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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Scene Description Spotlight: “The Deer Hunter”

During the Vietnam War, two American prisoners are forced to play Russian roulette.

I can still remember seeing The Deer Hunter for the first time. I was living in Aspen, Colorado. Had a rare night off from playing music. Came out of the theater just gutted by the movie — and in particular the two Russian roulette scenes. Michael (Robert DeNiro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken) are three long-time buddies and factory workers from Pennsylvania. They enlist in the Army and find themselves fighting in Vietnam. Captured by the Viet Cong, they have been abused and beaten. Steven (named Sal in the script) is in bad shape. Michael (named Merle in the script) has to convince Nick to do something seemingly insane, as you will see as the scene unfolds:

EXT. CLEARING IN THE JUNGLE — THE “PITS” — DAY

SAL has absolutely no comprehension of what is about to
happen to him. His eyes are dreamy, far away, as if he had
mentally transported himself to some distant place. There are
great gashes in his head from the blows he has received and
as he stands waiting in the pouring rain he looks exactly
like a very small child who has experienced some terrible
confusion.

Suddenly the GUARD standing beside SAL wrenches him around.

We see the pit now, CLOSE UP. There are four bloated CORPSES
floating in the muck.

We SAL’S FACE, CLOSE UP. He gives a CRY and tries to turn
away.

We see the GUARDS pick SAL up, SCREAMING. We see the SPLASH
as SAL hits the water and then we see him surface between the
bloated CORPSES, STILL SCREAMING, paddling desperately and
trying to find something solid to hod him up.
EXT. CLEARING IN THE JUNGLE — WAITING PRISONERS — DAY

NICK stands motionless, stunned, listening to SAL’S SCREAMS.
MERLE has his attention focused on the GUARD IN CHARGE and
when he glances in their direction MERLE slugs NICK in the
stomach and begins beating him furiously to the ground. NICK
struggles to his feet. MERLE attacks him again and now, as
the GUARD IN CHARGE comes over to see what’s going on, MERLE
begins hopping up and down, pointing at NICK, pointing at the
revolver in the GUARD’S hand and screaming.

MERLE
Him and me!!! Him and me!!!

The GUARDS look at each other, interested.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Him and me, goddamn it! Him and me!

INT. THATCHED HUT — HEAVY RAIN — DAY

MERLE and NICK sit facing one another across the rose
patterned kitchen table. The GUARDS are all grinning and even
the SOUTH VIETNAMESE are watching with grim fascination. NICK
has the revolver. He is trembling visibly. Already MERLE has
managed to draw the GUARDS in closer and as NICK spins the
cylinder and cocks the hammer MERLE jumps up and begins
pounding on the table.

MERLE
This is it, motherfuckers! Now he’s
going to do it! Watch! You watch!

NICK almost loses what little control is left and his hand
begins shaking violently.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Look at him! See! This is it and he
knows it!

Side bets begin changing hands.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Last chance to lose your money
there, guys. Goodbye money! Hurry,
hurry. Here he goes!

NICK puts the revolver against his temple and pulls the
trigger. There is a dull CLICK.

NICK puts the revolver back on the table. His hand is shaking
so badly it falls with a clunk. MERLE grabs it, spins it,
sticks it to his temple and CLICKS OUT, talking all the time:

MERLE (CONT’D)
This is stupid! You understand
stupid? On and on! At this rate
we’ll still be here tomorrow!
(throws the revolver on
the table)
Wait a minute. I know! Hey, I got
it. More! Put in more! You
understand more? More! More
bullets!
(he mimes with his
fingers)
Three bullets! You understand
three? That way BLAM! BOOM!

MERLE hops up and down, laughing maniacally.

MERLE (CONT’D)
KA-POWIE!!! BA-ROOM!!!… ’Cause I
want that bastard! Him I want boom!
Him or me!!!

The GUARD IN CHARGE looks at his COMPANIONS. They all begin
shouting for him to go ahead. The GUARD IN CHARGE purses his
lips, as if imitating a general coming to a decision, and
then nods his assent. The GUARDS all howl. MERLE joins right
in.

