We all know how important a good location is to a good film, but what about before the cameras start rolling? Does the setting play as important of a role in the art of screenwriting? Locations provide the backdrop to the story, enhancing the screenwriter's vision of the scene.
Film is an inherently visual medium, thus screenplays are constructed with the concept of a final product in mind. Getting from words on a page to footage on a screen is tough. Screenwriters use the location as a platform for producers and directors to tell the story, they set the scene with the script, describing the settings and surroundings of each scene in an evocative manner. With this in mind, your approach to writing locations must often be based on what your own end-game is for the script at hand while keeping it from becoming bloated and verbose.
For instance, if you happen to be penning a spec script in the hopes of selling it, it’s typically best to err on the side of shorter, more generalized descriptions that allow for wiggle room on the production side of things. After all, if said script were to actually get made, there’s no way for the writer to know ahead of time what kind of budget it will be allotted or where the filming will take place. Therefore, there’s no use in writing for specific locations when these elements will ultimately be subject to financial and logistical circumstances outside your control.
Plus, to even get close to the development stage, your script has to appear slick enough to get past the initial gatekeepers of the industry—the Readers. Amateur writers will often approach scene description like a novelist might, dedicating paragraphs to every minute detail of a room’s decor or a building’s architectural style. But, for an average reader at an agency or production company, such blocks of text would only serve to make the page look jumbled and the writer look unprofessional.
Conversely, if you are writing a script that you intend to produce yourself or with friendly collaborators, you’ll have a bit of extra leeway when it comes to describing locations. Since you won’t need to impress some far-away reader with your conciseness, there’s no harm in writing in a more “purple(1)” style. That being said, self-producing an independent film doesn’t go hand in hand with a blockbuster budget, so it’s usually best to set scenes in locations that could feasibly be landed without breaking the bank— or, ideally, ones that are already guaranteed to be available for free.
After all, why can’t your lead character’s apartment happen to look just like your best friend’s place? In fact, if you’re working on a shoe-string budget, it’s almost better to reverse engineer your writing based on locations that you can realistically obtain, rather than focusing your entire plot around a centuries-old church, only to later realize that you can’t afford to rent one out.
The most economical method of writing locations in a screenplay is to describe places not precisely as how they look, but more how they feel. Now, there are some locations that can only be depicted literally (the White House, the International Space Station, etc.), but for the most part, it’s more effective to give the reader a sense of a location’s essence rather than providing the exact layout to a ‘T’. For instance, there’s no need to bring up the style of columns or the height of a spire when describing a creepy mansion, when you could simply call it “sprawling and foreboding”.
There is little benefit to listing every trinket lining the wall of a run down apartment when just writing “cramped and cluttered” would do the trick. A screenplay is a rough blueprint for a film, not a checklist to be followed to-the-word. It is better to keep it brief when describing sets and scenes and save the descriptive language to character arcs and plot lines.
In conclusion, keep it simple.
(1)“Purple”: purple prose is prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. (Wikipedia)
About the author:
Dash Finley is a reader at Script Reader Pro, a screenplay consultancy made up of working screenwriters. Their actionable script coverage and practical screenwriting course aims to de-mystify theory and help writers move toward a draft they’re confident of sending out into the marketplace.
Check out our other BLOGS. And remember to use Wrapal for all of your film locations needs.