One key aspect about scene description is something I call narrative voice. It is the invisible character in your script — the mindset, personality, and ‘voice’ of the character who conveys the story, primarily through scene description, but also in transitions choices, pace, scene cross-cuts, etc.
Narrative voice is heavily influenced by the story’s genre – that is if you’re writing a comedy, your NV should be funny; if you’re writing a horror flick, your NV should be scary; if you’re writing an action movie, your NV should kick ass. In other words:
Narrative Voice = Genre + Style
Let’s start off this week’s series of posts with a look at the writing style of Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman as demonstrated in the screenplay for this summer’s hit movie Star Trek. This excerpt is part of a big action sequence, so we should be looking for a kick ass narrative voice:
EXT. PLASMA DRILL CYLINDER - CONTINUOUS The platform BANKS -- Sulu FALLS BACK, OFF THE PLATFORM -- WITHOUT A CHUTE! Kirk, holding on, watching this wide-eyed -- and knowing what he must do, he RUNS AND JUMPS -- KIRK FALLS FAST, he's only gonna have one shot at this, presses his arms to his sides and ROCKETS downward, building speed, four hundred feet below is Sulu, FREEFALLING -- KIRK moves his feet and hands, angling toward him -- slashing downward at 160 mph, closing like a missile -- the gap between them narrows -- Sulu's 30 feet below him... 500 feet to the planet surface. 40 ft -- 20 -- 10 -- WHAM! Kirk slams into Sulu in a mid-air tackle -- they TUMBLE TOGETHER -- Kirk's made the grab and locked his arms around Sulu in an iron grip, screams in his face: KIRK I GOTCHA! NOW PULL MY CHUTE! Sulu DOES -- it opens -- but HOLY FUCK, the double weight RIPS IT -- IT SNAPS AWAY FROM THEM -- NOW THEY'RE BOTH FREE-FALLING WITH NO CHUTE, THE GROUND COMING AT THEM FAST! KIRK (CONT'D) ENTERPRISE, WE'RE FALLING WITHOUT A CHUTE!!! BEAM US UP!!! BEAM US UP!!! INT. ENTERPRISE - TRANSPORTER BAY The TRANSPORTER CHIEF works his controls, sweating -- trying to LOCK ON TO THEIR MOVING TARGET -- TRANSPORTER CHIEF I'm trying! I can't lock on your signal! INT. ENTERPRISE - BRIDGE - CONTINUOUS SNAP AROUND as Chekov hears this -- watching his controls -- Uhura watching too -- TRANSPORTER CHIEF (V.O.) -- you're moving too fast! CHEKOV -- no-- I can do that--I CAN DO THAT!!! Chekov suddenly BOLTS -- Uhura watches him race off -- a CREW MEMBER steps into frame: CREW MEMBER The black hole's expanding, we won't reach minimum safe distance if we don't leave immediately. INT. ENTERPRISE - VARIOUS AREAS Chekov SPRINTS through CORRIDORS -- ENGINE ROOM -- YELLING: CHEKOV MOVE! I CAN DO THAT! I CAN DO THAT! And we take him to: INT. ENTERPRISE -- TRANSPORTER BAY -- where he races to the controls, out of breath, yelling: CHEKOV I CAN LOCK ON! GIMME MANUAL CONTROL! QUICK! -- and he begins working the controls -- EXT. SKIES ABOVE VULCAN PLANET SURFACE - DAY Kirk and Sulu SPEED-DROPPING -- TERRIFIED -- KIRK ENTERPRISE, WHERE ARE YOU?!?! INT. ENTERPRISE - TRANSPORTER BAY Chekov's manipulating a joystick-like TARGETING DISPLAY -- trying to match the CROSSHAIRS on the DROPPING FIGURES -- CHEKOV -- holdonholdonholdonholdon! EXT. SKIES ABOVE VULCAN PLANET SURFACE - CONTINUOUS A massive SHEET OF LAVA, MILES HIGH, BURSTS INTO THE SKY -- Kirk and Sulu enter frame, BULLET-WHOOSH right past us, DROPPING -- KIRK (headset) NOW NOW NOW!!! DO IT NOW!!!!!! INT. ENTERPRISE - TRANSPORTER BAY (LOCATION CHANGE) TIGHT ON CHEKOV as he struggles to lock onto them -- BEEP! CHEKOV Compensating gravitational pull and -- GOTCHA! He HITS A BUTTON and -- EXT. VULCAN SURFACE - CONTINUOUS 5 FEET BEFORE THEY HIT THE GROUND, KIRK AND SULU DEMATERIALIZE! INT. ENTERPRISE - TRANSPORTER BAY - CONTINUOUS AND REMATERIALIZE, SLAMMING DOWN ON THE TRANSPORTER PADS, HARD AND PAINFUL, BUT SAFE! Transporter engineers GAPE in utter amazement and relief -- Chekov, sweating, laughs. Kirk and Sulu get their bearings, peeling themselves up, at stunned whispers: SULU ... thanks. KIRK ... yeah, not a problem.
So first question: Did that scene description kick ass? Yes. One seamless flow of action, told in a hyperbolic voice befitting the action. Of special note:
* Lots of CAPITALIZATION to (A) highlight specifics bits of action (The platform BANKS… he RUNS AND JUMPS) and (B) underscore key narrative elements (trying to LOCK ON TO THEIR MOVING TARGET).
* Lots of underlining and CAPITALIZATION to REALLY spotlight a key narrative element (NOW THEY’RE BOTH FREE-FALLING WITH NO CHUTE, THE GROUND COMING AT THEM FAST!).
* Bold for all the sluglines – to make as clear as possible the shifts in location.
I invite your comments on those style choices as collectively they represent a bending of the ‘rules’. But don’t let that make you lose sight of the actual words Orci & Kurtzman use to both paint a picture of what’s happening and convey the furious pace of the action. To spotlight that, here is a list of verbs they use in SD in this excerpt:
banks, falls back, holding on, runs, jumps, falls, presses, rockets, moves, angling, slashing, closing, narrows, slams, tumble, locked, screams, opens, rips, snaps, free-falling, works, sweating, trying, hears, watching, bolts, watches, steps, sprints, yelling, races, yelling, begins working, speed-dropping, manipulating, trying to match, bursts, enter, bullet-whoosh, dropping, struggles, hits, dematerialize, rematerialize, slamming, gape, laughs, peeling.
Just tracking the verbs gives a reader a sense of the scene’s action and pace. O&K even make up verbs to get the point across: speed-dropping, bullet-whoosh. As a screenwriter, you can do that. In fact, you can do anything to grab the reader’s attention and sell the moment.
One last obvious note: Apart from the 3rd paragraph, which is 7 lines long, all the other paragraphs of SD are no more than 3 lines in length, most of them 1 or 2. Again befitting this type of scene — quick cuts, quick action.
What do you think about this approach to scene description?
For more on narrative voice, you can go here to read an article I wrote for Screentalk magazine.
[Originally posted December 7, 2009]