Friday, October 8, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #19: Under-descriptions

In a previous post, I ranted about the common problem of overwriting screenplay descriptions. In fact, I have never read a single script that didn’t contain too much description – usually quite a bit too much. However, I sometimes see the opposite problem, which is when a writer describes a complex series of actions in far too few words.

For example, I read a script not long ago that included a dramatic scene in which the protagonist is finally getting his big chance to face off against his antagonist in a fencing duel to the death. Rather than writing out what happens so that the reader can get a clear picture of the action, the author wrote, “There’s an epic swordfight. Charles wins.” I can guarantee you that’s not how William Goldman described the swordfight in “The Princess Bride” and that Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. never had to just wing it when he faced off with a bad guy.

This is a great place to build up lots of tension and to show the ebb and flow of the dramatic interaction between these two characters, not just to let a fight choreographer decide everything that will happen. You still need to keep the descriptions brief and active, but you must give the reader an idea of how that fight will unfold. One good way to do this is through a series of shots that you list one after another with a dash in front of each of them. Here’s an abbreviated example:

-       Charles and Roger draw their swords and lock eyes, circling left, then right.
-       Roger thrusts his sword at Charles’ chest. Charles parries and spins left.
-       Charles spins behind Roger and swings for his back. Roger ducks and rolls away.
-       Still crouching, Roger swings for Charles’ legs. Charles leaps over the sword and chops downward, burying his sword in Roger’s left shoulder.

This description should give a clear idea of the flow of the action, though an actual blow-by-blow of this kind of fight would go on longer than this because this is the big showdown, which could last for several minutes. If you want to write action effectively, watch some good fight scenes that are similar to how you would like yours to go and then write out brief, staccato descriptions of the action they contain. You don’t need every detail, just the main points. Better yet, read the screenplay of that movie and see exactly how the author described the action. Then you can emulate the style of those descriptions, while creating your own unique spin on the kind of fight that you want your characters to have.

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