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.

Go Into The Story – Medium

The necessary metamorphosis of the VR Creator

Birth of a Medium

The Birth of a Medium

In the 1920’s, most radio programmes seemed to consist of book readings and theatre play recordings. In the 50’s, as TV started to take over from radio as the #1 mainstream entertainment medium, the most popular programmes were, essentially, filmed version of already popular radio shows. Similarly, the majority of VR experiences created today are often not much more than spherical versions of films or video games…

VR, as any new medium, comes with a new creative language to decipher and learn. The best VR experiences so far (e.g. Notes on Blindness, LOVR or Jon Favreau’s Gnomes & Goblins) have one thing in common: they would not work as films or video games. Those are VR-native creations and the people writing them all consciously did one thing: starting from scratch to write for VR.

So, VR creators, here are a few things that you’ll need to forget and some you’ll need to learn.

A fruitful amnesia

Justin Lin, the talented and very bankable director of Fast & Furious 5,6 & 7, directed what is probably still VR’s most expensive 360 film: Help. Despite high-quality CG and ambitious direction, the film failed to truly resonate with me on an emotional level, gave me neck pain and even motion-sickness at times. Why? Precisely because it perfectly followed the traditional filmmaking cookbook.

So, when creating a first-person POV VR spin-off of the French TV show Le Bureau des Légendes, we sat down with Julien Capron and Julien Bittner, who were the VR project’s director and scriptwriter and came from the world of Film & TV. We had to redefine what it meant to write for VR.

Firstly, a VR director is barely a director at all. For example, today’s typically fast-paced editing is a no-go. Camera movements (besides slow and steady tracking shots) will make your audience nauseous. In essence, as you immerse the spectator in a 360 scene, your camera work is replaced by the viewer’s own deliberate gaze, something you can’t control. There is no real ‘directing’ anymore (i.e. telling your interpretation of a scene through sound and images) but rather building an environment and staging a scene for someone to live into.

A common mistake for 360 filmmakers is to try playing the matador –: using sound and movement to direct the viewer’s gaze to where the story is happening. This often results in gimmicky scenes (camera placed right in-between 2 people talking for e.g.) or even meaningless 360 films where nothing’s happening beyond a traditional film’s field-of-view. The question for VR creators is not how to force-feed a story to your audience-spectator but what stories your audience can build as they become visitors of your scenes.

Finally, you will have to forget everything about control and linearity. The job of a VR creator is closer to that of a music festival designer than a film director’s. And that comes with at least as much fun as it creates early frustration: you will have to learn how to build worlds.

World-building

From storytelling to world-building

As the spectator becomes a visitor, the VR Creator becomes the architect of the environment those visitors will explore. A VR environment is fully immersive, capturing 100% of the audience’s audio & visual input and potentially requiring them to interact using their hands, head or the entire body. The VR Creator becomes an experience designer and must therefore carefully think about what happens to his audience emotionally, cognitively and physically. We call this Audience Experience Design (AX Design)

Physically, for example, an experience that requires the audience to constantly spin around, or doesn’t make full use of the tracking capability of a headset might be perceived as poor. Cognitively, every creative decision related to movement, scale or the physics of the environment is crucial.

Finally, creating powerful emotions remains the end goal of any storytelling medium and VR in that respect represents a whole new frontier. Filmmakers enchant audiences by their capacity to author their personal interpretation of an experience. For VR creators, talent resides precisely in creating experiences that audiences can author themselves, where emotions are not fed but lived.

As Saschka Unseld, Creative Director of Oculus Story Studios puts it “writers have words, and illustrators have images, but in VR (…) it’s more the thoughts that are in the audience’s head. VR creators play with states of being”

Are for ready for your metamorphosis?

From storytelling to world building—how can creators succeed in the VR industry? Join us at the Raindance VR Masterclass: Virtual Reality 101 & Distribution Models to learn from the best creators in this field.

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