Inspired, though not nearly as wry, I’ve come up with my own list of Screenwriting’s Seven Dirty Words. Avoid these in your screenplay. Not because they are profane, obscene, vulgar or crude. But because these words tell us so little. They’re what I call “neutral” words because, beneath the surface, there is simply no there there.
And that is a waste of words.
In a script, you only have so many pages. Therefore, you only have so many words. Words are your tools. Make your words count. Make them rich. Make them juicy. Choose carefully, and they will engage your audience, literally lighting up our minds with thoughts and feelings.
Some Quick Neuroscience
Our brain controls everything that happens in our bodies. But it has one priority. To keep the body – the vehicle that carries it around and sustains it – intact, to ensure its own survival. The brain is eager to take in information and learn anything that might come in handy. But when it comes to the familiar, the brain just doesn’t bother.
Novelty is a wake up call to the busy brain. It shouts, “Pay attention! We didn’t see this coming and, in the future, we might need to know it to survive.”
Discover how and why to turn on our brains here:
Description is a powerful tool. You may obsess over slugs, fret about format, and debate about the use of bold and underlining until those proverbial cows come home, but I believe this energy is better devoted to enriching your description.
This is where you show us who you are as a writer. Description is your opportunity to convey your voice.
Description is how you introduce us to the world of your story, your characters, your settings. And description is where you show us the subtext – what is going on inside your characters. How they really feel, what they are actually thinking but do not say, and how their reaction reveals this. Because, as a reflection of real life, your characters will not always say exactly what they mean. This makes for dialogue that sounds authentic and adds complexity.
Subtext conveys emotion and is one of the most powerful way to engage the reader, draw them into the story, and make them want to know “What happens next?”
Sometimes writers lean on description just to break up dialogue. Does it contribute to the scene? If it’s a generic placeholder, find a way to make it dynamic so it supports the scene.
If your words are not communicating something significant, something that engages our brains, well… we’re not likely to keep reading. And if, for some reason we do, we are unlikely to wind up satisfied in the end. Description adds texture and richness.
Remember, you are writing a selling script, not a shooting script. Its job is to engage on the page. Focus on creating “a good read.” That’s a high compliment inside the industry. Keep your eyes on that prize and avoid these pitfalls.
My Top Offenders
1) Looks – “He looks” to me this is the epitome of neutral description. It tells us nothing. And there are a plethora of choices that could convey the emotion of the moment. From hitting the thesaurus for options that are richer, to letting us know where your character is looking and how so that ultimately you express why. Which is what we really want to know. Is your character staring down at their feet – unable to meet the eyes of the other character in the scene out of guilt or shame or embarrassment or being overwhelmed with emotion, or perhaps wordless, unable to form a reply. Or burning a hole in the ground – implying anger. Are they gazing off into the distance? That could support a character swept up in their thoughts or memories. From ogling to scrutinizing to scanning, all imply an entirely different state of mind. If someone’s face is indeed expressionless – then say that. Because that has impact.
He looks > He scowls
"Looks" is my number one offender when it comes to lost opportunities.
Tied for first place is “Looks” offensive pal: Walks – Think for a moment about the difference between “He walks” and “He stomps.” I’ve added just one letter, not likely to force you into an added line and have an impact on your page count. But that one letter has created a word packed with emotion and intention. If you need to tell us your character is moving through space, it can be done in a way that reflects their state of mind – their inner thoughts and feelings. The addition of subtext by changing a neutral word for one that speaks volumes is well worth a few extra letters.
How about: He strolls. He strides. He saunters. He staggers. He swaggers.
Avoid “walks” along with all passive and overly familiar verbs.
2) We see or We hear – This one is debated often, and at great length, so I fully expect some controversy. It stems from the debate over using camera angles in scripts. Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, specifying shots was often part of screenplays, but now can be considered telling the director what to do when that’s not your job. My concern is that you are disrupting the flow of the read.
These phrases remind the reader that they are an observer and therefore, they are not immersed in the world of the movie. Overuse continually separates them from the action rather than experiencing the story in the moment, as it unfolds. Your goal should be to keep the reader engaged and reading.
Is this one of those hard and fast rules? Nope. There are times when it may be intentional and necessary, such as in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous bomb under the table example, as discussed in my article, What Will Happen Next? The Art of Suspense. Breaking this rule to emphasize that the viewer is in a superior position – we know something the character does not – can escalate tension and suspense.
If a sound is truly significant you can revert to older screenwriting conventions of capitalizing all sound effects and capitalize them occasionally for impact.
INT. CORRIDOR, HOSPITAL -- CONTINUOUS
The Joker walks calmly through the mostly deserted building. As he walks he pulls a DETONATOR from his pocket. Strolling along he PUSHES THE BUTTON... STAGGERED EXPLOSIONS BURST INTO THE CORRIDOR BEHIND HIM LIKE DEMOLITION BLASTS... the Joker just walks out the door...
If you describe it, you are implying that “we” see or hear it. Think about using your words to indicate what “we see” and “we hear.” More words mean “pay attention to this,” while adding impact by putting us in the moment.
