Adjectives Are Your Enemy

At a book signing, I asked Guillermo del Toro what advice he had for beginning screenwriters.

[With action and description], do not use adjectives. Use visuals. Use sound. Be very dry.

You should only be writing things you can show. If you have adjectives on the page, ask yourself, “How can I see this?”

What happens when you force yourself to avoid excessive adjectives and adverbs?

1. You take up less space with your text.

Cutting out adjectives cuts out words. You’re cutting down how many lines are in a paragraph and how many pages are in your screenplay. You’re speeding up the read.

If a script reads fast, it’s more likely to get read from start to finish.

2. You spend less time on minor details.

Do you need to say that this character wears a blue dress? If it’s not 100% necessary to the story that you define the color of the dress, and your script is fortunate enough to be produced, the color of that dress will be decided at the discretion of the director, the costume designer, and possibly the actor.

The hunt to remove adjectives will help you see exactly what details are integral to your story, and which ones can be excised without substantially changing the narrative.

You’re here to tell a story. Who is involved? What happens? What happens as a result of this? These are the things that are important. The more you fill your action and description lines with adjectives, the more you obscure the key elements of your story.

3. You replace generic actions and descriptions with clear imagery.

Think about what you picture when you read “Reginald looks around the room, clearly uncomfortable.” Compare that to your mental image of “Reginald glances around the room, fidgeting with his ascot.”

Both lines are attempting to communicate the same thing: We see Reginald behaving in a manner that suggests his discomfort. One line relies on an adjective to imply what will happen, where the second uses concrete nouns and verbs to show a specific picture of discomfort.

Keeping it specific and concrete is in your best interest. It suggests to the reader that you have a command of your characters. It suggests a specific behavior to an actor to incorporate into their performance. It helps to keep you focused on what can be clearly seen and heard.

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