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Don’t Summarize, Dramatize

Tweak + Polish Tip No. 2

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by Naomi in rewriting, screenwriting
scene description screenwriting article

Welcome back for the second installment of the Tweak + Polish series.

As we discussed in Tip #1 – Cut Redundant Dialogue, writing a screenplay happens in layers. And the Tweak + Polish series looks at some of the last layers to consider. These tips can make a big difference, and are relatively simple or easy things to implement, but should definitely be reserved for later stages of writing (or rewriting).

The usual caveat applies:

Resist the siren song of the Tweak + Polish.

Meaning, don’t think these easy fixes can improve issues in the foundation of your story. Tweak + Polish tips are meant to improve the read and the presentation of the screenplay, but you’ll only want to address them later. You still have to do all of that good, necessary, foundational work first.

Okay, back to the tip of the day.  Tweak + Polish Tip #2 is:

Don’t Summarize, Dramatize

In my reading work, this is one of the big differences I’ve noticed between screenplays written by professionals and those by writers who are still mastering the craft. That difference is summarizing the action vs. dramatizing the action.

Let’s look at an example of each so we can see what we’re talking about.

It wouldn’t be uncommon to see description like this in an early draft, or a script written in earlier stages of learning the craft:

EXT. LAKE WASHINGTON, SEATTLE – NIGHT

A dozen party boats are tied together, forming a floating island where a party rages. But along with the thumping dance music we also hear panicked screaming.

As we get closer we see the party has turned into a massacre. Some people are diving off the side of the boats to escape.

ON BOARD, half of the once-attractive post-collegiate crowd are now brain-craving zombies. The humans are terrified, trying to fight back but their numbers are dwindling.

It’s a humans vs. zombies battle royale.

While this scene description may not be terrible, there’s a level of specificity it’s lacking. What’s happening in the scene is largely told in summarizing statements, rather than allowing it to play out cinematically. It’s more ideas than action.

Take the same scene as it was originally written by Rob Thomas & Diane Ruggiero-Wright in the pilot episode of iZombie:

EXT. LAKE WASHINGTON, SEATTLE – NIGHT

CAMERA FLIES ACROSS THE SURFACE OF LAKE WASHINGTON toward a dozen party boats tied together in such a way that people can just step from one boat to the next — Lake Havasu-style. We hear cranked up Flo-Rida and panicked screaming as we approach. Something bad is happening here. A FLARE is shot into a sail, which quickly catches fire. We see people diving off the side of the boats.

ON BOARD. It’s a full-throttle humans vs. zombies battle royale. Everyone — zombie and human — is dressed as a postcollegiate party-goer, it’s just that half of them have milky red eyes and are trying to devour the other half. We see…

A ZOMBIE gets a spear in the head. We WHIP PAN to the HUMAN who shot the spear gun in time to see TWO ZOMBIES tackle him.

TWO BURLY MALES try to hold a door closed against a crush of formerly sexy sorority types — now brain-craving zombies.

A PRETTY GIRL in a red dress climbs a sailboat mast hotly pursued by zombies. She reaches the top. Nowhere to go. She has no option but to jump. She hesitates.

Yes, this version is longer. And yes, it breaks some of those “rules” you’re warned about, like camera direction, “we see”, and passive voice. Guess what? Those rules aren’t really rules and good storytelling trumps everything else. This version tells the story of the scene, and does so with a much more distinct style and voice.

You probably don’t need to be quite as extensively descriptive in every scene, but this particular scene is an important one that is referred back to throughout the first season if not the entire series. It needs to be memorable.

Ultimately, if you can entertain and engage your reader, breaking those “rules” will be forgiven. And the dramatized action will be more entertaining and engaging than the summarized version.

Why? It’s better storytelling. It brings the story alive in our mind’s eye.

Specificity also helps bring emotions alive. Putting us in the scene brings us closer to the characters and the emotions that are playing out.

Summarizing is an easy habit to fall into because, often, it’s how we’ve been thinking about our stories. If we start planning and plotting at the 40,000-foot view, then by necessity we’re thinking about the story in a summarized way. This thinking can then find its way directly onto the page in summarized scene description.

But that is one leap that sets the top 5% of screenplays (the ones industry people actually read and pass around and take notice of) apart from the rest. The leap is going from planning a good story, to telling a good story. Dramatizing it on the page is the telling part.

So your challenge is to know the purpose of your scene, what it needs to accomplish, and how much emphasis it deserves – and then service those needs in the most entertaining and engaging way possible. Tell the story.

Make that leap. Don’t summarize, dramatize. Go from ideas to actions. The words on the page are your storytelling tools.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe