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December 30, 2021

What is Mise En Scène in Screenwriting?

So, what is mise en scène? If you were to pause a film or tv show so that you couldn't see the movement and couldn't hear the audio and look at a still frame…everything you can see is mise en scène.

Understanding this broad but practical term in creation and analysis can help produce richer stories and provide opportunities to tell without dialogue and action.

What is mise en scène in screenwriting?

Mise en scene is the French translation of "setting the stage" because it originally comes from the theater. It came to popularity in film criticism due to the French film review Cahiers du Cinèma, used to describe everything that could be seen on screen.

Everything that can be seen on screen is a hell of a lot of stuff. It includes:

  • Actors
  • Location
  • Set Design
  • Lighting
  • Blocking
  • Costumes
  • Hair & Makeup
  • Production Design

It's been argued by some (including this Masterclass article) that even film stock can be included as part of mise en scène because it can be seen. I'm not sure about that, but understanding why it would be included can help solidify the concept.

Using mise en scène to further your story

Screenwriters are drilled to reveal what people do and what people say. Pretty much everything else can be left to novelists or poets. And while that's largely true, using mise en scène can elevate your story immensely.

Take a look at this clip from the opening of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.

Without any line or action (Jimmy Stewart is silent and still), we've learned about him as a character, his current predicament, and how he got there. And it was done entirely through mise en scène.

Production design, props, and wardrobe can provide significant pieces of information incredibly quickly. For example, consider using them for exposition rather than dialogue.

Mise en scène can also be used to further thematic ideas. Check out this clip from Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist.

First, you'll notice the characters' background (the empty lots of a future neighborhood), and then as the scene continues and the camera pulls out, you'll see the cemetery in the foreground. They aren't essential information to the characters in the scene, but the background and foreground provide thematic relevance, and their inclusion together suggests an even deeper thematic connection.

Putting mise en scène in your script

Screenplays are economy works, and writers don't have the space to put every detail in a script. That's what department heads are for, and they have teams of their own. If you spend a page and a half perfectly describing every poster on the wall of a character's bedroom, along with their trophies, and photos, and furniture, and the way the clothes are strewn about, and the way that doorframe is crooked and…you get the idea. The reader will get inundated, or worse. They'll get bored.

When thinking about what to include in your script in terms of mise en scène, think of it as providing a platform for future department heads to stand on and continue to work on the idea you laid out.

You may not describe every piece of a character's wardrobe, but you can say "worn leather jacket," and a costume department can build on that and say, "I know exactly the pants and boots and watch this character would wear with this." But if you don't write anything, they're starting from scratch.

Another helpful way I've heard it described is that the screenwriter is providing the ZIP file version. A department head will "unzip" it and fill in the rest.

Be specific with mise en scène

When writing mise en scène, the more specific you can be with your details, the easier it will be for the reader to fill out and picture in their mind. For example, let's say you have a gun in your script. (For good story reasons, of course.)

"The gun over the fireplace" is okay.

"The rifle above the mantel" is better.

"The weathered rifle over the dusty mantel" is best.

As long as you're not overdoing it on your adjectives and adverbs throughout the whole script, specifying elements of mise en scène will help your script come alive.

Some things are easier to communicate than others. For example, production design is a bit easier than lighting. And some genres require a bit more description, like a sci-fi script compared to a rom-com. But every element of a film or tv show can be communicated in writing, and I encourage writers to seek ways to make choices in those spaces. So don't worry about "stepping on the toes" of the department heads that may eventually read the script. The worst that can happen is they'll be inspired by your decision to make a new one of their own that improves the initial idea.

Be bold in your choices

Do you now understand mise en scène in screenwriting? It is truly a crucial element in film and television production. The creative choices made in these departments create hundreds of hours of work for hundreds of people literally. It doesn't matter whether the script is high-concept or low-concept. As a screenwriter, you're the first one to start making these decisions, and the screenplay is the spot to start making some of those choices.


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What is Mise En Scène in Screenwriting?
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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