As Carson at Scriptshadow likes to point out, screenwriting is 99% storytelling and 1% writing. If you’re telling a great story, no one will care very much about the quality of your prose. On the other hand, if you’ve got a sloppy story and you’ve wasted hours dressing it up with Ellroy-style cool-cat descriptions, then your reader will be infuriated. Your screenplay is not “professional” just because you took out all the pronouns.
But, with all that said, there is something to be said for bettering the quality of your prose, just enough to get people to actually read it. Most screenplay readers, including myself, get in the habit of just glossing over the prose paragraphs and only reading the dialogue unless we lose track of what’s going on. Why? Because the prose is usually just too turgid to wade through.
The danger is what John August calls “Dungeonmaster prose”, wherein the screenwriter categorically describes the size, shape, and contents of each room, as if walking the reader through a “Dungeons and Dragons” module.
In reaction to this, some screenwriters have adopted a “macho haiku” style, as perfected by Walter Hill’s screenplay for Alien (and never successfully replicated by anyone else.) The problem is that, in the end, you are more of a dungeonmaster than a poet: you really do need to describe everything well enough for your reader to picture the setting and understand everything that happens. When I read these macho pronoun-less screenplays I usually can’t figure out what’s going on.
The trick is to describe just enough to set the scene without boring the reader. And yes, along the way, you want to have punchy, fun prose. Here are some dos and don’ts:
- DO introduce major characters using colorful descriptions of their “type”: “In walks BRIAN, mid-30s, the sort of guy who offers to help you move the first time he meets you.”
- DON’T bog down your action scenes with needless similes: “The henchman’s head snaps back so fast you’d think it was an angry mongoose.”
- DO assume that the reader has been in this sort of location before: give a sentence or two describing what type of bar it is, but please don’t mention that it has barstools.
- DON’T use a simile instead of a description: “Brian enters a bar that might as well be the armpit on the world’s sweatiest plumber.” (I swear to you I’ve read descriptions like this.)
Then (and this literally happened) I looked over at the cover of the book I was reading, Naomi Klein’s rousing and deadly serious economic history of the last half century, “The Shock Doctrine”. And I suddenly realized: “Hey, that title isn’t merely descriptive!” It rhymes! And that makes it more memorable, which makes it more powerful. She did that on purpose!
Remember two entries back, where I ended my post by saying, “Every choice is a chance to multiply the meaning.”? You’re allowed to get away with stuff like that. Don’t knock our socks off, but don’t be afraid of punchy sentences, either.
But whatever you do, and this is the last time I’ll say this, don’t worry about the prose during your first draft. Just clarify everything. You’re going to have to change it all anyway, so all that work would be for nothing. Punch it up once you’ve done everything else. And now... you’re done!