Action descriptions are the most counter-intuitive element of screenwriting and the one element that could improve your script more than any other – except for a brilliant story idea, of course. You probably want to be a screenwriter because you are good at writing and because you have a great imagination and boundless creativity. All writers want their writing to show how brilliant and creative they are, so it’s only natural to create beautiful environments for every scene and to describe -in detail- every single move that your characters make. This makes perfect sense. If you were to describe the things that happened in any movie that you’ve ever seen, you would include all of the details about what the setting looked like and what the characters did. But doing this in your spec script will guarantee failure as surely as writing it in crayon.
The main reason why your descriptions must be so brief and active is that readers tend to skim through them quickly in order to get to the dialogue. I even know some readers who skip the action descriptions altogether. It’s not uncommon to view action descriptions as more of an impediment than anything else. This isn’t because readers don’t want to read action sequences, but because we need to finish this script before lunch and then do five more this afternoon. Dialogue is easy to read because it streams right down the middle of the page. Descriptions are slower because they span the width of the page and, as I mentioned, they’re usually overloaded with unnecessary detail. If you want to make sure that someone reads every word of your descriptions, then you have to trim your descriptions down to only the words that are absolutely necessary.
Most screenwriters know about the “screenplay flip” – the way that script readers flip right to the last page of a script and then thumb through it quickly from the back to the front. We do this for a reason. First, we want to know the total number of pages in the script since anything under 90 or over 120 is a red flag. But just as importantly, we are looking for huge blocks of text. In screenwriting, a “huge” block of text is any description over three (3!) lines. There is actually no reason why any description should go on for more than two lines. Seriously. If you need to go on longer than that in order for the reader to understand the scene, then break up that description into multiple blocks. If I see lots of descriptions that run on for four lines or more, then I know this is probably not a professional-caliber screenwriter and I will not take this script as seriously. There is nothing that will improve a reader’s first impression of your script more than keeping your descriptions brief.
Here is an action description that I am just making up, but which is frighteningly representative of many descriptions that I have read in screenplays over the years:
"George sits in his favorite chair, staring out the window, wondering how his life had come to this point, when suddenly a knock at the door startles him out of his silent reverie. He slowly rises from his chair, knowing that this will be the confrontation with his girlfriend, Emily, that he has been dreading ever since that knife-juggling incident at her uncle’s retirement party. He reaches for the doorknob, but hesitates… raising his hand up to his trembling lips. He stares into the peephole, a single tear rolling down his ashen cheek. Finally, his hand settles on the cold brass knob and twists it counter-clockwise until the door slowly creaks open. George turns away forlornly, averting his eyes from Emily’s scornful glare. She strides right past him like a woman on a mission, stomping her six-inch stilettos angrily across his cheap linoleum flooring.”
That entire paragraph could (and should) be written as:
“George hears a knock at the door and answers it. Emily enters.”
You could even move, “Emily enters,” to its own line since it’s a separate action from George answering the door. That will create lots of white space on your page, which readers love. We don’t love it because it means that there will be less for us to read, but because it lets us know that this is a screenwriter who knows how to be economical and effective with language. If you make sure that every single word of your descriptions either clarifies that scene or contributes to the central conflict of the story (or both), your reader will love you forever.
Is it just me, or was this post ironically lengthy?