MERLE (CONT’D)
He’s terrific! Great fucking guy!

The GUARD IN CHARGE takes the revolver, opens the cylinder
and begins sticking in two more cartridges.

MERLE (CONT’D)
KA-POW!!! BA-ROOMIE!!!

MERLE hops up and down again, then screams at NICK, jabbing
his finger at him, as if in fury.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Both of us may have to pull on
this, so get your shit in fuckin’
shape!!!
(to the GUARDS)
Him or me!!! Now we got it, him or
me!!!
(he rubs his hands and
sits back down)
Place your bets, motherfuckers! Now
we’re going! Now we got a game!

The GUARD IN CHARGE places the revolver on the table, spins
it.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Watch! Now watch! He’s going to get
it. And then KA-POW! BA-ROOMIE!!!

The muzzle stops pointing at MERLE. MERLE scowls, looks over
at the GUARD IN CHARGE. The GUARD IN CHARGE has lifted the
barrel of his AK 47 and is watching him with caution. The
OTHER GUARDS, who are totally caught up in the game, are
yelling and shouting.

MERLE
You guys think I’m in trouble,
right?

MERLE picks up the revolver, spins the cylinder, cocks it…

MERLE (CONT’D)
No way! Never!!!
(he begins to chant)
MERLE IS MIGHTY! — HA!
MERLE IS STRONG! — HA!
MERLE IS MAGIC! — HA!
MERLE LIVES LONG!
Lemme hear it. Come on,
motherfuckers, lemme hear it!

MERLE starts it again. The GUARDS who are bett ing on him
JOIN IN:

MERLE (CONT’D)
(with GUARDS)
MERLE IS MIGHTY! — HA!
MERLE IS STRONG! — HA!
MERLE IS MAGIC! — HA!
MERLE LIVES LONG!

MERLE takes a glance at the GUARD IN CHARGE again. The GUARD
IN CHARGE is still eyeing him with caution.

MERLE places the revolver to his temple… and CLICKS into an
empty chamber.

MERLE (CONT’D)
See! Nothing to it.

He pushes the gun across to NICK. Then he stabs his finger at
him, screaming again, as if in a fit of rage.

MERLE (CONT’D)
You got an empty chamber and it’s
in your mind! Just put that empty
chamber in the gun!

NICK looks down at the revolver and picks it up. He stares at
MERLE for a moment. Then he spins the cylinder, cocks the
hammer, Puts it to his head… and CLICKS into an empty
chamber.

The GUARDS let out expressions of disbelief. Those betting on
NICK begin taunting those betting on MERLE.

MERLE sits motionless, as if stunned, as if utterly defeated,
his brow furrowed in a mighty frown.

NICK pushes the revolver across the table. His face is
twitching but he gives the gesture a certain flair, as if
throwing back a challenge.

MERLE stares at the revolver — stares at it with an
expression of utter gloom. Then he reaches out, takes the
revolver in his hand and pulls it toward him, as if he no
longer possessed the strength to pick it up.

MERLE (CONT’D)
(gloom)
Who’s for Merle?
(he thumps his fist on the
table)
Is anyone for Merle???

MERLE roams a glowering eve over the watching GUARDS, as if
suddenly discovering himself among traitors. Slowly, he
pushes himself to his feet. The gun is still on the table,
still in his right hand, and as he gets up he lets his body
sag over it.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Who here is for Merle…?

There is absolute silence now except for the drumming of the
rain. It is as if the war had disappeared, vanished. The
GUARDS stand motionless, hardly breathing, so captivated by
MERLE’S performance that they suddenly resemble little
children.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Who… here… is for Merle…?

MERLE begins his chant again. His voice is low, very
dramatic, and the GUARD IN CHARGE joins right in.

MERLE (CONT’D)
(with GUARDS)
MERLE IS MIGHTY! — HA!
MERLE IS STRONG! — HA!
MERLE IS MAGIC — HA!

