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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog

(OR EL DUDERINO IF YOU'RE NOT INTO THE WHOLE BREVITY THING)

-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Adverbially Speaking

We often like to offer up hard and fast rules for screenwriting. No flashbacks in the first 10 pages. Voiceovers shouldn't directly match what we're seeing on screen. Don't write things that can't be seen or heard.

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?

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14 Comments:

Anonymous Jason Looney said...

This is one of those tips that's always bugged me.

It probably works [well] for writers who aren't used to considering [carefuly] each [and every] word they choose [to use]. See, if they are told to avoid adverbs, they choose their verbs more carefully... and so on.

But think this advice treats the symptom rather than the sickness. The true lesson here is "be as concise as possible" or "don't be flowery."

But I guess those are just too hard to remember. In any case, thanks for taking the anti-King stand on this one...

7:57 AM  
Blogger oneslackmartian said...

I would say that adverbs simply slow things down as you read. Therefore, if the scene is fast-paced, then definitely avoid adverbs in the description. Bing, boom, bam. Get it done. If you are deliberately trying to slow down things, then purposefully toss in some sluggish adverbs and heavy adjectives.

9:12 AM  
Blogger A. M. said...

Undoubtedly? Ugh. No doubt a boring word. Get the dustbuster or stuff it in your thesis paper (where it might find some friends).

Madly deeply truly - Team 1 - Yeah!
Crazily angrily whateverhaveyouly - Team 2 - like, not really? ;^ß

Slacker martian's right on. I remember a script that averaged ~1 adverb/page. After a while it sounded like this in my head: ly, ly, ly, ly. Throw in some ing, ing, ing, ing and the sound of it..... wasn't KACHING. I was bored to tears. Constipated and scared - that's the impression I got from that thing... (after "boring", which was the first)

That's my gut-response. Disclaimer: 1. I prefer half-rhymes. 2. My attention span? Think fruit fly. 3. S&W don't cover what I'm talking about.

Felve? A very drunk elf.

2:09 PM  
Anonymous Andy Coughlan said...

One argument for using less adjectives and adverbs is that many directors will strip these out of the screenplay as soon as they get their mits on it anyway. They will want to imprint their vision on it, then work with the actors and film crew to achieve it within the constraints of the set (which means quite often even the directors vision goes out of the window).

That's not to say that adjectives and adverbs shouldn't be used as the script still has to be read by a lot of people before the director see's it.

However, avoiding them will probably allow more of the writer's vision to seep through onto the screen as the director will have a harder time running his pen though someone 'storming out of the room' than someone 'walking out [snip]angrily[snip]'.

As I recall, Stephen King doesn't say you should not use adverbs, ever, but only when it's absolutely necessary (i.e. you really can't think of a stronger way of saying it that won't ruin the flow of your prose - and let's not forget that we aren't writing prose, we're writing blueprints for moving pictures).

Also, some adverbs and adjectives are quite hard to act. How does one stare 'hungrily' without veering into cartoon cliche? The actor simply needs to look at the plate, the reader/watcher should infer from the context of the action and the general situation of the character whether they are hungry or not (and if they aren't aware of the fact then no matter how hard the actor tries, the game is already lost).

2:15 PM  
Blogger Brett said...

I agree-- it's not that adverbs are bad, per se, but they are too damned convenient. They let you slide off the hook of actually describing something in powerfully clear language, instead sliding off as describing it as kinda sorta like what you meant and needed to say.

I posted this somewhere else a few weeks back but now I forget where (look-- I don't pay attention, OK? Sue me...), but it seems kinda sorta on-point here, so I'll repeat as much as I can remember:

When I am "done" with a draft of a script and about ready to get serious about reading, rewrites, handing off to trusted friends (shaddup) for notes, I try to run a few last second quick and dirty checks:

1) spellcheck (duh!)

2) passive check -- I run a "FIND" routine where I search for all appearances of "_is_" (where "_" is a [space] character). Whenever possible, I scrub out any extraneous passive nonsense which may have snuck in during some late night or beer-clouded writing session

3) adverb check -- I run another "FIND" routine where I search for all appearances of "ly_", and then another for "very" (another pesky one which often sneaks past the mental bouncer somehow. Same as with passive, you can usually correct (and improve) this aspect of your script instantly with nary a bit of significant effort. I find that this step also helps me become more cognizant of my own unnoticed tendencies-- those situations and constructiosn where I most often reach for the cheap adverbs rather than better stronger stuff.

4) common sneaky word check -- another FIND routine to look for words like "won" (which might ought to have been "own"!) and "it's" (hidden passive as well as possibly blown possessive!), and whatever other clumsy typing mistakes I've caught myself making lately (then/the... in/on)

This all takes maybe ten or fifteen minutes of time, yet it will very often flag a LOT of stuff very quickly which might otherwise lurk in hard copy form for days or week sbefore I finally "see" it sitting there in front of me on the page.

6:05 PM  
Blogger Shawn said...

In answer to your question, yes, the adverbs weaken those sentences. I'll cite William Zinsser's On Writing Well: "Most adverbs are unnecessary."

