Cinema is a medium dependent on concrete existence. That means, the content of a film or movie must be made up solely of things that physically exist in some form (whether they be people, props, locations, etc). Otherwise, they could not be photographed with a camera and shown to an audience (or in the case of modern cinema, at least brought into visual existence within the realm of CGI.) So, a movie is made of of specific and concrete visuals. The script may only mention that the scene contains “a man.” But the audience does not see a generic man, they see Matt Damon. The script may mention “a car,” but the audience sees a specific car, a yellow 1978 Datsun.
The goal of the writer must be to use the written word to communicate the actions and images of a scene to the reader, and do so with sufficient visual detail to allow the reader to visualize the scene as close as possible to how the audience will experience it on the screen. A good story can either succeed or fail with the reader, all depending on how well the writer achieves this. If the writer lays out the action in vague, wishy-washy words, what the writer wishes to be interesting and/or emotionally charged will come off flat. Consider this example:
'Mark walks down the street. It is a cold autumn morning. Mark stops at his car and gets in.'
Given that this description lacks much visual detail, the reader has no choice but to imagine the action in the most generic manner possible. To the reader, this piece of action feels unimaginative, bland, and dull. Compare it to this improved version:
'Mark walks slump-shouldered down a sidewalk lined with small New England-style homes. He shivers as a gust of wind blows dead leaves across his feet. Mark pulls open the unlocked door of a shiny black Mercedes CL and climbs inside.'
This version, while longer, not only has the benefit of allowing the reader to visualize the scene with more detail, but also communicates information to the reader about Mark and his environment in the process. Merely saying “autumn” doesn't indicate much. Autumn looks different depending on where you are and how late in the year it is. This passage helps us zero in on that. We learn information about Mark since rather than having a generic “car”, we see he can afford a six-figure luxury vehicle, and for some reason has the confidence to leave it unlocked.
First and second drafts always start out rather vague. This is expected, since the writer's focus at this point should be on figuring out the best way to make this scene do what it needs to do according to its place in the narrative. But once this has been worked out, scenes should be brought into clearer and clearer focus with each revision, like an optometrist putting a series of lenses in front of the eye. It all comes down to knowing your scene and knowing your characters. If the writer has worked to get to a point where he or she knows his/her story and characters down to the most intimate detail, this becomes easy. Once the writer has become this familiar with their story world, they can see it inside their head to the smallest detail and know exactly how their characters will behave in any situation down to where they choose to stand, where they feel comfortable putting their hands, and where they would choose to look. The only challenge that remains is communicating those nuances on the page in a manner that is clear and efficient.
The point where a writer reaches such a level of intimate knowledge and can communicate it within the text is the moment his or her work makes the jump from just being a good script, to becoming a potential movie. There are a lot of good scripts out there, but very few potential movies. Good scripts may work on paper, but they are still not ready for the screen. Only once the script attains a required level of visual detail does it cross the threshold. What is needed is not only a great story, but a great story that directors, cinematographers, actors, and the like can pick up, visualize, and right away understand what they must do to make the story happen.
Vagary is a hallmark of an amateur screenwriter. Everything in the script seems typical, average, or generic*. The locations are all treated like stock settings. The characters are little more than names on a page. Geography is unclear. Character actions are hazy. We cannot visualize where the characters exist spatially in comparison to each other and the environment around them- instead characters seem to float in some kind of limbo space. Usually this lack of visual details occurs because the writer is still not exactly sure what is going on in the scene in his or her own head! The scene is hazy on the page because it is still a fog in the writer's imagination. The writer still has not made the effort to know his or her story and characters well enough to tell the story with a VOICE OF AUTHORITY.
(* btw, never describe your protagonist, or any other character for that matter, as “an average 20-something,” or “a typical high school teacher.” WTF is interesting about a character who is average? Why would an audience want to spend two hours of their life caring about a person who has nothing unique or special about them? “Average” means “boring.” This is lazy characterization. It is also unnatural characterization. There is no such thing as an “average” person in real life. There are no identical clone pods walking around with the same brains and personalities. Everyone has something about them that makes them unique. Find it and communicate it. No one wants the watch “The Underwhelming Adventures of Nobody Special.”)
Some new writers may think that writing in broad strokes is good enough, that merely suggesting action and visuals are enough for other creative professionals to take over and fill in the gaps. This is not true. Being vague only manages to leave the writer open to criticism from the reader. Using wishy-washy words communicates a story in a timid voice. Rather than tell us what is happening, the words seem to merely suggest or guess at what should happen, allowing the story to show through as a phoney made-up world. The reader starts to question the storyteller's authority. You're trying to be the Great and Powerful Oz, but your show is so underwhelming it allows us to notice your butt sticking out from behind the curtain. On the other hand, strong, visual words communicate a story with a voice of AUTHORITY. Rather than reading a suggested story, the reader is led to SEE the film, exactly as it should be happening. This is a script that grabs the reader and says, 'This IS what is happening, right NOW. There is no questioning it. This is REAL.'
But how much detail is too much? Overdoing it is just as easy as coming up short. Ironically, the same day I started work on this article, I began reading a spec script that has the exact opposite problem I had planned to lecture on. This script was completely OVERWRITTEN. The description spelled out every little pointless and repetitive detail. Simple actions were described by entire paragraphs. Sentences were cluttered with unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. This script had to have been at least ten pages longer than it had to have been simply from all the unneeded description.
Here's the thing: I can't give you hard and fast rules about how much is too much. You just have to know when to say when. You do not have to tell the reader how many chairs are in the room (unless this information is important to the story). We do not have ti be told about every piece of clothing the character's mom wears (unless these details communicate something about her or the story we need to know.) We do not need to know the exact time of day, all the items in the hero's sock drawer, or how many steps the villain takes to cross the room (unless all of this information has some sort of significance to the story).
Do you see a pattern here? Your script needs visual detail, but only those details that are significant in terms of communicating story or character. Every detail should communicate something. Either something that advances the story, allows the audience a improved understanding of the people, places, and things of the story, or helps deepen character. For example, we have an important character walking his dog, learning the type of dog he chose to own helps us learn more about what type of man this is. Is it a rottweiler? A chihuahua? A shelter-rescued mutt? On the other hand, if a scene takes place in a park with plenty background persons walking their dogs, it would be pointless to give details on these people and their pets. They have nothing to do with the story, so who cares?
Don't be redundant with details. If you establish in Scene 1 that the story takes place in the freezing cold of winter, you don't need to keep telling us it is cold all the way through Scene 114. Audiences/readers only need to be given information once. They don't have that Memento disease where they forget every ten minutes. For example, we only need to call Mark's car (from the example above) a “shiny black Mercedes CL” the first time it is seen. From then on, it can simply be referred to as his “car,” since a proper visual for that car has already been established.
When it comes to describing characters and locations seen for the first time, create only a handful of telling visual details that get the idea across of what type of person/place this is and let the reader's mind fill in the rest. Here is a good example from The Bourne Identity:
INT. FISHING BOAT BUNK ROOM -- NIGHT A wreck. Too small for all the people in here right now -- SAILORS sweeping off the table -- rough hands laying THE MAN down -- THE CAPTAIN -- brutal and impatient -- watching from the door as -- GIANCARLO tears through the clutter -- searching for a medical kit buried in the shambles. GIANCARLO is sixty. A bloodshot soul.
There is very little actual information written in this excerpt. Yet still, it is enough for us to see the scene and character in our heads because our minds fill in the rest of the details.
But, all of this aside, there is a far more deadly type of vague that may be lurking about your script. Vague character motivations. This will be the topic of my next article.