by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Imagining worlds is one of the most rewarding aspects of telling stories. We see people and places in the eye of our mind, complete with specific costumes, vivid landscapes, and precise hues. Many writers revel in including these details in their scripts. And while a meaningful description of a character’s physical appearance can create realism in the reader’s mind, too often the details included in the descriptions of characters and the worlds they inhabit don’t add any additional layers or meaning to the story and become a distraction that weighs the script down with unneeded verbiage.
The details we include in a narrative can bring it to life and make it feel more authentic. But when details don’t seem to tell us more about a character’s psyche and inner life or the nuances of the environment they live in, readers can get frustrated by too much minutiae. Here are three ways to properly use details in your story to draw a reader in, rather than isolating them.
One of the most tempting ways to describe an object or an environment is to begin with the color. Some writers simply mention that a character’s shirt was green. Others will describe a peaceful pasture divinely painted in shades resembling the spectrum of the world’s emeralds. There are times and places where each method may be most appropriate. Regardless, the use of color should tell the reader something that will matter in the story at some point. Drew Goddard’s script for The Martian opens like this:
THE RED PLANET momentarily eclipses the Sun. As sunlight breaks across the edge, warming the surface…
Telling us the planet is red is not just a fun detail. It communicates that we are looking at Mars, the setting for our story, and begins to paint an image that establishes the palette for the environment of the film. Jim Uhls uses a similar technique when introducing the character of Marla Singer in Fight Club. She is described like this:
MARLA SINGER enters. She has short matte black hair and big, dark eyes like a character from Japanese animation.
Telling us her hair is matte black, rather than a shiny black or just simply black communicates that her character has a worn sense to her – that she does not prefer the flashy. Uhls doesn’t just repeat that her eyes look black as well, but gives us a simile to provide even more insight into who she is. Patti Bellantoni’s book If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die is a helpful resource for those wanting to dig deeper into color theory and the meaning behind hues in filmmaking.
The smallest comment or mention of something in dialogue can have huge impact if implemented correctly. While it is important to avoid being too on the nose with dialogue that reveals the inner world of a character, what a character says can tell us a great deal about who they are. In Taylor Sheridan’s Hell or High Water, we can see an example:
Put the gun on the counter?? You liked to get us killed!
I’m not stealing from some old man. We stealing from one place. That’s it.
But Tanner isn’t angry, he’s laughing.
You’re turning out to be a poor criminal.
When Toby tells Tanner that he won’t steal from old people or multiple places, we understand that he is reluctant to steal at all – that he’d rather not be doing this and has a code for how far he will let this take him. These details in the dialogue tell us a great deal about what sort of man he is in a very short amount of time. This is powerful and efficient writing.
In The Fault in Our Stars, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber open up their protagonist, Hazel, in a similar way through dialogue:
I may switch you to Zoloft. Or Lexapro. And twice a day instead of once.
Why stop there?
Keep ‘em coming. I can take it. I’m like the Keith Richards of cancer kids.
Hazel’s joke tells us that she has become jaded about her illness but still has her sense of humor. It also tells us that she doesn’t think those entrusted with her care really understand her. We are given insight into Hazel’s inner life and worldview with just a few off-handed details in the dialogue.
Symbolism can be a powerful way to communicate the theme in a film as well as what a character wants, desires, and loves. Often times, an object will hold great significance in the overall narrative. It becomes a totem of sorts. Charles Foster Kane’s sled, Rosebud, in Citizen Kane is perhaps the most famous symbol of this kind ever used in film.
These symbols are usually most effective when their meaning is revealed over time in the narrative, but not always. We are given the meaning of Butch’s watch before we see the lengths he will go to get it in Pulp Fiction. We would do well to remember that while symbols might be most common in dramas, symbolism can work across genres. In Tim Herlihy’s The Wedding Singer, the protagonist’s Van Halen shirt becomes a symbol for his affections. When his new girlfriend sees his former fiancé wearing the shirt, she is led to believe he has fallen back in love with his ex. The detail of the shirt not only tells us what band he likes, but also acts as a symbol of his love.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.