing to do with Jimmy’s fall. The saga wraps with an almost heartwarming moment because we have every reason to believe these two boys could become close friends. It’s a very satisfying ending to a scene that appeared to hold nothing but danger for our hero. Audience emotions have followed a complete arc and your concern for Jimmy has been alleviated.

When props, people, and even motivations are revealed much earlier than is necessary, dramatic impact can be completely lost. When that happens the audience feels nothing and becomes bored. Getting the audience emotionally connected, has to happen long before the film goes into production. It’s the screenwriter’s job to build that on each and every page, to guarantee the audience will be moved by hate, love, fear or even simple concern for a sweet little kid named Jimmy.

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Dec 14, 2010 9:14pm
Great explanation on how to organise information and dialogue for scriptwriting. As you say it all needs to come together after grabbing the readers attention and interest first.
Dec 15, 2010 9:01am
Fabulous information. After this series of articles, you could put together a book on screenwriting. You are a natural born teacher! I'm sure any new screenwriter will find these articles very effective and helpful.
Dec 15, 2010 1:05pm
Thanks Deb! I value your input because you should know a good teacher when you see one. :)
Dec 15, 2010 6:20pm
Nice, this is like a working class for screenwriter students. Actually, they are very good writing tips as well. You drew me in again!
Dec 20, 2010 11:37pm
This is awesome!
Dec 21, 2010 7:15pm
Great info, as always, Divaonline! I've decided to print-out all your screenwriting articles and put them in a notebook for future reference. You should think about writing an e-book on the topic of screenwriting! Good stuff!!
Dec 21, 2010 7:54pm
The screenwriting articles I'm publishing are from a book I put together. I'm posting some of the pages here to sort of test the waters before I publish. Thank you for your input. It's really helpful to me.
Dec 21, 2010 11:07pm
When you do publish your book, please reserve an autographed copy for me!
Dec 22, 2010 10:18pm
It's a deal!!!
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