MERLE snaps the revolver level in his hand and BLASTS the
GUARD IN CHARGE, hitting him full in the face. At the same
time NICK throws himself into the GUARD who is standing
behind him, spins and slams the GUARD’S AK 47 into his chin.
TWO MORE SHOTS BLAST OUT FROM MERLE’S .45 and we see TWO
GUARDS crash over the kitchen table. NICK now opens up with
AK 47, and as MERLE backs off beside him, also with an AK 47,
they GUN the remaining GUARDS to the floor.

It is over in an instant. The BODIES lie in a bloody, tangled
mess under a pathetic paper lantern. The rain drones on — 
uninterrupted, undiminished, eternal…

Notice how the sequence begins in crisis, describing Sal (Steven’s) deteriorating condition:

SAL has absolutely no comprehension of what is about to
happen to him. His eyes are dreamy, far away, as if he had
mentally transported himself to some distant place. There are
great gashes in his head from the blows he has received and
as he stands waiting in the pouring rain he looks exactly
like a very small child who has experienced some terrible
confusion.

This description drives home the reality to Nick — that in order to have any
chance to save Steven and themselves, they have to act now: First step is to get the captors to allow Nick and Michael to face each other, not an American and Vietnamese prisoner as before. Crazy move, but necessary for what Michael has in store.

With both Americans participating, the odds of one of them dying increase
exponentially. And see how the scene description infuses the moment with that threat:

NICK almost loses what little control is left and his hand
begins shaking violently.

NICK puts the revolver against his temple and pulls the
trigger. There is a dull CLICK.

NICK puts the revolver back on the table. His hand is shaking
so badly it falls with a clunk.

The shaking of his hand reflecting the tension, even insanity of the moment. But then the second part of Michael’s plan: Coax their captors to put three bullets in the pistol, thereby almost ensuring somebody’s death in the first go-round. Worried that the Viet Cong will catch on, Michael does his best to distract them by acting crazy:

MERLE hops up and down again, then screams at NICK, jabbing
his finger at him, as if in fury.

Then amazingly, two rounds of roulette — no gunshot. Which means that it’s virtually certain there’s a live round loaded and ready to go — and it’s Michael’s turn. Then this description:

MERLE stares at the revolver — stares at it with an
expression of utter gloom. Then he reaches out, takes the
revolver in his hand and pulls it toward him, as if he no
longer possessed the strength to pick it up.

MERLE (CONT’D)
(gloom)
Who’s for Merle?
(he thumps his fist on the
table)
Is anyone for Merle???

MERLE roams a glowering eve over the watching GUARDS, as if
suddenly discovering himself among traitors. Slowly, he
pushes himself to his feet. The gun is still on the table,
still in his right hand, and as he gets up he lets his body
sag over it.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Who here is for Merle…?

There is absolute silence now except for the drumming of the
rain. It is as if the war had disappeared, vanished. The
GUARDS stand motionless, hardly breathing, so captivated by
MERLE’S performance that they suddenly resemble little
children.

MERLE (CONT’D)
Who… here… is for Merle…?

MERLE begins his chant again. His voice is low, very
dramatic, and the GUARD IN CHARGE joins right in.

Michael’s performance “captivated” the men, an ironic choice of words because these are the captors. Then the pay-off:

MERLE snaps the revolver level in his hand and BLASTS the
GUARD IN CHARGE, hitting him full in the face. At the same
time NICK throws himself into the GUARD who is standing
behind him, spins and slams the GUARD’S AK 47 into his chin.
TWO MORE SHOTS BLAST OUT FROM MERLE’S .45 and we see TWO
GUARDS crash over the kitchen table. NICK now opens up with
AK 47, and as MERLE backs off beside him, also with an AK 47,
they GUN the remaining GUARDS to the floor.

It is over in an instant. The BODIES lie in a bloody, tangled
mess under a pathetic paper lantern. The rain drones on — 
uninterrupted, undiminished, eternal…

What a scene. What an ending. And its own denouement: “…BODIES lie in a bloody, tangled mess… rain drones on — uninterrupted, undiminished, eternal…”

It’s almost as if in this incredible twist pulled off by Michael and Nick — including somehow willing away two bullets which by all rights should have been loaded to go — they have taken this ‘profane’ moment and transformed it into a ‘sacred’ event through the blood sacrifice they make by slaughtering their captors.

