Reader Question: Is it necessary to have scene description before dialogue?

Another supposed screenwriting ‘rule’ bites the dust!

From Jake Gott:

Hey Scott, I have a question about scene openings.

When you start a new scene, is it necessary to say what the characters were doing or can you jump right into the dialogue?

Example:

INT. OFFICE — DAY

Jeff and Meg are talking.

JEFF: Blah blah.

MEG: Blah?

— — — — — — — — — — — — —

Would it be needed in that instance? Thanks Scott, keep up the good work.

Technically per the old school way of doing things, I learned you should never have a primary slug line without some accompanying scene description before moving into dialogue. Frankly I don’t know where that came from, but I seem to recall having seen it in more than one format guide / discussion.

However there is the theory of screenplay format, then there is the reality of actual screenplays written by actual Hollywood screenwriters where you see things like this (from The Shawshank Redemption):

INT — HEYWOOD’S CELL — NIGHT (1947)

HEYWOOD
AND IT’S FAT-ASS BY A NOSE.

No scene description after a slug line before a line of dialogue.

“Fat-Ass” in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’

To me, it’s far better to approach the question from the perspective of storytelling: Does the moment require scene description? It makes no sense to insert a line of scene description like the one in your example — “Jeff and Meg are talking” — which adds nothing to the narrative: we don’t need a line describing them talking because the scene actually shows them talking. So from a pure storytelling point of view, I would say do not make up and insert a line of scene description simply to fulfill some supposed arbitrary guideline, especially if that line isn’t necessary.

However if you do what I do — consistently use primary slug lines to signify a new scene — you will almost invariably need to set the stage in order to bring the reader ‘into’ the scene. Again from The Shawshank Redemption:

INT — SHOWERS — DAY (1947)

Shower heads mounted in bare concrete. Andy showers with a
dozen or more men. No modesty here. At least the water is good
and hot, soothing his tortured muscles.

Bogs looms from the billowing steam, smiling, checking Andy up
and down. Rooster and PETE appear from the sides. The Sisters.

BOGS
You’re some sweet punk. You been
broke in yet?

Or here:

INT — SHAWSHANK HEARINGS ROOM — DAY (1967)

Red enters, sits. 20 years older than when we first saw him.

MAN #1
Your file says you’ve served forty
years of a life sentence. You feel
you’ve been rehabilitated?

Red who’s just about to tell the truth… and win parole.

A new scene involves a shift in time and place, therefore the writer needs to provide a context for what transpires including the dialogue.

Finally there’s this: If a writer includes a lifeless, unnecessary line of scene description only to fulfill an obligation to some strict format guideline, they are in effect breaking a much more important screenwriting credo:

Never be boring!

Far better to focus on making each line of scene description entertaining, visual, active, and compelling.

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Reader Question: Is it necessary to have scene description before dialogue? was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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