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I have a descriptive paragraph, at the beginning of a scene:

INT. VICTIM’S BASEMENT - NIGHT

------, a professional criminal, and serial killer, is hard at work in the basement of an unsuspecting victim. The clock can be seen to his left, it reads 3:00 AM.

How long should that description paragraph run? Can it be 8 to 10 lines in some cases? When should I switch to a new paragraph?

I'm totally new to this, and I'm just writing this for fun. This is my very first scene.

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2 Answers 2

First, let us clarify: Is it

  • a publishable sceneplay to be read by readers, the creative choice of that format for storytelling, the final product to be "consumed" by your audience

    or

  • a tool for director to create actual play or a movie, a step, ingredient to obtain the final product which will be the actual play?

There is a significant difference between the two formats. The former must not bore the reader with descriptions, must not skimp on details, and still can contain flair and effects simply unobtainable in real play. The latter may ignore aesthetics and pacing of the descriptions in favor for factual adherence, skimp on non-essential details as to not stifle creativity of the scene designer, and must consider the scenes to be realistically playable within reasonable SFX budget.

In the first case, the answer is pretty much the same as for writing novels. Contain all that is needed to build the scene in imagination of the reader, make sure it's flavorful and not boring. Try to stick to moderate size, not too laconic and not too boringly long. You may leave some essential details for later too.

In the second case, keep it short. Keep all non-essential details out of it, and all essential details in. Skimp on artistic forms.

In your particular example, it seems you're aiming more towards the first form. The professional killer should have been introduced in depth in "Dramatis Personae" and only mentioned by title here. The placement of the clock should be non-essential. We are not informed about what the work is. These are details you should not hold back from the director, although you may keep them back from the reader. What you wrote works fine for screenplay-as-book, but not for screenplay-for-movie. If you want the latter, it should be more like:

INT. VICTIM’S BASEMENT - NIGHT

MURDERER is hard at work digging a grave in the patch of soil of the basement. The clock can be seen, reading 3:00 AM.

The character's been long established. The actor is informed what to do. Essential element of the scene (the clock) is established, but its location not enforced. Detail unrelated to the appearance of the scene (the victim is unsuspecting) is skipped.

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"not too boring-long" might be better as "not boringly long" (less than 6-character edit limit and not a high-confidence suggestion). –  Paul A. Clayton Jun 11 '13 at 20:38
    
@Paul - thanks. I guess the "avoid adverbs" mantra is getting to me a bit too hard :) –  SF. Jun 12 '13 at 7:36

Ideally, your descriptions shouldn't last more than 4-5 lines per paragraph. A good rule of thumb is to try and condense what you want to describe in a few short paragraphs, with each paragraph describing one aspect of your scene. So in your case, you might have one short paragraph describing the state of the room the murderer is in (if its an important point of your script), while you would have a second paragraph describing the murderer (Is he sweating? Completely calm? Dressed unusually? Does he have some descriptive tic that will eventually give him away?).

Keep in mind, though, a couple of other 'soft' rules - 1) Don't drag your descriptions out over multiple pages. You're writing a screenplay, not a novel. Describe what the audience would see and what's important for them to know about the scene. 2) Each page of your screenplay should ideally have a mix of dialog and other breaks. So if later in your script you find that two people are spending 3 or 4 pages talking to each other without something else happening in the scene, you're going to lose a reader very quickly. Each page of dialog should have at least one line of something descriptive happening in the scene or else a break to another scene.

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