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[ Edited ]

We will explore how a movie gets put on the page, focusing specifically on how to describe action in a screenplay. Read Chapter 4 of Writing Movies.


Movies are meant to be watched. But before an idea is bought, filmed, distributed and finally seen by an audience, it exists on the page. This is the anomaly of the screenplay: how do you capture a visual experience with words? The experience of reading the screenplay needs to be just as evocative, just as captivating, just as electric as watching the film that it will one day be. It's got to be so good that once someone starts it, they simply can't put it down. That's how you hook potential agents, producers, directors, and actors. In this sense a screenplay serves double duty. On the one hand it's a technical document -- a blueprint for your movie. But on the other, it's a sales tool. It's got to sing.

When you're reading a well-written screenplay, you forget you're reading words after a few pages, and you begin to see the movie in your mind. You see Thelma and Louise cruising down the highway in the green Thunderbird. You see John McClane swing through the air on a fire hose. You see Dorothy Michaels assembling his/her wardrobe in the shops of New York. This neat trick of visualization occurs from great description. Just like in a novel.

However, description in a screenplay is quite different from description in a novel, because in a screenplay you're working within strict parameters. You have to make the action spring to life in a way that's vivid and memorable while using very few words. And the moments of your descriptions must read at the same pace as the action would unfold in real time on screen. Most importantly, you must keep your description confined only to what is seen and heard, leaving out the other senses and avoiding the temptation to enter the thoughts of the characters. You must show, not tell.

It's challenging to capture a movie on the page. It's also lots of fun.

The Assignment

The Writing Exercise

Here's the challenge. Write a screenplay passage that contains approximately one page of pure description. This means there needs to be action, though action can mean anything from a fist fight to shopping for shoes.

As your subject matter, use one of two things: 1) a passage from a screenplay you're working on 2) someone on a frustrating shopping excursion.

Here are the ground rules:

  • Describe only what is seen and heard
  • Do not include thoughts
  • Do not include dialogue
  • Do not rely on gesture or facial expressions from the character

To share your passage with the group, create a New Message and use "(Your Book Club User Name), Description -- Writing Exercise" in the subject line.

Message Edited by Jessica on 05-24-2007 01:34 PM

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