A writer came to me upset about the contest feedback she was getting. It seems her story was good overall but she was consistently getting remarks about her action and description lines being either pedestrian or overwrought—too much directing from the page.
I took a look and saw the problem. Her dialog was witty and subtextual, but her action lines veered stylistically between pancake-mix instructions and bodice-ripper novel. She had used lots of adjectives and adverbs, which can seem like the right move. After all, we’re taught in school to be specific and add more—modify that noun with an adjective; modify that verb with an adverb! Those are the building blocks of writing; that’s how we came to understand how language functions and learned we could bend it to our will. We could paint a picture that helped someone see what we see. Thrilling! Maybe that’s why some of us became writers in the first place.
Scripts, however, are different. They must walk a fine line. We cannot overdo our action lines—no over-explaining and no over-specifying how an actor should move to express their emotions. As one of our mentors always said: save all that for your novel. In screenplays, we are limited to describing visuals. We must be spare and terse, but also somehow descriptive and evocative.
“That’s impossible!” wails the new writer.
“That’s the craft,” I say. And yes, it’s tricky and it takes practice, but you can develop the skill like you do any other.
We must inspire actors and directors with our storytelling, but also leave room for them to contribute their interpretations. Perhaps counterintuitively, the more we describe in a script, the less the director, actors, and other crew really get from it. Heavy language and excessive modification slow your script down and make it plodding. It can feel like the writer is editorializing about a thing rather than just showing us a thing. One of the most basic rules of screenwriting is show, don’t tell.
For me the key is: pick better verbs. Consider: “The furry camel walks slowly over the giant, dun colored hills of fine sand that change shape with the whipping wind,” versus “The camel plods over the shifting dunes.” The latter is much more visual and muscular. And it leaves room for the location manager to find great dunes and the DP to figure out just how to track that camel shot. We always say, “Channel your inner Hemingway.” He chose to write only the essentials, allowing readers to fill in the blanks for themselves. He didn’t use a lot of adjectives or adverbs; he just picked better verbs and specific nouns.
There are many tricks for streamlining the prose of your script but this is my favorite. I can really tell when a writer has taken on this challenge for themselves. So show, don’t tell. Streamline more than you think you can. And always pick better verbs. Your readers and crew will thank you for it.