Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work: Use Strong Verbs

October 3rd, 2008 by

We learned this bit of wisdom from screenwriter Larry Ferguson before here, the key quote being:

“There was a girl who came to me with her first screenplay. It was a good first shot. I gave her some advice. I told her, ‘I want you to go home and take a yellow Marks-A-Lot and highlight every verb in this 120-page screenplay, and then I want you to read them out loud and ask yourself, Can I find a stronger verb.’”

Movies are primarily a visual medium — and strong verbs convey more action and flavor than weak verbs.

Here are two verbs a screenwriter should never use: walk and look.

Instead of “He walks into the room,” choose one from this list:

stumbles, staggers, shoulders, ambles, meanders, shuffles, bounds, careens, trips, plunges, dives, blasts, thunders, tiptoes, inches, edges

Instead of “He looks at her,” why not one of these:

ogles, glares, stares, gapes, squints, locks on, fixes on, gawks, leers, peers, gazes, eyes, focuses on, scowls, glowers

The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words, thousands of them great verbs. Use them in your screenplay to enhance its visuality.

This has been another edition of Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work.

7 thoughts on “Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work: Use Strong Verbs

  1. Mike says:

    Curious you should make this post — timely for me anyway.

    I have started to get in the habit of highlighting verbs I over use — and believe me there are plenty — and finding different ways to say the same thing.

    One additional benefit: looking for these weak verbs slows down your reading of a very familiar script — you’ll be surprised how this forces you to reconsider ALL of your writing.

    Keep Writing!

  2. odocoileus says:

    Great tip. Love your blog. Haven’t even read a quarter of the posts.

    It’s “gleaned”. I needed to point that out ’cause I’m a douchebag.

  3. Scott says:

    I sit corrected! I had always thought that “gleam” meant a sudden inspiration or insight, but that would have to be a metaphor. Per dictionary.com, gleam means, “to appear suddenly and clearly like a flash of light.” Whereas glean means “to learn, discover, or find out, usually little by little or slowly.”

    Poor word choice on my part in either case. Forthwith edited to “learned.”

  4. I hafta agree: if all you have is black words on white paper, why not make them work? My only caveat would be to avoid diving too deeply into the thesaurus. You’re telling a story, not proving how much smarter you are. That’s what ruins Poe for my students. If he’d had the confidence to write simply…

  5. Scott says:

    Vanilla Chunk makes a great point: Screenplays aren’t about winning intelligence contests, they’re about telling a story. Only use strong verbs that work within the context of your story and your narrative voice.

  6. dbreckman says:

    Again, not just good advice, GREAT advice.

    A bonny tip of the hat to Mr. Ferguson!

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