This is a terrific example of using scene description to help build the tension in a scene to a powerful climax.

Here is the movie version of the scene:

For more Scene Description Spotlight posts, go here.

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Scene Description Spotlight: “The Deer Hunter” 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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Supergirl and The Flash Musical Episode Description Revealed!

Supergirl and The Flash Musical Episode Description Revealed!

Supergirl and The Flash musical episode description revealed

Ahead of the episode’s premiere later this month, The CW has officially released the episode description for the Supergirl and The Flash musical crossover episode!

Things kick off during Supergirl episode 2.16 on March 20 which is titled “Star-Crossed” and described as follows:

“A new villain (guest star Teri Hatcher) comes to National City, putting Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) on high alert. Meanwhile, Winn’s (Jeremy Jordan) girlfriend, Lyra (guest star Tamzin Merchant), gets Winn in trouble with the law. Maggie (guest star Floriana Lima) attempts to help Winn but old loyalties get in the way. The Music Meister (Darren Criss) attacks Supergirl.”

And then continue with The Flash episode 3.17 which is titled “Duet,” and is where all the singing starts. It is set to air on March 21 and is described as follows:

“Barry (Grant Gustin) and team are surprised when Mon-El (guest star Chris Wood) and Hank Henshaw (guest star David Harewood) arrive on their Earth carrying a comatose Supergirl (guest star Melissa Benoist) who was whammied by the Music Meister (guest star Darren Criss). Unable to wake her up, they turn to Team Flash to save her. However, the Music Meister surprises The Flash and puts him in a similar coma, one that Team Flash can’t cure. Kara and Barry wake up without their powers in an alternate reality where life is like a musical and the only way to escape is by following the script, complete with singing and dancing, to the end.”

Dermott Downs directed the episode with story by Greg Berlanti & Andrew Kreisberg and teleplay by Aaron Helbing & Todd Helbing.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend creator and star Rachel Bloom has written one of the songs that will be performed by Gustin and Benoist in the upcoming crossover, titled “Super Friends.”  In addition, the Oscar/Tony/Emmy-nominated songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen) have written a song for the episode titled “Runnin’ Home to You,” which will be performed by Gustin in the episode.

Title heroes Grant Gustin and Melissa Benoist are confirmed to have singing parts in the episode along with Jesse L. Martin, Victor Garber, John Barrowman, Jeremy Jordan and Carlos Valdes.

The post Supergirl and The Flash Musical Episode Description Revealed! appeared first on ComingSoon.net.

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Balance between Scene Description and Dialogue

What if you were to think of scene description as Narrative Voice’s dialogue?

I’m currently teaching a one-week Screenwriting Master Class course called Scene Description Spotlight — Express Your Voice. I created the class for a number of reasons, the most pressing one being this:

The scene description I read in most scripts suffers by comparison to the dialogue.

By contrast, when I read a great script, there is a balance between the dialogue and scene description.

This subject came up in the Scene Description Spotlight forums today when a writer talked about the “seamlessness” between spoken word and action in good scripts. Here is an excerpt of my response:

That “seamlessness” of which you wrote, I get what you’re saying. When you read a great script, there is a flow to… everything. Scene to scene. And, as you suggest, even line to line. Dialogue informs action. Action informs dialogue.

And this leads to another point critical to our discussion of scene description: If a writer is great with dialogue, a reader picks up on that. The characters’ words leap up off the page. If, however, the writer just lays out the scene description pro forma, those words pale by comparison.

That is the antithesis of seamlessness. The seams spring wide open every time the narrative shifts from dialogue to scene description, the disjunctive quality causing us to fall in and out of the story.

This is yet another reason to embrace the concept of Narrative Voice, as detailed in today’s Lecture 2. If we approach NV as our script’s invisible character, then scene description is in effect that character’s dialogue! If we can imbue scene description with that vitality and unique personality, we are much more likely to achieve a balance between dialogue and scene description.