3) Pauses – She pauses… Fill the pauses. Have your character do something. The time it takes for us to read "something” will serve as a natural and more eloquent pause. Give us some description! Jack’s eyes dart for an escape. Jane takes a deliberate step back. Jack swipes at a tear before it can slide down his cheek. The effect is still a pause. Description can pause a block of dialogue in a way that enhances meaning. Rather than writing the parenthetical (beat), instead of endless ellipses in dialogue, or adding a random cutaway, make it meaningful.
4) Suddenly – This word pops up fairly often. Ironically, it works against the intention behind it. Instead of surprising us, it prepares us. In addition, it sounds forced and even a bit melodramatic. Why I am reading this rather than reading what happens as it unfolds? If you want to actually surprise your reader, then go for Active Present Tense: “The door bursts open and bad guys flood in.” “The bomb explodes shaking the ground.” “The alarm shatters the silence.”
5) Very – Is very overused. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) I will assume you know that “unique” is one of those words that cannot be modified by an adverb as it already means the only one of its kind. Therefore nothing can be more unique. “Very” is an overly familiar superlative. And you know what happens when the brain encounters the overly familiar… We skim right by.
6) – ly and –ing – These dreaded adverbs – words that modify or qualify an adjective, verb, other adverb or a phrase should be used sparingly because they do not add information to a sentence. A shorter version – in Active Present Tense – makes for a stronger sentence and a better read.
Jane is running very quickly through the extremely long hallway.
Jane rushes through the endless corridor.
7) To be, or not! – A screenplay is written in Active Present Tense because everything in your script is happening now. We want descriptive, active verbs. The “be” verb and all its forms – am, are, is, was, were, been, and being – are considered lazy or dull. It comes across as a Passive Voice. Writers are encouraged to strike it at every opportunity and replace it with a more engaging verb. Don’t delete every single one from your work or your writing is apt to sound florid.
The Passive Voice in writing puts us to sleep when you can make more dynamic choices. In screenwriting, the worst offender is “is.” No flavor there. I could have written, “There is simply no flavor there,” or “As a result, the writing is flavorless.” But my version cuts straight to the point. I chose a shorter and less familiar sentence structure to wake you up, dear reader.
“Barri is typing” becomes “Barri types.” The second version is a bit shorter and more dynamic, but what more juice can we squeeze out of this sentence? Search for ways to convey information about the character.
“Barri is typing determinedly despite having sprained her finger.” (ten words)
“Barri grimaces as her sprained finger hits the keys.” (nine words)
“Her finger swollen, Barri flinches with each keystroke.” (eight words)
Did the revised versions cause you to mentally wince a bit? As if you were experiencing the pain, although I doubt your finger is puffed up like a sausage. The shortest version with the richest word choices has the most visceral impact.
Find opportunities to reveal character and to put us in the shoes of the hero to experience what they experience.
Bonus: Avoid Your Crutch!
I loathe word repetition – using the same important word in close proximity. Writers may think this is unimportant, and merely my pet peeve. Perhaps it is, but there is an important reason behind it. It’s important to avoid repetition because the word will become less effective with each use. Recall the importance of neuroscience! The brain stops paying attention to that which is overly familiar, skimming past what it deems unimportant. It focuses on what is new and important. Importantly, using a word again and again completely undercuts the importance of the word. “Important” no longer feels “important.” Agreed?
Working with consulting and mentorship clients, sometimes I find they have a tendency to rely on the same phrase to externalize an emotion time and again.
Overuse Lessens Impact
“He looks down at the ground.”
“She forces a smile.”
These phrases are often repeated because they are “crutches,” an easy go-to rather than pushing yourself to come up with something distinctive to the character and to your narrative voice to express a reaction.
While I don’t know the nuances of the many screenwriting programs, I do know you can readily search a PDF version for a word or phrase and BOOM! There you have the exact number of times you used the same word and the pages it appears on. Something I proceed to point out to the writer when a phrase is repeated for want of digging deeper into the character’s inner state of mind and exploring ways to express it visually.
I stumbled upon The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Becca Puglise and Angela Ackerman, and wow! 130 entries from “Acceptance” to “Worthlessness.” While the authors intended to help novelists convey characters’ emotions to engage readers, this is a boon for screenwriters as well. As they say in the introduction, “Only when the character’s emotions are clearly shared can readers become more involved. We wanted to ensure that our character’s feelings would trigger the reader’s own emotional memories, encouraging empathy that would draw them deeper into the story.” Clearly, these are my people! Reading a single, random entry with so many evocative options, nearly made me swoon.
As a diehard groupie of the original thesaurus, created in 1805 by Peter Mark Roget, I’m afraid to purchase this book as I could get swept away in the possibilities. But if you’re seeking fresh and expressive ways to convey your characters’ inner thoughts and feelings by showing an external behavior, this appears to be a treasure trove.
Using the same phrase repeatedly to describe a character’s reaction diminishes the impact. Think about when you really need that reaction in your story. When is its use most important in order to support the story. Keep that one, and go back and rework the others, so when you need that phrase, it counts.
While I’ve suggested Writers’ Workouts in past columns, check out this Q&A with Dr. Paige Turner discussing a screenwriter’s concerns about page count and a handy exercise for slimming down while adding richness here.