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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Decor - Does it Matter?

You can tell TONS about a person by what's in their home, right? Just tons. Next time you go over to someone's house, use your writer's eye and sweep the room. A lot of books? Is it super dusty and messy? Or clean as a whistle? Is there a prominent flat-screen TV and lots of movies lying around? How about the color scheme? Bright? Neutral? How about tchochkes? (Knick-knacks for you non-Yiddish speakers.) How about awards or artwork? Anything embroidered? Anything at all?

In my neighborhood, many people have their windows flung wide open at night, owing to the heat. And a stroll up and down the block will reveal an apartment with a huge, wide-screen tv with a lawn chair pulled up in front of it. And a living room painted bright red, strung with tiny Christmas lights. And a living room window peppered with children's drawings. Messy apartments, with stereo systems up on cinder blocks. Apartments with a lot of Hollywood posters of yesteryear. There are apartments that look very lived in. And apartments that look just moved in to.

What is important to us is revealed in our homes. This is our womb-like lair. Where we go home, after a long day, to relax and find safety and peace. It's where we can walk around in boxer shorts and ripped up tee shirts. It is our private space.

So I was reading a script recently which indicated that the main character's apartment was nice. That's all. No other details. Just"nice". While you don't want to take up an inordinate amount of space on your pages with design details, taking a second to describe your main character's domicile is a very good idea. Or, to state it in the reverse, not doing it is a missed opportunity. A big missed opportunity.

Sometimes writers will say that the place is "bare bones" or indicate that the main character is rich or has "good taste". But - neither one of those things really gives me a visual.

Take "bare bones" as an example. Okay, all right - but are the dishes stacked neatly near the sink or is the sink overflowing with dishes? Is the character a slob or a neatnik? Is this place bare bones because the character is broke or because they have no life? In other words, what does bare bones say about the psyche of the character?

You don't have to go into a lot of detail (which is another, very common mistake I see) but just sketch it out some. When you say they are rich and the apartment is nice, do you mean they have expensive antiques? Or so you mean they catalogue shop at Pottery Barn? Is the apartment or house stuffed with things or pretty minimalistic? Is it an overstuffed couch or leather? Is the decor feminine in nature or very masculine? Gloomy or bright?

Does your character care for plants? Or not even? How about pets? Anything slithering around or rubbing up against your leg? Could the place use a good cleaning or health inspector? Or does your character use a maid? Is your character's home a welcoming space or a cold, unwelcoming one?

Again, I cannot stress enough that in the big sweepstakes of significantly important qualities in your script: original premise, character arc, theme - decor is a detail that is not up there as one of the most important details. But not taking a few words to set the scene is a missed opportunity to tell us more about your character. Saying "nice" or "expensive" or "bare bones" is a cop out.

But nor should you catalogue everything in the room. No - broad strokes - but when you say the character is "rich, with expensive tastes" what does that mean, exactly? That tells me absolutely nothing. Is it gilded, Colombian drug lord "good taste" or is it eclectic, upscale-flea-market-collectors-finds "good taste"?

Do some research this week and look around at the home decor of your friends and neighbors. What stands out? How does this define your friend or neighbor? Our chosen decor does offer a glimpse into us, no doubt about that. Whether that decor is cardboard boxes and lawn chairs or priceless art and antiques.

Describing decor is ultimately a small detail of your script but don't miss an important opportunity to give is a glimpse into your character's soul.

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1 comment:

lb_ny said...

Description can be a real stumbling block in my second draft. I find that very specific, precise specialty language never comes to mind when I need it, even if I have the image or sense I want clear in my mind. I reach for design magazines and find it an incredible help to crib! They are the experts and there is such a rich language to it. I tear out the pages with particularly concise and catchy descriptions and keep them as a source of inspiration! It really helps me keep things moving.