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Do I start by describing each character before they speak?

Each one of these characters are important. One of them is the lead. So, their descriptions are going to be a little chunky. I’m just afraid my page is going to look too chunky and it’s not going to look flowing/readable.

Or should I describe the lead - have someone talk to the lead - then describe that person - then have someone else say something - describe them?

Is it okay to describe someone after they have spoken?

Thanks!

  • It may depend if they know one another or not up front. If they don't, there can be introductions between them. Also depends if they are the only people in the room, or if the reader knows some of them already. One solution is to leave some of them undescribed, and later, have someone ask about them "who was that one with the ripped trousers?" "Oh her? she's Amy's aunt (then describe her name etc)." – DPT Nov 14 '17 at 15:37
  • I'd describe their explicit traits first, then let them speak and let the "subtext" do all the inferring you need. – Aspen the Artist and Author Nov 14 '17 at 17:48
  • Don't. If they are relevant and important characters, you should find a way to introduce them before, individually or in couples at most. This way the reader will remember them independently. If they are not important, describe only the leader and, if really needed, give small details of the others when they interact with the POV character. – FFN Nov 16 '17 at 11:39
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Once I saw a great video about the way the movie The Predator introduces the individuals of the raid party.

A group of mercenaries is on the helicopter which is taking them on the mission spot. Killing time, they all prepare for the mission in their own way. The macho guys makes some racist jokes; the quiet one stays silent shaving, ignoring the others; the goofy ones says bullshit; the friendly guy offers tobacco to the others, and so on. In a very short scene, each character is depicted with one or two traits.

The good thing, is that each trait is not very meaningful in itself. But once the story unfolds, and the characters face the horrors hiding in the jungle, their reactions are so much powerful, in that they break the initial stereotype built with the intro scene.

Check this out: https://screencraft.org/2016/05/31/anatomy-scene-introduce-multiple-characters/

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    Now this is a movie I would never have considered a candidate for sincere examination, but what a great example of storytelling, and 100% relevant to the OP's question! – elrobis Nov 15 '17 at 17:37
  • @elrobis thank you :) Well, it's a genre-specific movie, and in that genre it features great artists, both in writing and directing. I admit I was also surprised when I read that piece :) – FraEnrico Nov 15 '17 at 18:21
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Since you're editing the question, I assume you’d like more input. (Did not realize this was screenwriting, should perhaps delete this.)

I’d say, don’t throw us a laundry list of traits. Interweave it with action. I am going to assume you have only four people in a room, and the reader knows none of them, and we need to come up to speed on all of them quickly. Those sorts of details make a difference to how you do it.

I will assume omniscient is OK. Here is how I would do it, but this is a hasty bit of … drek – and would not be my final draft.

It was a small room, barely large enough for the group. But it served their purpose.

Frank said to Eva, “Did you bring the money?” Frank got right to the issue, a habit from growing up on the wrong side of the tracks.

“No way. No way would I risk that. This isn’t a safe house, for fuck’s sake.” Eva knew what she was talking about – she had grown up on these streets. She was overly cautious, but it had gotten her and Louie out of more than one scrape (perhaps insert specific example here somehow.)

Louie looked out the window. It was set high in the wall, but that wasn’t a problem for him. The streets were clear. “She’s right. What’s your damage, dude? We’re not going to bring you the goods on the first meeting.”

Through the conversation, Jonah was in the corner, rocking back and forth on a stool, not saying a word. God, I need the drugs. How are we going to buy them without the money? We are in hell’s gateway here, there could be a drive-by at any moment – and we still aren’t getting the dough! God Frank, make this work!

Frank saw Jonah’s distress. He reached into both jacket pockets. Pulled out a pistol from one, and the packet from the other. “This is what we got. We thought you’d have the money. No way do you get this,” he indicated the packet, “without it.” He put the packet back in his pocket, but kept the pistol out. “We need the cash, tonight.”

I'd flesh out everything as the story progresses.

  • This is good advice in general, may not be overly appropriate for screenwriting (as the question is intended), but still good advice – user18397 Nov 15 '17 at 3:40
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    @Thomo Aha, the tag, thanks. Was wondering if it was for the screen. Was waiting for tips in comments. – DPT Nov 15 '17 at 3:49
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In screenwriting you should not have any "chunky" descriptions at all. More than six lines is probably too many; the rule of thumb in screenwriting is that, if you cannot see it, don't write about it. (of course you can see if somebody is shy, haughty, unkempt, doesn't belong where they are, are confused or angry, etc. You might even know their profession, by their costume or makeup).

You should know your characters in great detail, their full biography, economic class, where they grew up, how they did in school and how far they went, WHY they became what they are, and so on.) But that is background work. It doesn't belong in the script. If the actor cannot act it, if the costume and makeup department cannot suggest it, if the sound guy cannot HEAR it, leave it out.

Remember the film is SEEN AND HEARD by the audience, they know nothing about your description and never will. Your character must be revealed through their actions and their dialogue and acted demeanor.

GEOLOGIC RESEARCH LABORATORY

DR. JOHN BROGAN is an unkempt 50 year old man with a receding hairline he does not conceal, with long flyaway brown hair beginning to gray. He is clean shaven and wears a pristine white lab coat that is mis-buttoned. He rises and greets the team with enthusiasm.

                 BROGAN

        Hooray, you're here! I'm John!

This is what you can see. Parts of Brogan's personality are revealed, he is not vain, hygienic but pays little attention to his appearance or dress, and he seems a happy guy without a big ego, glad to see the team and provide some help.

If he is the worlds' premiere expert on mercury inclusions in crystals, that will come out in the questions and dialogue. His credentials, if important, would come out earlier when the team learns of him; somebody else would tell them this is the number one guy in the world.

Describe what you can see, particularly if it reveals character or is important to the story. That can include dress, posture, expression, demeanor, things that can be acted or portrayed in makeup.

Do not "tell" about background, upbringing, what interests them or bores them, when their mother died, or anything you cannot see on the screen. Character is not revealed in exposition in a screenplay, it must be revealed on screen or through dialogue. Anything that cannot be revealed on screen or through dialogue doesn't matter.

If you have a full bio worked up for a character, the actor would probably be interested in that, but it does not belong in the screenplay.

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I like to limit narrative text and let the audience get to know the character via dialog and interactions with other characters. Its more challenging than a mere description but I find it also helps me get to know the characters, as the writer.

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