Writing Narrative

Read this tip to make your life smarter, better, faster and wiser. LifeTips is the place to go when you need to know about Story Craft and other Screenplay topics.

Writing Narrative

Narrative is everything that isn't dialogue. It includes descriptions of the characters, the locations, the images and actions we see, and the sounds we hear. It also sets mood, pace, and tone.

Good narrative is active and lean. Here are some points to keep in mind:

Write only what you can see or hear: If you describe a character's inner state (A painful memory from when he was 5 years old overwhelms George) or give backstory (Celia was Jonathan's first girlfriend) in the narrative, how will the audience be made aware of this information? If it's absolutely vital to the story to have this information, turn it into a visual or a line of dialogue.

Describing Actions: Whereas novels are often written in past tense, screenplays are always written as if they're happening right here, right now. Use present tense: John opens the door, walks into the room. Stick to active voice: John opens the door, and avoid the passive voice: The door was opened by John. Replace the present continuous (Gloria is driving) with the present simple (Gloria drives) whenever you can.

Describing Location: Include only enough for the reader to follow the story and the production team to design the shot. Follow the "rule of three." Point out no more than three items in a room to characterize it. People can easily visualize and remember three things, but become overwhelmed when asked to remember more. Use quintessential details. For example, if you want to describe a hippie's apartment, you may want to point out the chintz, the incense, and the Kama Sutra displayed on the coffee table, but skip describing the furniture, the color of the rug, and the windows. Unless, of course someone is about to burst through a window. Then by all means let us know it's there.

Describing Characters: When describing the way a character looks, avoid non-descriptive clichés like "drop-dead gorgeous," or specifics like "blond and blue-eyed." The first only gives us a generic picture, and the second limits the casting possibilities. Use metaphors to paint more vivid pictures. Instead of, "At six feet tall and weighing only 120 pounds, Beth is too skinny," say "If Beth stood sideways and stuck out her tongue, she'd look like a zipper."

Break up the paragraphs. Large blocks of text are a turn-off to the reader. First, it slows down the reading experience and as a result slows down the story. Second, it indicates the writer is either inexperienced or spending too much time on details. Keep your description to blocks of four or five lines. Include only details that are truly important. Keep your sentences short and simple. Avoid complicated grammatical constructions.

Tone: Keep your tone consistent. If you're writing a comedy, your descriptions, actions, and choice of words should be funny, too. If you're writing an action film, then your narrative should be full of tension and action.



10/19/2011 4:47:35 AM
Emmanuel Afrifa said:

This is exactly what I was looking for that made me Google to this site. It's perfect and to the point. I will keep coming to this site. Thanks a million times.


URL: (optional)


Not finding the advice and tips you need on this Screenplay Tip Site? Request a Tip Now!

Guru Spotlight
Alexis Niki
Buy My Book