My previous article, “Don’t Summarize!” had one of the strongest reactions of any I’ve done. I got lots of positive comments (thanks!), but also a number of questions and challenges regarding just how much description is too much.
John Conley’s question summed up this concern very well:
“I’ve been told by several working screenwriters not to include any exposition or description – to write just the action, and to keep that at a minimum. I’ve been given the spec script for THE BABYSITTER by Brian Duffield as an example, since it’s an easy read for readers. Walter Hill and David Giler’s screenplay for ALIEN is also mentioned frequently. And just this past Sunday I attended a seminar where a former agent said, ‘If you have description or exposition in your script take it out!’
“So how do I walk the fine line as a writer between having too much description and action, and providing detailed description and action, as you suggest in your article?”
Here’s what you need to understand about all these edicts forbidding description and exposition: the writers who pass them on have heard them from readers and agents and managers and executives who have read a LOT of spec scripts. Most of these scripts are awful, in part because they contain long paragraphs of minutely detailed description, and page after page of expository dialogue.
In a futile attempt to avoid having to read more of this unnecessary verbiage, these executives give advice in absolutes. “Better no description at all,” they think, “than these endless passages I keep encountering.”
I’m guilty of the same approach. When I lecture about principles I consider essential to being a good writer and storyteller, I often use words like always and never and must.
But what we all really mean with these “rules” is simply use good judgment.
In other words, you should limit the amount of description and exposition to the minimum necessary to get us emotionally involved.
Let’s take a look at the two scripts John Conley mentioned as examples of no description and no exposition.
Here’s the opening passage from ALIEN by Walter Hill and David Giler:
Quite a lot of description for a script that supposedly has none, isn’t it?
In this short passage, the writers use eight different adjectives, and repeat one of them. Combined with the carefully chosen objects (instruments, chairs, turbos) and the staccato style, this opening gives us a clear picture of the setting, it establishes a mood, and it’s simple and fun to read.
To make my point, I was going to rewrite these scenes with no description at all. But it’s impossible. This is nothing but description.
The reason ALIEN is cited as a good example is because the description is minimal, specific and vivid. The screenwriters carefully selected exactly the right details to get us emotionally involved.
Now let’s look at THE BABYSITTER, screenplay by Brian Duffield:
IN THE CRAWL SPACE –
Cole scrunches up his face.
INT. GARAGE – DAY
Cole chews a fruit roll-up as he makes his way through their cluttered garage that dad always promises to clean and never does.
EXT. THE HOME’S CRAWL SPACE – DAY
Cole’s MOM is under the crawl space beneath their house. The small gate unscrewed and put off to the side.
Cole hands her mousetraps, which he hears her setting.
Do you like it under there?
No, Cole, I don’t like it under here. It’s pretty much the worst.
Brian Duffield’s screenplay finished high on the Blacklist in 2014, and there’s a lot of Internet discussion about what an outstanding script it is. But I wasn’t familiar with it, so I just found a random passage with little dialogue to see what makes this a no description example.
Not surprisingly, this passage also contains plenty of description. But once again, the description is skillfully and succinctly written. The empty house, the stairs, the cluttered garage, the small, unscrewed gate, the sound of the mousetraps being set – these all contribute to a vivid, involving setting.
And one more thing I’d like to point out. This scene also contains a good deal of exposition, though it doesn’t seem like it, because the information is neither summarized nor “announced” in the dialogue.
Reading just this short paragraph we learn that Cole lives in a basic, middle-class house with both his parents, he feels comfortable there (the fruit rollup), and he has a good relationship with his mother (her thoughtful note, helping her with the traps, her lovingly sarcastic remark about not liking being in the crawlspace).
The lesson is this: use description and exposition in your writing, but do it thoughtfully, carefully, subtly and succinctly.