Some of our rules also apply to the specific words we choose when we write. Use active verbs, for example.
And the truth is, most of these rules are perfectly intelligent bits of advice (though of course there may be times where they may be broken, willfully, to good effect). The one that I hear a lot, however, that I've never really taken to heart as a writer or as a reader is that we should avoid all adverbs in our descriptions.
Via Kristen's blog, I recently learned that Stephen King wrote about this in his book On Writing (which I've yet to read). I don't know whether he was the first to mention it, but either way, it has grown into an oft-stated hallmark of good screenwriting.
More likely, it can be traced back further, to Strunk and White's famous and enduring Elements of Style:
Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech. Occasionally they surprise us with their power, as in
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting
For fear of little men...
The nouns mountain and glen are accurate enough, but had the mountain not become airy, the glen rushy, William Allingham might never have gotten off the ground with his poem. In general, however, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness and color.
Okay, points well taken. But they didn't give an example of adverbs. I can't ever remember ever consciously reading a screenplay and taking note that the adverbs in it weakened the descriptions. Plus, we don't warn developing screenwriters to avoid using adjectives as well. Why not?
Is it not possible that adverbs can add color and toughness to our verbs much in the same way that adjectives can do for our nouns? I'm not suggesting that there are never stronger ways of saying things without using adverbs. Clearly it is better to write that a character "storms" from the room, or even "tears out of" it, rather than saying he "walks angrily" from it. But is that always the case? Is there something wrong with saying "Alexis stares hungrily at her plate" (or at Tommy, for that matter)? Is there a stronger and/or more evocative verb that delivers the same action, emotion, and tone?
I'm not convinced that adverbs definitively indicate weak writing. Undoubtedly, we should be aware of them, and always see if we can think of a stronger and more evocative way of writing the same thing. But I don't think we must automatically excise them all.
Did the adverbs in those past three sentences detract from their strength? Were they empty words that served little purpose? (Perhaps -- you tell me.) Could the same information have been delivered with more active and well-chosen verbs alone?
Tags: screenwriting, active+writing, adverbs