No matter what, it pays to devote at least as much energy to scene description as to dialogue, especially since scene description does not carry with it the benefit of a character’s personality like dialogue does…

UNLESS WE APPROACH SCENE DESCRIPTION AS A REFLECTION OF NARRATIVE VOICE!

I have a nifty formula:

Genre + Style = Narrative Voice

That’s the starting point, but it’s much more. Really embrace the idea that Narrative Voice is your script’s invisible character. Then consider:

  • What is their Personality?
  • What is their Perspective about what transpires in each scene?
  • What is their Proximity to the events which occur?

In effect, you end up giving scene description as much if not more care and attention as you do with dialogue. And that can go a long way toward achieving a balance between scene description and dialogue.

Check out that scene description from the script Alien above.

For more on Narrative Voice, go here.

You can still join my Scene Description Spotlight class. We have a great group from all over the world. For more information, go here.


Balance between Scene Description and 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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Scene Description Spotlight: Express Your Voice

On February 27, I’ll be offering a terrific one-week online class. It’s called Scene Description Spotlight which sounds super practical. And in a way, it is because at one level, it’s an immersion into the nuts and bolts of the writing craft. However what it’s really about is this: Exploring and expressing your voice as a writer.

You hear this over and over and over again in Hollywood development circles. Agents, managers, producers, execs, talent. All looking for writers with distinctive voices.

If you think voice just means character dialogue… think again. Voice also involves scene description. You know, that boring stuff you write to set up and play out a scene.

Over the years, professional screenwriters have learned to use scene description as a way to create strong visuals… convey mood… entertain the reader… and express their voice. Like this from The Matrix:

The Big Cop flicks out his cuffs, the other cops holding a
bead. They've done this a hundred times, they know
they've got her, until the Big Cop reaches with the cuffs
and Trinity moves --
It almost doesn't register, so smooth and fast, inhumanly
fast.
The eye blinks and Trinity's palm snaps up and his nose
explodes, blood erupting. Her leg kicks with the force of
a wrecking ball and he flies back, a two-hundred-fifty
pound sack of limp meat and bone that slams into the cop
farthest from her.

Or this from Wall-E:

It hovers gracefully above the ground.
White. Egg-shaped.
Blue-lit eyes.
Female.
Eve.
Wally is transfixed.
Inches closer.
Watches Eve from behind the device.
Tilts his head.
Time stops.
She's the most beautiful thing he's ever seen.

Or this from Little Miss Sunshine:

No one knows what to make of Olive rocking, her back turned.
However, when the first verse begins, Olive turns and 
strides up on the stage -- hands on hips, shoulders swinging
-- with an absolute and spectacular physical self-confidence.
She rocks out, busting crazy moves this stage has never seen: 
shakes, shimmies, twirls, dips, undulations -- a melange of
MTV rump shakin', Solid Gold Dancers re-runs, and
out-of-left-field inventions of her own. Other moves are
clearly drawn from Grandpa's sixty-year career of strip-bar
patronage.
She dances with a total command -- an exuberant, even witty 
mastery of her body, the music, the moves, everything.
Most of all, she's doing it for herself -- for her own sense 
of fun -- and the judges are instantly irrelevant.
The audience is stunned. No one moves. Mouths hang open.

In my 1-week Scene Description Spotlight class, you will learn about:

  • How Genre + Style = Narrative Voice
  • The crucial importance of ‘editorializing’
  • Using tempo and pace to make scenes spark to life
  • The freedom screenwriters have to break grammatical rules
  • Directing action through line management
  • Imagematic, psychological, and action writing

And much, much more!

The class includes dozens of examples from notable movie scripts as well as some of the most recent selling spec scripts to give you a clear sense of how to use scene description to give expression to your voice and make your script worthy of one of Hollywood’s highest compliments: It’s a good read.

I’m really excited about this class and you should be, too. Take something as seemingly simple and mundane as scene description… and use it to show off your voice.

To learn more and enroll, go here.

The class begins Monday, February 27. As always, I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!


Scene Description Spotlight: Express Your Voice 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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