In the example you gave, the adverbs are redundant. You don't need to qualify 'indicate' (and I would search for a better verb -- how about 'cause'?) Starting a sentence with 'undoubtedly' makes it sound snooty and awkward, and throws off its rhythm. 'Always' makes the second half of that sentence more complicated than necessary. And 'automatically' is inherent in excise (again, a better verb is in order.)

Hope you don't mind, but I would rewrite the sentence like this: "I'm convinced that adverbs contribute to strong writing. Though we must be aware of overusing them, adverbs should be a weapon in a writer’s arsenal.”

No adverbs, more concise and a (weak) metaphor to boot.

9:47 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Thanks everyone for chiming in, and I appreciate the feedback/opinions. Interesting that there seems to be a bit of a split. Not saying the other side is wrong, but to play devil's advocate for a bit...

There is a difference between "excise" and "automatically excise." The former indicates complete removal, and the latter means complete removal without thinking about it at all.

Regarding staring hungrily, I don't know if there is another verb that is better, but I think that a good actor can show different expressions (without appearing cartoonish) when staring hungrily, or staring with disgust, distaste, or some other emotion -- all of which might be logical emotions to have while staring at a plate.

All that being said, I think that you guys are probably correct that I use them too often, and with too little thought. I like Martian's point about pacing (and I think I do this automatically). Shawn - I also hear your other examples as good points. Brett -- good suggested checks, though I'm not sure I would "automatically excise" all such examples, but would consider each one carefully. AM -- not sure I get the distinction in the adverbs you aplit into "two teams."

Thanks again, all!

11:56 PM  
Blogger Frank Z. White said...

On Writing is aimed at beginning writers, although it is a very good book on writing. I'm not a fan of King's fiction but I enjoyed this one. The author is just trying to instill good habits in his students.

Beginning writers have a tendency to litter their prose with unnecessary and needless words. That's why the adverb, adjective 'rule' can be useful for writers who have a propensity for writing 'purple' prose.

Once you reach a certain level with your writing and find your own style, it seems silly to discount anything that belongs in the English language, including adverbs and adjectives.

3:32 AM  
Anonymous Eddie said...

"As" can be a killer AS well. My writing improved dramatically once I stopped relying on that crutch.

3:49 AM  
Anonymous kristen said...

I agree with most everything everyone said above. [Clearly] there are occasions where adverbs are helpful. But what's annoying is when you read a story where people touch a teacup lingeringly, the pastries smell wonderfully fresh, etc. Ultimately those words tell the reader nothing about the character's internal state, nor about WHY the pastries are so damned wonderful.

Adverbs may work here and there in screenplays -- which are all about externals -- but in prose, seeing someone touch a teacup lingeringly is just unforgiveable. I'd much rather know the specifics, or follow the moment from one action to the next or from one thought to the next without the excess description.

Plus the person who mentioned readers stripping out the -ly -- I think this is true. I often just tune out adverbs when I read, much the way I'll tune out "he said" -- because I train myself to know it's superfluous.

Thanks, Fun Joel, for this interesting conversation.

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

I find adverbs are good in dialogue, bad in description - King gives really excellent examples in his book, Joel, and you should really run to buy a copy post-haste - it's the best book on writing I've ever read.

9:32 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Terry Brooks has a good book on writing as well.

I think the point is not as a black and white command, but more of a raising your skills type of statement. The better writing doesn't rely on adverbs as much.

In your example, you have "Alexis stares hungrily at her plate." I know that we're supposed to be *brief*; however, there should be something prior to Alexis staring at the plate that would indicate how she would feel at that point in time.

I'll take the option for using "Alexis stares hungrily at Tommy" since I believe it's easier...

You make Alexis late 40's, 50's, marital problems, throw her in a dress 20 years to young for her, put her out on the town or in a discreet meeting with a young hunk named Tommy. Sex is expected - implied by the situation and the word "hugrily" is superfluous.

By using adverbs you're telling an actor how they should react. When you describe the scene/character fully, then they should have no alternative but to come to the same conclusion as you.

Of course, you could use the typical, "Alexis undresses Tommy with her eyes." or "Alexis wishes food on her plate without success."

I'm sure there are many uses for adverbs, but I consider them a last resort in my scripts.

8:25 AM  
Blogger mahlzeit said...

The adverb rule is for things like this:

"What a great rule," Jack said wryly.

Or in screenwriting format:

JACK
(wryly)
What a great rule.

So if you don't use parentheticals, you don't have to worry about most of the adverbs too. ;-)

9:24 PM  
Blogger Wojciehowicz said...

Sorry to comment on this so out of date, but I was searching around on this subject and something came to mind reading this.

Years ago a teacher in high school English related to me that when writing for the school plays, he recommended turning verbs into nouns and adverbs into adjectives. He said telling actors, even teens, what to do was one thing but telling them how would cause resistance. He said to simply state an action as a bald fact with an adjective to describe it, and let them figure out how to do that.

7:10 PM  

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