This is the second post in the “Screenwriting is Writing” series. The first: Screenwriting is Writing – Lesson 1: On Writing
One GIANT difference between amateur and professional screenwriters is verb usage. Thus, one of the quickest way to improve your screenwriting is by improving your verbs.
How do you “improve” verbs? Beats me. Google it!
Just kidding. While there are countless books and blogs on writing which can certainly expound in greater detail, here’s an easy two-step process to nudge you in the right direction.
Step 1: Remove as many “to be” verbs as possible.
Some people call this switching from the “passive” to the “active” voice, but I don’t want to get too bogged down in writing terms.*
Instead, just go through your script. Do you have sentences such as:
“John is sitting down.”
“Kate and Amber are walking.”
“Beth is at home.”
Sentences like these in a screenplay – especially in the beginning – immediately tell the reader, “This is a new writer.”
What’s wrong with these sentences? Nothing. Except they are boring, generic, and can easily be rewritten to sound better. What about:
“Kate and Amber walk…”
“Beth leans on her kitchen counter.” (Or whatever she is actually DOING at home.)
Isn’t that more concise?
If a writer hasn’t taken the time to remove as many “is” and “are” verbs – the simplest of errors – it is doubtful they have crafted an enticing plot with intricate characters. After all, the writing is the easy part.
Step 2: Vary Your Verbs
So you’ve worked hard to ensure there are as few words like “is” and “are” in your screenplay? You’ve changed those an active, present-tense verb like “sits” or “walks”? Great!
Now change “sits” or “walks” to something less generic. Get specific. What if instead of walking they “stroll” or “meander” or, if they’re in a hurry, “hustle?”
And does John just sit, or does he “rest,” “relax,” or even “lounge?”
When you vary your verbs, not only do you avoid repetition throughout your script** but the scene comes alive. Actions become specific. The reader suddenly sees EXACTLY what your characters are doing.
Not that there’s anything wrong with sitting or walking. Heck, I’m sitting right now!
“Eric sits and types.”
Wait, that’s not exactly right.
“Eric hunches over a keyboard and pecks away.”
That’s a little more accurate and it’s more fun to read about someone “pecking” then typing.
Vary your verbs and you’ll go far.
Well, that’s it for today’s lesson. Hope it helped!
Best of luck on the script, and…
* While I’m trying to keep these screenwriting lessons simple, it should be noted that when you shift from a “to be” verb + a gerund (“is sitting,” “are waking,” etc.), you should replace it with an active, present tense verb, such as “sits,” “walks,” etc. Does that make sense? Hope so!
** Avoid using the same words over and over again whenever possible, as repetition is boring and should be avoided. Don’t believe me? Repetition IS boring – avoid it. Bored yet? No? You’ll just have to trust me, then.