Brief, vivid descriptions of the characters and settings in your screenplay, novel or presentation create a vivid movie in the mind of your reader or audience. But there’s a second, equally important reason for detailed description: your hero’s clothing, appearance and surroundings can reveal her background, job, financial situation, personality and protective identity (the false self she presents to the world), and can even illustrate her transformation through the course of your story.
Kevin Wade’s brilliant screenplay for Working Girl is a perfect illustration of this principle.
I’ve been recommending Working Girl for decades as the archetypal Hollywood romantic comedy. It contains all the standard elements of the genre: a sympathetic hero, desire or longing, a clear and visible outer motivation, deception and imposture to achieve an objective, a romance character intertwined with the hero’s other goal, a nemesis who’s also a romantic rival, exposure of the hero’s lies at the end of act two, the hero overcoming his or her emotional fears in act three, and a happy ending. It’s a perfect illustration of how a movie can follow a formula and still be original, romantic, funny, meaningful, emotionally involving and a huge artistic and commercial success.
And, in addition to all the other qualities of his action, description and dialogue, notice how screenwriter Kevin Wade uses wardrobe and setting to deepen our understanding of his characters.
When we first meet Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith), she’s the epitome of the Wall Street secretary: big hair, big earrings, off-the-rack clothes and running shoes. Here’s how the screenwriter introduces her:
IN CLOSE ON FEET, one pair of them, padding quickly down a hill in well-worn, rain-soaked running shoes… Her hand reaches down and yanks up a sagging stretch of stocking… She is balancing umbrella and newspaper and bag and practically juggling as she races for… the Staten Island Ferry.
In the film itself, we first meet Tess when she’s on the ferry. But in the script, where description must substitute for what an audience will see on the screen, this more detailed description creates empathy with Tess through sympathy (the rain-soaked shoes, the sagging stocking, the rush to catch the ferry), and it uses specific imagery to immediately hint at Tess’ impending conflict.
When she arrives at the office, Tess will replace the running shoes with heels — the first of many instances when her Staten Island clothes will be replaced with fashion more suited to Wall Street. This tug-of-war between Staten Island (representing Tess’ background and the image she has of herself) and Manhattan (where she wishes she belonged) will echo through the script.
When Wade first introduces Tess’ new boss Katharine (Sigourney Weaver), he creates an immediate contrast with Tess’ plainness:
[Katherine] is tall and beautiful and impeccably dressed… She is, in short, everything Tess longs to be.
And here is part of Tess and Katharine’s first exchange:
I consider us a team, and as such, we have a uniform. Simple, elegant, impeccable. Dress shabbily, they notice the dress, dress impeccably and they notice the woman. Coco Chanel.
(tugging at skirt)
How do I look?
Okay. Lose the noisy accessories.
Katharine is all about image and presentation, and initially that, as much as her own business skills, is what Tess believes will be her ticket to success.
The detailed description of Katharine’s home also vividly contrasts with the Staten Island locales and ferry rides that are so familiar to Tess:
FOLLOWING TESS up the wide, clean sidewalk, past stately, awninged entryways and welcoming lobbies, the soft light of dusk mingling with the street lamps flickering on. New York, just like you picture it.
And inside Katharine’s apartment:
Warm carpets and polished brass. Classy… High ceilings, built-in bookshelves, fireplace. Elegant… Oversized leather furniture, oversized potted palms, an oversized oil portrait of Katharine hanging over the mantle. Tess tours, gingerly touching fabric, marble, wood, inspecting books, the bar stock, etc. Someone actually lives here.
Notice how Wade’s description not only draws us into the scene; it reveals a lot about the person Tess wants to emulate. Like everything else Katharine does or wears or has, her home is designed to impress. This is Katharine’s shrine to herself.
Compare the previous passage to the description of the bar where Tess’ best friend Cyn (Joan Cusack) has her engagement party:
The place is jammed with working class COUPLES, the people Tess grew up with, people who’ve been coming here forever… A couple of couples are dancing in a tight little spot by the jukebox.
While Katharine’s high-priced but sterile apartment may be what Tess longs for, the bar is a picture of connection and humanity.
But it’s also described in a way that makes it less than inviting. Instead of high ceilings or oversized anything, it’s jammed with people “huddled together” in a “tight little spot.” It feels small and restrictive, just as clinging to this life is restricting Tess’ ability to truly define herself.
These carefully chosen details increase our emotional involvement while also revealing layers of character and theme. Isn’t that far superior to simply saying, “a big, expensive apartment” or “a neighborhood bar”?
When she learns of Katharine’s plan to steal her idea, Tess cuts her hair short, takes over Katharine’s apartment, her clothes and even her diction. Because deep down, Tess sees herself the way Katharine and everyone else sees her: a Staten Island girl who doesn’t really belong in this rarified world of brokers and dealmakers. So instead of standing up for herself and forcing them to pay attention and listen to her ideas, she hides behind this false persona — what I term a character’s “identity.”
Just before the midpoint of the screenplay, Wade has Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) — the romantic interest in this romantic comedy — give Tess a gold-lettered briefcase, which is another symbol of Tess’ desire for success. But in thematic terms, it’s different than the other things Tess wears. Katharine’s clothes signify Tess’ attempt to achieve success through pretense. But Jack gives her the briefcase because he thinks her ideas are solid, not because of some image she projects. He respects her talent, and the briefcase illustrates the transition Tess is making into her essence — into the person she truly is.
Tess’ transformation is put to the test when she returns to Staten Island for her friend Cyn’s party. Tess’ estranged boyfriend Mick (Alec Baldwin) doesn’t recognize her at first, and to fit in more with the crowd and surroundings, she stows her briefcase behind the bar. But after Tess breaks up with Mick, we see her on the ferry again, leaving Staten Island behind forever. Whatever happens now, she’ll never be able to go back to the emotionally safe but unfulfilled life she had before.
At the end of act two, when her imposture is revealed and she loses everything — the job, the guy and the future she dreamed of — Tess is left with no place to go. At Cyn’s wedding, dressed in one of those hideously puffy bridesmaids dresses, she stands apart from everyone else. Tess no longer belongs there and she has nothing left to hang on to.
But she’s also attached to nothing. She’s not reverting to her past, nor is she clinging to a false image of how she should look and who she should be. As we see her ride the ferry to the Promised Land one last time, she’s wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. She’s not an image of anything — she’s just Tess.
It’s in this outfit that Tess confronts Katharine in front of everyone and then explains how she came up with the idea for a radio network purchase, the idea that Katharine stole from her. Tess had combined information from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and the newsletter that her secretarial investment club subscribed to. In other words, she was integrating her Staten Island personality (the Post) with her business smarts (the Wall Street Journal) with her job as a secretary. And only Tess could have done that.
It’s in this moment of triumph that Tess finally stands up for who she truly is. And her clothing and appearance are as plain and ordinary as can be because she is now fully in her essence, with no need to project any kind of image at all.
Because the plot of Working Girl involves image and imposture, the outfits Tess wears are essential to the story. But the power of vivid, revealing description crosses all genres and story concepts. Every single thing you convey about your characters’ appearance and surroundings can help reveal or reinforce another facet of who they are and who they become in the course of your screenplay.