The screenplay for the 2000 movie Cast Away was written by William Broyles Jr. One of the big challenges he faced once the story transitioned to the island was creating a specific sense of place, not only the actual topography, but its atmosphere. Here are some scenes just after Chuck has crash landed and is now taking stock of the island:
Chuck emerges onto a ridge that leads to a summit. He climbs across a rocky lava field covered with scrub lichen and low ferns, soil dark as coffee beans, his way crossed by steep gullies that cut like dark fingers into the lava. The lava field narrows, forcing Chuck closer to the sea. He passes a series of CAVES, their mouths dark and mysterious and scary. He gives them a wide berth. EXT. ISLAND - CLIFF - MOMENTS LATER The land narrows to a ledge that stretches across a high cliff perched over the ocean. Beyond this rock bridge the path smoothes out to a summit. Chuck stares at the narrow bridge, then down at the waves breaking on the rocks far below. To get any view, he will have to cross the bridge. He's thirsty. The late afternoon sun is hot. CHUCK Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play? Hugging the wall of the cliff, taking each step with great caution, he sets out across the bridge. EXT. ISLAND - CLIFF Step by step, Chuck negotiates the narrow bridge. He reaches a flume of polished basalt which cuts across the ledge like a slide in a water park -- except this flume ends high above the waves. Chuck tries to step across it, can't quite, tries one foot first, then the other. CHUCK Shit! He looks back, but that seems even scarier. CHUCK Got to get there. Got to see. C'mon... c'mon. Don't be such a wuss. Be bold. He looks down at the ocean beneath him, closes his eyes, and jumps. It's only a few feet, but he's breathing hard when he lands on the other side. He hugs the rocks, getting his breath. EXT. ISLAND SUMMIT - SUNSET - MOMENTS LATER Chuck looks to each point on the compass. He is on an ISLAND, small, inhospitable, without sign of habitation or anything human. On three sides the waves break against steep, hostile cliffs. A reef encloses the cove where he came from. CHUCK No way on. No way off. Chuck stares out to sea in every direction. Nothing. CHUCK This is bad. Really, really bad. The last rays of sun hit his face. The ocean turns a deep reddish gold. EXT. CLIFF - MOMENTS LATER Going down is even scarier. It's dusk and the light is flat and gray. Chuck stares at the ledge. CHUCK Come on. Crawl if you have to. Chuck crawls on his hands and knees across the rock bridge. EXT. ROCKY SLOPE - MOMENTS LATER Chuck stumbles over the rocks. The caves look ominous and primal. EXT. EDGE OF JUNGLE - NIGHT It's getting dark now. The jungle seems impenetrable, the dark wood of fable. Chuck hesitates, then plunges into it. EXT. JUNGLE - NIGHT MINUTES LATER The moon has just begun to rise, casting eerie light into the jungle. The shadows reach out to grab Chuck, then real branches and vines tug at him. He heads into thick blackness.
Notice these lines:
* his way crossed by steep gullies that cut like dark fingers into the lava
* The lava field narrows, forcing Chuck closer to the sea
* CAVES, their mouths dark and mysterious and scary
* Chuck negotiates the narrow bridge
* polished basalt which cuts across the ledge
* an ISLAND, small, inhospitable, without sign of habitation or anything human
* waves break against steep, hostile cliffs
* The caves look ominous and primal
* The jungle seems impenetrable, the dark wood of fable
All wrapped up by this paragraph:
The moon has just begun to rise, casting eerie light into the jungle. The shadows reach out to grab Chuck, then real branches and vines tug at him. He heads into thick blackness.
Notice those descriptors, cumulatively creating a foreboding sense of danger. It’s what I call psychological writing in this case projecting Chuck’s feelings onto the physical surroundings. Much more effective writing than mere scene description.
Takeaway: Use psychological writing in your scene description.
[Originally posted March 24, 2012]