Setting the scene



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  • Setting the scene

    How much detail do you put in? A few basics, and what's important to the scene? Or down to the last detail? If a prop will be needed durring a scene, do you mention it first? or only when it is picked up?

    And, if I have someonetalking off screen, do I have to put O.S.? Or is it efficiant to say "April answers from hall way"?

    I'm just full of little questions today!

  • #2
    Wow! What a hard question! That is one that I struggle with. The level of detail depends on how important the scene or image is. That is a decision that you as the writer have to make keeping in mind that you only have 90-120 pages to tell the story.

    If you are describing a living room, you can just say living room and leave it up to our imaginations. Or, if the feel of the living room is important, then you go into more detail like saying a living room with dirty dishes on the coffee table, candy wrappers on the worn sofa, and on and on. The more detail you provide in your descriptions the more screen time and the more important the scene or image is.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that the more you describe something, the more you signal the reader that this is important. It draws attention to the feeling or image you are creating. It can be a distraction. If, as in the example above, your living room is not important and you go into minute detail describing it, you draw attention away from the really important kitchen that is integral to your story. Drawing attention away can be a trick on the reader and the audience. Imagine a detective going into the living room and spending hours looking over it (seeing your minute detail), then quickly passing through the kitchen. The audience expects something in the living room. So later, when you go back and show a murder weapon in the kitchen, the audience is fooled.

    Aside from intentionally fooling the reader/audience, the rule of thumb is that the more you describe the more important the scene/image.

    On the OS question, it's better to describe it like you did, "April answers from the hallway." You don't need to add OS. UNLESS, April has dialogue from the hallway. Then, you have to add O.S.

    That's my take on it.

    Tom (Gasping for air)


    • #3
      On the Prop Question

      Depends on when you want the audience to notice the prop. Also, you can CAP the prop if it's important enough. Some people will tell you not to use CAPS for props. It's a matter of taste, but that's a seperate issue.

      If the SPOON has been used to commit a murder, such as death by spooning, then you may want to linger on the SPOON with nasty puss on it. Gore flecks the SPOON. Then, a hand. The hero picks up the spoon and scoops up a bunch of cereal. Gingerly, the hero puts the SPOON to his lips. YUMM YUMM.


      The hero is happily chomping on his cheerios. YUM. A happy hero. Then, he sets down... the BLOODY SPOON.

      Kinda depends on how long and when you want your audience to experience the emotion. In the first case, your audience is grossing out from the start all the way through the hero's eating. In the second case, the audience doesn't realize anything until... the BLOODY SPOON.

      (Just thought I'd leave you with a pretty image.)



      • #4
        Re: On the Prop Question

        What Tom said.

        (Nice to have another male voice who isn't one of the combative, know-it-all, Young Turks. You are officially on Lil's "good guy" list. You're in trouble now.)


        • #5
          What a wonderful question. Of course I don't know the answer and what Tom said sounds darn good to me. But can we go even farther and add some more examples.

          I have often wondered if like in American Beauty when Lester mention the shears that match Caroline's gardening clogs, would it have been necessary to mention that in a slug line? In other words, conveying details through character dialogue. For some reason that image stuck with me after he said it and I would not have needed to read it in a slug line. But I notice the writer did include the information in the previous slug line.



          • #6
            I don't remember how it was done in the script, but that image spoke volumns about the character.


            • #7
              Regarding slugs - if there is a particular item - mention it when it is most convenient, whether it be part of the overall scene description or when it becomes an interaction.

              In my own script, roses are highlighted and focussed - thus when I describe a living room I have soemthing like:

              INT. HOUSE - MAIN FLOOR - DAY

              Tim closes the door, hauls out the .415 magnum.

              A living room opens up on the right. Lots of leather furniture and glass. A large stone table occupies the middle of the room, with a vase full of black roses - their presence irritates Tim.

              Tim moves down a short hall that tees off.

              Right: kitchen and adjoining dining room. Left: a long hall to a recreation room. Halfway down the hall: a door on the left, stairs on the right.

              Tim walks to the rec. room, checks the stairs as he goes.

              There is quite bit of description as the house itself becomes a "character" in the story.

              For the person speaking O.S. from the hall I might do something like this.

              INT. HOUSE - DAY

              Mandy sits in front of the t.v. watching football.

              SAMANTHA (O.S)
              Are you ready to go yet?

              Samantha, vexed, storms in from the hallway.

              Or something like that.


              • #8
                all good advice.. thank you, it is helping... One more quesion tho'... If a character is dressed in a costume, do I need to say "Tracey is dressed like Bo-Peep" OR actually discribe the costume?


                • #9
                  Lean and mean - use a little words as possible.

                  "Dressed like Bo-Peep" is good enough in my books unless you get some stump who thinks Bo-peep is the hooker out on 101st and Madison.


                  • #10
                    I have a whole article on description on my website - an excerpt from my book.


                    Go about halfway down the page, it's called 16 STEPS TO BETTER DESCRIPTION.

                    It's about 8-10 pages long, too much to reprint here.

                    - Bill

                    PS: The short answer is - what cops do in chinatown.


                    • #11

                      That link/site doesn't work...


                      • #12

                        Keep asking questions, that's how you learn. On Martell's site, just go to and click on the articles link. I also suggest you go each weekday to view Mr. Martell's "Tip of the Day" link. You will find solid, solid advice there.



                        • #13
                          Yes, indeedy, Mr. Martell gives good advice. Clean and clear.


                          • #14
                            I'll be the third testimonial. That website has been instrumental in helping me to learn the ins and outs of screenwriting. I'd encourage all - even the lurkers to check it out .



                            • #15
                              Martell's website

                              ...and I'd encourage anyone writing an action SP to buy Bill's book. It's helped mine a good deal.