Bad words. Not the Jason Bateman movie (You guys saw that one, right? …just me?) I’m talking about those bad words that you put in your script that makes an amazing concept turn into a BLAH execution. They’re sneaky and destructive. These bad words separate a novice writer from a seasoned one, because the seasoned writers aren’t using them! Banishing these words from your script will make your narration run more smoothly, and it will prevent me from dramatically sighing every time I come across one. It’s a win-win!
“Obviously” is by far my least favorite word to see in an action line. As a reader, I’m using my wonderful imagination to visualize your story. Nothing is obvious, because I’m not looking at anything. My mind is a blank slate until you put images into it. “Obviously” is one of those words you use when you didn’t take the time to think up a better word to say. I see phrases like:
“He’s obviously limping.”
“She obviously has an accent.”
“There is obvious tension between the two of them.”
I’m an educated individual who reads scripts all day long. You can’t trick me with synonyms, people! Other words and phrases that will not work include: appears, clearly, and noticeably. All those words tell me are: “You should pay extra attention to this, but I didn’t take the extra time to think up a more creative way to say it.”
Examining the three examples above, I can offer up a quick and easy solution to fix all of those sentences: ditch the “obvious.” That’s all you need to do!
“He is limping.”
“She has an accent.”
“There is tension between the two of them.”
DONE. If you want to draw more attention to these key phrases (I’m guessing you do, since you obviously wanted these descriptions to be apparent) add more creative descriptions into the mix.
“He has a vicious limp, almost falling over with each step.”
“Her accent is so suave the entire room falls silent.”
“Mike’s nostrils flair when Nick enters. Nick’s face turns red with anger.”
The point you are trying to get across is even more obvious. Now, instead of telling me I should pay attention to what you are saying, you’re giving me a reason to.
I’m a development person, not a production person, so I am never thinking of the story in terms of how it is made, I’m thinking of the story in terms of, well, the story. So, unless you’re writing a Tropic Thunder, I don’t like thinking about camera equipment.
I am forgiving of things like “the camera pans,” “close up,” and “looks into camera,” although, frankly I find those all very distracting from your story. What I cannot forgive is descriptions of the camera as if it were another character, unless, again, your camera is a character, à la mocumentaries. I’ve seen scripts that look like this:
“The camera floats elegantly through the courtyard, as it tracks Monica’s hurried movements.”
How about instead: “Monica runs through the courtyard.” If you really, really feel compelled to mention the camera, “The camera follows Monica’s run through the courtyard.”
Other similar bad words include: “actor,” “stage left” or any word that has to do with lighting (blue scrim, diffusion, barn doors, etc.). I have seen all of these.
“The actor should have black hair and green eyes.”
“Jimmy moves from camera left across the scene.”
“Emily cautiously moves into the basement. There are blue gels on the lights to make the room look ominous.”
These fixes are easy:
Describe the character, not the actor.
Ignore the direction Jimmy is moving, and instead mention a point he is walking toward, such as “the kitchen,” “his car,” or “a group of bystanders that have gathered.”
Don’t reference the scene’s coloring. If David Fincher directs your movie, he’s just going to turn it all yellow anyway. Don’t even bother trying to convince him to use red gels. The answer is always yellow.
“We’ll call him … ”
Some may say, “Hey! This isn’t a word! It’s a phrase!” To those people I say, you are correct. Others may say that this is a technique used to establish tone in a script to give off the feeling that the writer is light and funny. To that, I would have to disagree.
“We’ll call him … ” is not a joke. It doesn’t make me laugh. And it doesn’t make the tone of your script stand out from the other ones, because I see it all the time. The only thing I really get out of “We’ll call him … ” is a feeling that the writer is uncertain about this character. It gives off the feeling that this character isn’t as important as the other ones so by reading about him, I am wasting my time.
“A man sits across from them at the bar. We’ll call him Marty.”
If you feel so compelled to give this mysterious man at the bar a name (despite the fact that he never comes up again), give him a name.
“MARTY sits across from the gang at the bar.”
Now we can all sleep better knowing that mysterious man has a name, and I won’t hate your script for trying to pull off an overused gag.
Another similar bad word (Phrase): “Let’s say … ”
This is an easy one. If your characters or an object they are dealing with looks plain, boring, or average, the act of not describing it is, by definition, nondescript.
“Ginger looks at a nondescript clock.” “A nondescript man passes by.”
“Ginger glances at the clock.” “A man passes by.”
There are plenty of other synonyms you could use to try and sneak in a “nondescript” description, but there is no better way to describe an average, ordinary, everyday clock than by simply not describing it. We may not have all seen Bad Words, but we’ve definitely all seen a clock.
Kelly Boruff reads scripts for management and production company Benderspink. She aspires to one day be an extraordinary TV producer, but for now she is just an extraordinary TV viewer. (Like, real TV. You’re welcome, Nielsen.) Like most people just starting out in Hollywood, she has mastered the art of avoiding conversations about career experience and will not indulge your curiosity by listing out her (recently) growing resume. Follow Kelly on Twitter at @KellyBlick.