800.272.8927     MONDAY - SATURDAY 10AM - 6PM PACIFIC TIME
Money Back Guarantee

Return Policy

Your satisfaction is our top priority. If you are not satisfied with your purchase, please return the item(s) for an exchange or refund within 30 days from the purchase date, unless otherwise noted on the product page.

Ship the item(s) to The Writers Store via a traceable and insured method. You will be responsible for return shipping fees.

Please include a completed Return Form with your shipment. Refunds take up to one week to process once we have received the item(s).

Software returns must be deactivated and uninstalled from your computer before a refund may be issued. Please contact the software manufacturer if you need assistance uninstalling or deactivating your software.

The following items are not returnable: Hollywood Creative Directories, DVDs (opened), and Gift Certificates.


Your Satisfaction is Our Goal
0 Items in Cart

How Much Description is Too Much?

By Jeffrey Alan Schechter

Our reader Sara asks:
As a new writer trying to get a handle on what is SEEN ONLY, I find getting my character's feelings and objectives across ... challenging. How much latitude can be taken in such descriptions? What about adjectives and adverbs? I realize one shouldn't use 'Kelly's playful entrance floods him with a long-forgotten sense of whimsy. The other board members do not approve.' -- But what about, 'Kelly impishly skips to her chair. The stuffed shirts around the shiny mahogany conference table glare disapprovingly, except Brian, who smiles in awe.' -- or should it simply be, 'Kelly skips to her chair. The board members glare. Brian smiles.'

Is it safe to say, a well-established writer can get away with more than someone like me? If so, please give me the scoop that applies to the undiscovered end.

Jeffrey Schechter responds:
How much description and emotional inner-life should one include in a screenplay? The rule of thumb is to include only what's needed to get what's in your mind across to the reader. Nothing more. Don't embellish. Don't get flowery. If you love prose, write a novel. Let's look at your three examples.

Is it okay to write:
~~ 'Kelly's playful entrance floods (Brian) with a long-forgotten sense of whimsy. The other board members do not approve'?

Not on my watch it isn't! Not without you telling us how can we look at Brian and sense a 'long-forgotten sense of whimsy.' A line like that moves past script reading and into mind reading.

Which brings us to your second example:
~~ 'Kelly impishly skips to her chair. The stuffshirts around the shiny mahogany conference table glare disapprovingly, except Brian, who smiles in awe.'

This is slightly better, but still vague and over-written. What does the word 'impishly' accurately convey? Does 'shiny mahogany' add important information to the story (is the luster of the mahogany essential to the atmosphere of scene?) What about 'glare disapprovingly?' Does anyone actually 'glare approvingly?' How about Brian's smile? What does an 'awe-smile' look like? How can I tell the difference between a smile fueled by 'awe' versus one fuelled by 'lust,' 'amusement,' or even just 'gas pains?'

Which leads us to the much better third example:

~~ 'Kelly skips to her chair. The board members glare. Brian smiles.'
Short. Gets the point across. If it's super important to invest in Kelly a playful quality as well as Brian's admiration for her gumption (assuming that we don't already know these traits about your characters) you could modify the sentence slightly to read: 'Kelly skips to her chair like a schoolgirl. The board members glare. Brian smiles, impressed,' but that's about as far as I would take it. Clearly, example number 3 is the winner.

A related problem that many people have is not knowing what kind of description goes where. Often I'll see scene fragments in screenplays like the following:

Brian feels deeply slighted. He's never been treated like this before and he doesn't like it.

BRIAN
(getting out of his chair
and putting on his hat)
If that's your final answer, then I suppose
we have little else to discuss.

One should get into the habit of using exposition to convey only action or atmosphere, while a character's emotion and attitude should be expressed in the parenthetical statement (but only if absolutely necessary!) The above should be rewritten:

Brian rises to his feet. Puts on his hat.

BRIAN
(slighted)
If that's your final answer, then I suppose
we have little else to discuss.

In the event the writer chose not to give Brian a parting line of dialog but Brian's feelings are crucial to the reader's understanding of the scene, the exposition could be written like this:

Slighted, Brian rises to his feet. Puts on his hat.

The key is to use exposition and parentheticals sparingly. Too much, and your screenplay will collapse under its own weight.

Of course, don't go too far the other way and become vague about what your characters are feeling. It's important to read each scene and line of dialog to insure there's no chance for your creative intentions to be mistaken.

It's a delicate balancing act to know how much description is too much and how much is too little to get your thoughts across. To sum up ... smart, snappy expositions sparingly used, and crucial parentheticals are hallmarks of professional screenplays. Overblown expositions and overwrought parentheticals are hallmarks of scripts that get read to page 10 before wearing out their welcome.

Meet the Author: Jeffrey Alan Schechter

Jeffrey Alan Schechter has been beating up stories for more than twenty years. He is a WGA, WGC, Emmy, and BAFTA-nominated writer, producer, and director, a million-dollar spec screenplay writer, a Gemini award winning producer, and the developer of the underlying story principles behind Mariner Software’s Contour Story Development program.

Jeff's first credits were in action films such as Bloodsport 2, The Tower, and Street Knight. Turning to his love of family films, Jeff sold his spec screenplay Little Bigfoot to Working Title Film...