Friday, February 25, 2011

The right details

Here's a sample scene.


Dim lighting from four overhead incandescent bulbs. Another six are burned out. The walls are brick and concrete; three crooked nails are hammered into the far side, about five feet up. Nine metal and vinyl stools are positioned against the bar, and thirteen tall, faded oak tables with three barstools each are staggered around the rest of the interior. The bar itself is polished mahogany, chipped away in places. The wall behind the bar is a mirror with protruding glass shelves, holding the following bottles of liquor (left to right): Dewar's, Johnnie Walker Red, Johnnie Walker Blue, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, Captain Morgan, Bacardi Gold, Bacardi Silver, Appleton Estate...

Okay, that's enough. Clearly, that's not how you write a script you want anyone to read. Unless it's animation! Then, from what I hear, you have to write it that way; otherwise, the animators won't know they need to draw all those things. Or, if the entire movie takes place in that bar, you could probably get away with that level of detail. But if you're writing a normal cinematic scene and you want to put the reader inside this location, this is not the way to do it. You need details, yes, but they need to be the right details.

So what are the right details? In my opinion, they're the details that convey (a) something distinguishing and (b) something emotional. Looking at the bloated description at the top of the page, the list of alcohols on display doesn't fit either of those criteria. You'd find most of those at any bar in America, from the Bel Air Hotel to an airport in Fort Lauderdale. And there's little emotional impact to be mined from rattling off a list of common boozes. On the other hand, the description of the lighting is much closer to the mark, if not exactly Oscar-worthy. The fact that more than half the bulbs are burned out signals that the place might not be all that well taken care of; might not be clean; might not be safe. Suppose our protagonist is a pre-teen girl and she has to walk into this bar alone, late at night. With that one brief sentence of description, we're starting to trigger emotional reactions in the reader. This place is no TGI Friday's. Something bad might happen.