THE BAD NEWS: If you’re making these 5 mistakes writing screenplays, you’re not ready for prime time.
THE GOOD NEWS: Correcting these 5 mistakes will rocket your script quality up so fast NASA might ask to read your script.
KILL FORMS OF BEING: Forms of being [is, are, was, were, be, been, am being] are some of the most common verb usages in the English language. We’re so used to them, writers often use them in narrative fiction and scene description without thinking. However. Forms of being damage dramatic narrative action.
Meet Emily. Here she is in a short action description using forms of being:
Emily is dressed in a hot red dress. She is sauntering into the bar. She is taking her time. She is talking on her cell phone. She is smiling.
Here’s Emily in action sans forms of being:
Emily, dressed in a hot red dress, saunters into the bar, taking her time talking on her cell phone, smiling.
Two immediate things happen. Verbs became more immediate. And, I can string that action into a single sentence without it feeling awkward.
If I tried to cram all that action into one sentence including forms of being, it would not flow smoothly:
Emily is dressed in a hot red dress, she is sauntering into the bar, she is taking her time, she is talking on her cell phone, she is smiling.
The only writer I know who gets away with run one sentences that extreme is Faulkner and Faulkner uses way better action.
Killing forms of being creates a stronger sense of action’s immediacy and allows a writer to smooth multiple actions into single sentences that flow.
KILL INACTIVE ACTION: Inactive “action” is narrative description of action that isn’t actually strong motion that shows up as action on a film or television screen. One of the biggest offenders is the verb “looks.”
Emily looks at Bob. Bob looks at Emily. Emily shyly looks away. Bob continues to look at Emily. Emily looks back at Bob.
Nothing has moved here on a screen. The only thing happening is, characters’ eyes are moving.
Writers sometimes use this type of action in an attempt to create a sense of emotional intensity between characters in a scene, but what it really creates is a lot of inactive scene description because characters “looking” is not action. It’s eyes moving in characters’ heads.
Another offender is turns: Emily turns her head toward Bob. Bob turns his head toward Emily. Emily shyly turns her head away.
At this point, at least more than eyes are moving. Chins are turning. But this is not dramatic motion on a film screen that will maintain any sense of motion on a screen either. If this ever gets made, some poor bastard in an editing room is going to have to work to make heads turning move on a screen. And a writer better pray the cast is up for making inaction look interesting and that the director is up for getting angles and close ups to give the editor something to cut back and forth from – and that a reader is a creative who can interpret non-action in a visual way because it’s not visual or solid or real action on the page.
[Most readers going in are not creatives, they are suits or wannabe suits, all they will get is the whole script is a bunch of head turning that doesn’t feel like a movie and they aren’t feeling a movie while they read. Pass.]
Inactive “action” also takes place when too much scene description is talking about expressions. Emily Frowns. Bob sneers. Emily raises an eyebrow. Bob smiles.
This is usually also intended to imbue scenes with a sense of emotional relevance, but it’s not motion or action. A script full of action description that is expressions while characters are physically stationary? Is stationary action that has no discernible motion or action taking place on a screen. Or on the page.
KILL GENERIC VERBS: Generic verbs are verbs that imply action is taking place, but are so common or non-descriptive, they act as more of a stand in for action than as descriptive verbs that define action.
Two of the worst generic verb offenders are “enter” and “exit.” These are traditional stage terms for getting characters on and off a stage that have been used traditionally in theatre for so long screenwriters at times pick them up by proxy. They are not friendly to screenwriters. They do absolutely nothing to imbue a screenplay with an impression of motion on a screen. Consider:
Emily enters the room.
Emily stalks into the room.
Which gives you a solid impression of action?
Generic verbs rob motion of any of its ability to contribute to a sense of character or emotion in play.
How much more do you get about Emily’s action when she stalks into a room, rather than entering it? Who she is, what her emotional element is in play there?
Screenplay characters are not just defined by their dialogue and appearance. Characters are also defined by their motion. Consider a character who tip toes and vibrates fear versus a character who lumbers and slams his fist into walls. There is a very different impression of character created there through the way a characters moves and his action.
KILL ADVERBS: Adverbs are verb modifiers. Usually ending in “ly,” adverbs modify a verb to fine tune action not defined well going in with the verb.
Emily shuts the car’s trunk, angrily.
Emily slams the car’s trunk.
Shut is a generic verb. Slams is more active and motion specific.
Another thing to be aware of with adverbs is, adverbs quite often will be stronger applied as a subject modifier (what we sometimes call adjectives) to the subject than they will be tagged on as adverbs to non-descript action verbs:
Emily, enraged, slams the car’s trunk.
KILL PASSIVE VOICE: Passive voice kills action immediacy because it either displaces a sentence’s active subject, or withholds the subject making a reader wait for it.
The boat is rowed down the river exhaustedly by Bob.
I have to wait till the end of the sentence there to find out who is rowing the boat, there’s an adverb in there that should really be about Bob, and I’m just sort of on standby as a reader trying to accumulate information and find out who is actually in action there. Here is a stronger sentence:
Bob, exhausted, rows the boat down river.
Withholding a sentence’s active subject is a literary device that sometimes works in prose, making a reader reading book or story prose pages wait to find out what the active subject is.
Withholding an active subject doesn’t work in screenplays. A person reading a screenplay is supposed to be experiencing (seeing) what is happening on screen as the reader reads. Withholding information to maintain a sense of suspense when the film audience would see it on screen makes no sense and wears script readers out.
There are times when a character in action in a script is being withheld visually because an audience is being held in suspense. BUT. Even if the character in action is being withheld there? The subject (object that is seen) still needs to be there up front. For example:
A fist slams out of the darkness to bash Bob in the face.
There’s a subject there, the fist. A reader doesn’t know who it belongs to, the fist comes out of the darkness, but, there is an active subject there, something a film audience and reader sees, bashing Bob in the face.
The active subject in action, in scripts, almost always needs to be there up front in a sentence. It’s what an audience – and reader – sees. Withholding it in description won’t make a film script more interesting. It will make the read annoying and exhausting.
*One of the toughest hottest examples of strong verbs in a screenplay ever is Chip Proser’s Top Gun (1986). Post the 20th Century Fox/Deadpool 2010 debacle, I never know how long scripts posted online will stay online, but as of this posting, there’s a pdf copy of Top Gun on sfy.ru you can grab that’s a great example of strong verbs in a script: