Are your participles dangling? Here are some word lists to love.
I got my writing training as a print journalist decades ago. I’ve written and edited for a living for more than 30 years and I still overwrite sometimes. At the revision stage of my screenplays, I’m often surprised at the errors I made in early drafts.
By all means, write your story as it spills from your mind. But at the rewrite stage, you’ll want to search for commonly overused words like walks and looks and incorrect usage or spelling the likes of your/you’re before you even think of submitting to a contest. And certainly prior to composing a query that might land you an immediate read-request. If possible, ask an eagle-eyed fellow writer to help you out with a proofread, and offer to do the same for them.
One final tip. We enjoy an embarrassment of riches with English word choices. But synonyms are not always equal, so be careful with any thesaurus. Every word conveys a precise meaning. Merriam Webster defines synonyms as: words or expressions that have the same or nearly the same meaning. I keep my built-in Apple dictionary/thesaurus on my dock and consult both frequently. Make sure you choose the right word for the occasion.
To help with the revision process, I’ve assembled some lists of common mistakes alongside their improvements. Glance through the bolded words to see if you recognize any of your own writing habits, then refer to the explanations/fixes. You might want to bookmark this page to keep ready for handy reference.
11 Handy Writing Tips for Screenwriters
Writing screenplays is like no other type of writing. In addition to learning industry-standard formatting, telling a story that readers can see in their mind’s eye requires attention to tense, brevity, voice, and variety. It doesn’t come naturally to new screenwriters, because this is not the style of novels, blogs, long-form journalism, or any other reading that influences us.
A well-written screenplay is a joy to read. By paying attention to just a few things, you can influence a reader’s positive opinion of you as a writer, help your story shine through the language, and transform your humdrum script into a page-turner. Make sure you visit our curated library of resources.
Examples of less than stellar writing in bold, followed by the explanation and preferred construction/alternative choices.
1. Passive vs. Active Voice
In screenwriting especially, but also in your other writing, pay attention to your ‘voice.’ Not your writing voice, that’s a whole other discussion, but your grammatical voice choices. Prefer active voice when constructing sentences: subject-verb-object, unless it results in staccato cadence, in which case you may want to vary it. Or when the subject doesn’t matter e.g., the table is set with fine china and silver utensils. No one cares who set it.
Passive voice sentences often have no subject, or what’s known as an ‘understood subject:’ The dog snarls and snaps; Joey is bitten. The missing ‘by the dog’ is understood. See examples below. Search your script for ‘is’ and ‘are’ followed by a past participle to find the culprits. Here are some examples.
Passive voice vs. Active voice
Joe is thrown – Joe tumbles hard (subject-verb-object). Or The explosion hurls Joe across the room. Passive voice is when something is done to the subject of the sentence. Active voice is when the subject performs an action.
A loud sound is heard – A muffler backfires. In the example on the left, the subject is missing. Heard by whom?
Voices are heard – Indistinguishable murmurs; or background chatter.
The room is lit by candlelight – Candles light the room. candles = subject; light = verb; the room = object.
The meal is finished – Joe swallows the last bite. Or: Joe notes the empty plates on the dining table.
The bedroom is furnished in 1980s style – Retro 80s decor. (You’ve already written BEDROOM in your scene heading.)
The silence is broken by Susan’s scream – Silence. Susan screams.
Horses are seen on the horizon – Note: current industry practice is to not use ‘we see,’ which would be an active voice version of the phrase at left. In this case, try something else: Two horses appear in silhouette on the horizon.
2. Common Tense and Other Errors in Screenwriting
Screenplays come in one grammatical flavor – now. Write in simple present tense and prefer active to passive voice.
Learn what these terms mean, if you don’t know.
Here’s a start with common action words errors. Search for every ‘is’, ‘are’ and ‘ing’ and rewrite.
Tense Errors (Action) – Use Simple Present Tense
is walking – walks (see Boring Verbs). Avoid present participles in your screenplays.
is standing – stands (ditto)
are sitting/talking/looking – Sit/talk/look (ditto, but see section on boring verbs)
had/have been sitting/walking/standing – This tense (present perfect continuous) is banned in screenplays. If you insist on using it, be prepared to receive a citation on your second offence. J Remember that whatever you write in an action line is a camera shot. The camera can’t see what ‘has been happening’ – it only sees what’s happening now.
was (doing anything) – Same as previous. Screenplays are underway now. Not reflective.
when/after (anything) – Same
dangling (participles) – Since you’ve already edited out your ‘ing’ words, you don’t need to worry about these pesky adjectival phrases where the subject is missing. But here’s an example: After finishing their desserts, the waiter offers them some brandy. Sounds like the server ate the cheesecake. Better: The waiter retrieves their empty plates. Then open the brandy dialogue.
3. Overwriting – Verbs
Watch for (i.e., search and replace) all the words and phrases in bold to identify and uncover your verbs.
Buried/smothered verbs – Preferred structure
gives (takes) a look – looks (See Boring Verbs)
takes a seat – sits (See Boring Verbs)
makes a decision – decides
has a fit – rages, fumes; or describe the seizure
does a twirl – twirls
performs a dance – dances (or be specific: jives, bunny hops, waltzes)
conducts an analysis – analyzes
provides an answer – responds
nods his head – nods
shrugs his shoulders – shrugs
clasps his hands together – clasps his hands
4. The Art of Formatting
Learn this skill until you can do it in your sleep. Your screenplay must be in perfect condition for a reader to take you seriously. Buy or borrow The Screenwriter’s Bible and absorb its wisdom. Read spec screenplays by seasoned writers. Lots of them. Swap scripts and listen to notes about your presentation. Be alert for these common errors.
Format & Punctuation / Explanation
(too many parentheticals) – Use these sparingly. Best employed when the character is moving, on the phone, or necessary for the dialogue, e.g. (whispers), not to direct an actor. Your writing should be self-explanatory. Action lines leading to dialogue are an efficient conveyor for emotions.
Widows – Sometimes called ‘danglers,’ a widow is a single word at the end of an action line that spills onto a line all by itself. Some readers will ditch your script if your first five pages have several. Edit, edit, edit.
Orphans – One word or a single line at the top of a page, followed by a new scene heading. Try to fix even two- or three-line orphans. Same reaction from readers as widows. Edit to fix.
EARLY EVENING – NIGHT – Scene headings are either DAY or NIGHT (SAME or CONTINUOUS)
DAWN – DAY – same as above.
!!!!! – Don’t go overboard with shriek marks! Use occasionally and only in dialogue. Overuse removes their impact. Avoid in action lines.
….. Use ellipses, three dots only… to indicate a pause in dialogue.
– One hyphen is…well, a hyphen, a mark that joins two words: long-winded. Two hyphens – – using the Courier font – – make a dash. Use them to indicate an interruption in a character’s dialogue. Don’t use hyphens when you need a dash.
Two spaces after a period. I prefer one. But no one cares as long as you’re consistent.
Camera directions – When to use in a spec script
CUT TO: – Never
SMASH CUT TO: – Never
ECU – Never
DISSOLVE TO: – Never
FADE IN: – At the opening of your screenplay. This is a convention (apparently waning), not a direction.
FADE OUT – A convention (walking hand in hand with FADE IN) to indicate the end of your script. (The Brits use THE END)
CLOSE ON: – Occasionally, but only if critical to the story, as in CLOSE ON: Delivery man’s hand with envelope.
REVEAL: Same as CLOSE-ON
FADE TO BLACK – Occasionally. Some writers use this instead of THE END or FADE OUT
DISSOLVE TO – Never
SUPER – Not a camera direction, but a suggestion to Post Production. Use freely as required, as in SUPER: Five months later.
TRACK – Never
AERIAL VIEW – Occasionally
Any other fancy camera directions – Never
5. Common homophone and other misuse errors
Homophones are words that sound the same but have distinct meanings and are spelled differently. When we’re in the flow it’s easy to mistype there for their or it’s for its. It may not matter in a Facebook post (although in a writing group, it’s doesn’t hurt to take a minute to present professionally), but it matters a great deal in your manuscript. You may be unaware you’ve been misusing a word, like weary, which I’m seeing more frequently when the writer means wary.
The bolded words below are common typos or misused words. Search your script for all of them to make sure you used the correct version. There are many others, but these errors below I notice almost daily.
Common Mix-up Errors
your/you’re – Your is a pronoun meaning ‘belonging to you.’ You’re is the contraction of ‘you are.’
their/there/they’re – Use the right one at the right time. Their = possessive, belonging to them. There = pronoun indicating position. They’re = contraction of ‘they are.’
its/it’s – It’s confusing, but its is the possessive as in ‘on its own.’ It’s is the contraction of ‘it is.’
two/too/to – Two = the number; too = an adverb meaning also or excessive; to = a preposition.
lead/led – Lead: (rhymes with deed) 1. Present tense of the verb ‘to lead’ 2. Main role in a film, play, or band; 3. When pronounced to rhyme with ‘red’ it’s a heavy metal that some pipes are made from; Led is the past tense of ‘to lead’ too often incorrectly spelled as ‘lead’ (the pipe).
compliment/complement – You compliment my dress (tell me it’s nice). My dress complements (enhances) the color of my eyes. Complement can also mean a number that completes a set, as in the crew’s full complement.
discrete/discreet – Discrete means separate as in a discrete project, independent of the others; Discreet means careful behavior to avoid causing offence, as in: You wouldn’t describe her as discreet.
copywrite/copyright – A copywriter writes advertising copy; copyright is the legal ownership (right) of an intellectual property, such as a screenplay.
duel/dual – A duel is a contest between two people, usually with deadly weapons; dual means two.
bare/bear – Bare means unclothed, as in bare naked, or basic, bare minimum. Bear, the noun, is a large animal. Bear, the verb means to carry (bear a burden) or to endure: I cannot bear another rainy day.
peek/peak/pique – Peek means to look furtively, or to protrude slightly. Peak is a mountaintop, or attainment of the highest level, as in Tiger Woods peaked from 1999-2004. The verb pique means to stimulate, that article piqued my interest, or irritate; as a noun it means irritated: He was piqued. These words are often misused in social media forums. Be careful not to emulate incorrect usage.
seen/scene – Seen is the past participle of the verb ‘to see.’ Scene is where action takes place.
for/four/fore – For is a preposition, four is a number, fore is an adjective indicating position.
threw/ through/thru – He threw the ball through the hoop. Thru is an American shortcut for ‘through.’ But unpopular among writers.
who’s/whose – Who’s is a contraction of ‘who is.’ Whose is a possessive pronoun meaning ‘belonging to.’
bated/baited – I wait with bated breath to watch the hook being baited. The incorrect phrase ‘with baited breath’ is one of the most common errors in English language writing.
pore/pour/poor – Pore is either a noun meaning the tiny openings in your skin, or a verb meaning to study, as in “they pored over the map.” Pour is what rain does or what you do with your whiskey. Poor (in some accents it’s pronounced the same as pore) means deficient or lacking.
passed/past – I passed a man on the street with whom I might have shared a past life.
brake/break – Your car has brakes to slow it down (noun); you break a glass, break down a script (verb) or follow the scene and act breaks (noun).
pale/pail – Pale is a light version of a color, often used to describe a person’s face if they are ill or frightened; pail is a bucket, usually plastic.
site/cite/sight – Site is a physical or virtual place, as in job site or web site; cite is a verb used when referencing an information source, a citation; sight has multiple nuanced meanings, all to do with vision.
dialog/dialogue – Dialog is a web term coupled with ‘box.’ Dialogue is spoken words by humans.
bowl/bowel – You eat soup from a bowl, which digests through your bowel. Bowels (plural) is also used to describe the innermost and most unpleasant part of something, like a city or a building.
bite/bight/byte – Bite uses teeth; bight is a curve in a coastline or loop of rope; byte is a digital measurement.
might/mite – Might means either ‘may’ or ‘powerful.’ Mite is a small arachnid, child, or amount.
weary/wary/leery – Weary means ‘tired;’ wary and leery are synonyms for ‘cautious.’ I see weary used more and more frequently when the writer means wary or leery.
then/than – Then indicates time. It can also mean ‘therefore’ – if you follow these suggestions, then your writing will improve. Than is a conjunction comparing two things (taller than x, sweeter than y).
lama/llama – Okay, not in most screenplays or discussions, but just so you know, in the words of the lighthearted American poet Ogden Nash: The one-l lama, he’s a priest; the two-l llama, he’s a beast. And I will bet a silk pajama there isn’t any three-l lllama. Just a reminder to do your research.
infer/imply – This is a common error. I infer (figure out by context) from what you didn’t state outright. He implied (suggested something indirectly) without saying it directly. These are not interchangeable. In fact, they’re opposites.
lose/loose – You lose (rhymes with booze) a contest. Your pants are too loose (rhymes with goose).
advice/advise – I need some advice (noun – rhymes with mice). Could you please advise me? (verb, rhymes with wise.) Another common error in the forums.
affect/effect – This is tricky. It won’t affect (verb) you if you remember the effect (noun) that strong writing makes as a first impression. But ‘effect’ can also be a verb: …to effect a change.
fare/fair – As a verb, fare means to get along. As a noun, fare is either food, as in local fare, or what you pay for your bus ticket; Depending on the city, the price for either may not always seem fair (just). A fair is also like a carnival, as in fall fair.
disinterested/uninterested – These are not synonyms. A disinterested observer means they are objective and/or impartial. An uninterested person actively lacks interest in something or someone.
want/wont – The verb to want means to desire or to need. Wont is either an adjective (as she was wont to do) or a noun (as was her wont). It can also be a poetic verb (wont thy heart to hearts hereof). All forms derive from the sense of ‘being accustomed to.’
route/root/rout – Route (rhymes with moot, usually) is the way from starting point to destination. Root, the noun, is the underground part of a plant; as a verb it can mean to cheer for; rout (rhymes with out) can be either verb or noun and indicates an utter defeat.
homey/homely – Homey means welcoming and cozy in the US, where homely is a pejorative to describe a woman as ugly. (Yes, confusing because in the UK homely means comfortable, like a home). Homey is also US street slang to describe a person from one’s peer group or neighborhood: He’s my Homey.
plain/plane – Surprised to include this, but recently saw a post by someone self-proclaiming as a ‘plane Jane,’ which would describe a flight attendant, or perhaps a woman obsessed with airplanes. Plain means ordinary. Plain Jane is a derogatory term reflecting a woman’s commonplace appearance. Plane is the either the short form for airplane, a flat surface, or describes the action of a boat or airborne object. The confusion is understandable when describing a surface (not a Jane) because plain(s), the noun, also means grasslands or flatlands.
mote/moat – A mote is a tiny speck of dust. A moat is the watery trench surrounding a castle.
rain/rein/reign – Rain: wet stuff from the sky; rein, the noun, means the leather straps used to guide a horse, or as a verb, to keep control: rein in. Reign is what royals do over their subjects.
whether/weather – Whether is a conjunction, showing doubt between alternatives, whether to stay or go. Weather the noun means meteorological conditions. Or it can mean ailing: She’s under the weather. Weather the verb means survive: We weathered the storm.
role/roll – An actor’s part is a role. Your role in your household might be to recycle the toilet paper rolls.
dingy/dinghy – Dingy (rhymes with stingy, soft ‘g’) means gloomy. A dinghy is a small boat (rhymes with stringy).
Knot/ naught/ nought – These are slightly tricky. Naught (US) means the same as nought (UK): nothing, as in, His efforts will come to naught. Knot, in addition to being something you tie, is a measurement of nautical speed (of a sea vessel), which is sometimes the source of confusion. There is also the adverb not, which can also serve as adjective and noun, but I’ve not seen evidence of its misuse as a homophone.
alternative/alternate – An alternative is one of two or more choices. An alternate is a substitute. As an adjective it means every other: on alternate Thursdays. Alternāte the verb with a long ā (rhymes with gate) means to take turns.
so/sew/sow – So is an interjection; sew is for buttons and hems; sow is for seeds.
for/fore/four – For is a preposition that means ‘in favor of’ or ‘on behalf of’ or sometimes to do something (he’s going for a walk. while fore means ‘in front of’ and Fore! is the warning golfers shout before they drive; four is a number.
border, boarder – A border is either a frontier between countries or a decorative edge, e.g., on a piece of fabric; a boarder is a.) someone who pays board (room plus meals), b.) someone boarding a ship or c.) a person using a sporting board (e.g. surfboard or boogie board).
stakes, steaks – Stakes are what’s gambled on a particular outcome and critical to your story; some people think steaks taste better with HP sauce.
incite/insight – Incite means to provoke violence; insight is a deep understanding.
great/grate – great means wonderful; grate is what you do to cheese or what cows won’t walk over or part of a fireplace.
furry/fury – these don’t even sound the same. Furry (rhymes with blurry) is what puppies are. Fury (rhymes with jury) means seething anger.
prostrate/prostate – Prostrate means to lie face down. Prostate is a gland in male mammals prone to cancer.
6. Common Grammar and Usage Errors
It’s easy to follow a pied-piper leader on social media, which is unedited. Even published websites are riddled with errors. Watch for these:
When you’re tempted to insert one, double check its necessity; that it’s needed.
- 1980s – Decades are not possessive, which is when to use an apostrophe (if it’s not in a contraction). That means age descriptions (early 20s) too
- one’s /ones Lose one’s way. Slapped down a stack of ones.
- boy’s/boys/boys’ – The boy’s hat (possessive adjective). All the boys’ hats (possessive, plural). All the boys, plural noun.
- lot’s/lots – Unless you are speaking about a building lot’s features (possessive), the word you want for many is lots.
- other’s/others/others’ – Same as boy’s, check each other’s work. Check with the others (the rest of the group). Watch for these in both your own and others’ writing; possessive plural; the writing belongs to others, plural.
hone in – The correct expression is home-in. But I won’t be surprised if the currently still substandard hone in as meaning the same thing will wend its way to the dictionary. Hone means to whittle or refine: to hone one’s writing skills.
Kudo – Kudos means praise or honor, a step above “well done.” It’s a collective noun, like furniture, luggage, or equipment. Kudo is not a word. You cannot award someone a kudo.
alternative/alternate – An alternative (noun) is a choice of two or more options. An alternate (noun) is a substitute. As an adjective, alternate means every other, as in alternate Tuesdays. The verb to alternate is pronounced with a long ā on the last syllable (rhymes with gate) and means ‘to take turns.’
to boldly go… – Don’t get hung up on split infinitives, case in point at left. But notice them to confirm whether the separation improves the read.
try and – Try to follow the rule on this.
of – Often indicates clumsy construction and too many words. Try rewriting without of.
subject too far from verb – Keep your verbs close to their subjects. Example: Every spec script you submit, no matter how much you’ve fiddled with it, is always considered a First Draft. It’s grammatically correct, but cumbersome. Move the verb closer for a clearer sentence. In this case the rewrite is more than one sentence, but with the same word count. The subject is spec script and the verb, is always considered, falls after the clause. Better: Every spec script you submit is considered a First Draft. Always. No matter how much you’ve fiddled with it.
The camera can’t see inside your characters’ heads. Only write what is seen on screen. These are just examples. Be alert for others.
He thinks – He stares at the documents.
She wonders – She gazes at (significant object). Or put it in dialogue.
She imagines – She touches a photograph (significant object).
He remembers – Use a flashback sequence if the story requires the memory.
Makes them feel sad – They embrace, sobbing.
He hates her – Show in your action lines. His eyes bore through the back of her head. He tosses her picture in the trash and spits on it.
She loves him – Her eyes light up as he enters. She embraces and kisses him tenderly
She ponders – She examines the documents.
He meditates on – He closes his eyes and inhales deeply.
Any ‘thinking’ verbs – (ponder, reflect, deliberate, muse, mull over etc.) Replace with descriptive action.
Anything the camera can’t see – Often shows up when a writer refers to something that happened previously, but not in a visual flashback.
8. Flowery Description
One of the top three reasons a gatekeeper will PASS on a script is overwriting. (The others are non-standard formatting and a story that doesn’t follow a recognized structure. Even after you apply the ideas in the previous sections to tighten and liven up your language, you may still be guilty of the following sin: writing your screenplay like a novel.
Too Much Description
EXT. GRASSY FIELD OUTSIDE THE FAIRGROUNDS AT THE EDGE OF TOWN – NOT QUITE DUSK, JUST AFTER THE SUN HAS SET AND FIRST STARS HAVE APPEARED
The darkening night sky is lighting up, alive with a thousand inspiring colors, where FIREWORKS are exploding and ratattattatting like gunfire, casting dappled dots of dancing light onto SUSAN’s tear-drenched, grief-filled face while she is walking through the grassy field sprinkled with buttercups, her streaming tears spilling like rain onto her blue silk blouse, the one with the yellow butterflies, staining it with jagged streaks. Susan is thinking about her ex.
The scene heading is way overdone – never use more than one line. Time extensions are DAY or NIGHT. In proper screenwriting type and format, this action block comes to 71 words – nine lines in a dense, black block, with a two-letter widow. (Yes, we checked in Final Draft.) Lots of novelistic language, tense / voice errors, and unfilmables.
EXT. GRASSY FIELD – NIGHT
Fireworks flash, bang and whistle, lighting the newly darkened sky.
Susan trudges through the meadow, sobbing.
(17 words, two partial lines.)
Pick your own 200-word love or porn scene – They have wild/tender sex (director’s choice). Unless you’re writing a porn script, in which case I have no experience, hence no advice. Ditto for fight scenes. As required by the particular script.
9. Overused and Unimaginative Verbs
Because of the current nature of screenplay action lines, in that everything you write is a shot happening on screen now, there are a few words that can creep into your script six or seven times on a single page. Search your doc for the banal, worn-out words in bold and consider a more descriptive verb from the suggestions or in your thesaurus. Use a dictionary to ensure the replacement means precisely what you think it does.
Boring Verb Choice to Richer Action Words
walks – advances, ambles, ambles, approaches, ascends, bolts, bushwhacks, canters, careens, charges, chases, climbs, continues on, covers ground, crawls, crept along, creeps away, crosses, dances, darts, dashes, decamps, descends, dodges, drifts, eludes, emerges, enters, escapes, evacuates, evades, flees, flies, flits, gallops, glides, gropes his way, hastens, hauls off, hikes, hobbles, hurries, hurtles, inches across, jogs, launches over, lists, lopes, lumbers, lunges, lurches, marches, meanders, moseys, paces, parades, passes, patrols, plods, plows, prances, propels himself, prowls, proceeds, pursues, pussyfoots, races, rambles, roams, roves, rushes, sags, sails, saunters, scales, scampers, scoots, scrambles, scurries, shadows, shuffles, sidesteps, sidles, skids, skips, skuttles, slinks, slouches, sneaks, sprints, staggers, stalks, stamps, steals, steers, steps, stomps, strays, strides, strolls, struts, stumbles, swaggers, swerves, swishes, takes flight, takes off, tears, tiptoes, trails after, traipses, tramples, tramps, traverses, treads, treks, trips, troops, trots, trudges, ushers, veers, waddles, wades, wanders, wends, withdraws, wobbles
sits – perches, flops, collapses, sinks into, parks, slumps, eases into, lowers himself, plops down, crouches, squats, settles, straddles, leans, reclines, lolls, lounges, sprawls
looks – beholds, checks, casts a glance, considers, contemplates, detects, discerns, distinguishes, examines, eyes, fixes on, flips through, focuses, gapes, gazes, glances, glances off, glares, glowers, identifies, inspects, keeps watch, leers, monitors, notes, notices, observes, ogles, peeks, peeps, peers, perceives, peruses, recognizes, regards, scans, scowls, scrutinizes, sights, sizes up, skims, spots, squints, stands guard, stares, studies, studies, surveys, takes in, takes stock of, turns an eye on, views, watches
gets up / stands up – rises, stands, emerges, pops upright, jumps to his feet
drinks – chugs, consumes, disposes of, downs, drains, gulps, guzzles, imbibes, ingests, inhales, knocks back, laps up, licks, nurses, partakes of, quaffs, relishes, samples, savors, scarfs down, sips, slurps, smacks, stuffs, suckles, sucks, swallows, swigs, swills, tastes, tipples, tosses off, washes down
eats – bites into, chews, chomps, consumes, crunches, demolishes, gnaws, gobbles, grazes, grinds, ingests, inhales, munches, nibbles, packs away, partakes, scarfs, shovels down, sinks his teeth into, snacks, swallows, tucks into, wolfs down
takes (her home, e.g.) – accompanies, escorts, guides, shows, convoys, conducts, ushers, marshals, leads, chaperones, steers, herds, shepherds
gets – So many meanings for this word; use an online thesaurus. On a Mac, put your dictionary application on your dock and consult the thesaurus every time you’re tempted to use ‘get.’
puts – casts, consigns, crams, deposits, drapes, drops, dunks, eases, flings, heaves, hurls, inserts, installs, lays, lobs, lodges, mounts, parks, perches, places, plants, plops, plunks, poses, positions, relegates, sets, sets upright, shifts, slaps, stands on end, stashes, stations, stations, sticks, straps, stuffs, throws, tosses, upends
has or holds – bears, carries, clutches, contains, contains, displays, embraces, exhibits, grasps, grips, possesses, retains, shows, spans, sports, suspends, totes, wears, wields
leaves – decamps, departs, deserts, exits, flees, quits, runs off, repairs, retires, retreats, takes off, withdraws
turns – angles off, circles, eddies, pivots, reels, revolves, rotates, sheers, shifts, shunts, spins, swirls, swivels, twists, veers, wheels, whirls
lies down / back – basks, curls, eases onto, flops onto, leans back, lies back, lies prone, lies prostrate, lies recumbent, lies supine, lazes, lolls, lounges, luxuriates, nestles, reclines, relaxes, reposes, rests, slouches, slumps, sprawls, stretches out
touches – adjusts, brushes, caresses, clutches, dabs, drums, felt, flattens, flicks, flips, flogs, fondles, gouges, grasps, grazes, grips, gropes, handles, held, jabs, kneads, knifes, maneuvers, mangles, manipulates, massages, mauls, palms, palpates, pats, paws, pinches, pokes, preens, presses, pries, primps, prizes open, probes, prods, pulls, pumps, pushes, raps, rattles, rubs, rummages, scoops, scours, scrapes, scratches, scrubs, shoves, smooths, squeezes, strokes, stubs, sweeps, tamps, taps, thumbs, ticks, takes hold, traps, tugs, twiddles, twists, wedges, wiggles, works, wrings
pulls – drags, draws, extracts, extricates, hauls, jerks, levers, lugs, produces, removes, tows, twists, strains, tugs, wrenches, wrests, yanks
hits – attacks, bangs, bashes, batters, belts, bops, boxes, bumps, canes, claps, clips, clobbers, clouts, crashes, crowns, cuffs, decks, flogs, floors, hacks, hammers, hooks, knocks, laces into, lashes, lays into, pitches into, pounds, pummels, pumps, punches, rains blows on, rams, slams, slaps, smacks, smashes, socks, strikes, sucker-punches, swats, swings, swipe, swipes, tackles, thrashes, thumps, thwacks, trounces, wallops, welts, whacks, whips, whomps, zonks
jumps – bobs, bounces, bounds, capers, clears, climbs, dances, erupts, escalate, explodes, flinches, frolics, gambols, hops, hurdles, jerks, jolts, launches, leaps, lunges, mounts, pounces, recoils, shoots up, shudders, skips, snaps up, soars, springs, startles, surges, twitches, vaults, winces
reacts – admits with a nod, beams, blanches, blinks, blushes, cocks her head, devoid of emotion, draws back, exhales, falls silent, flicks, flinches, flings, flushes, frowns, gasps, glances off, glares, grimaces, grins, hesitates, inhales, keels over, lists, nods her consent, nods his agreement, pauses, pouts, raises an eyebrow, reclines, reels, relaxes, resists, retracts, retreats, rocks back, scowls, shifts, shivers, shakes his head, shrugs, sighs, simpers, slackens, smiles, smirks, sneers, snickers, sniffs, stares, starts, startles, steps back, stiffens, stifles a yawn, swallows, sways, tilts her head, yawns, yields
laughs – busts a gut, cackles, chortles, chuckles, convulses in laughter, cracks up, dissolves/bursts into laughter, doubles up, giggles, guffaws, holds her sides, hoots, howls, in stitches, roars, rolling in the aisles, shakes with laughter, snickers, sniggers, splits his sides, tee-hees, titters
takes – accepts, acquires, appropriates, chooses, clasps, clutches, confiscates, drags, draws, elevates, extracts, extricates, fetches, fingers, gains, garners, gathers, gleans, grabs, grasps, grips, hoists, jimmies, lowers, makes off with, nabs, nicks, obtains, packs, picks, picks up, pilfers, pinches, plucks, prizes open, procures, produces, pulls out, raises, ransacks, removes, roots out, scoops up, seizes, selects, snares, snatches, steals, swaps, swipes, tears down, traps, withdraws, wrenches, wrests
10. Tired and Weak Adjectives
We often write how we speak casually, especially when we’re churning it out in the zone. That’s okay, especially in dialogue. But often insipid language spills into our action blocks. When you revise your drafts, search for feeble adjectives and choose more precise, concrete descriptors. The weak words have become platitudes.
Tired / Weak Adjectives – Explanation / Choices
Good – So many nuanced meanings. Find the replacement word that suits your sentence, depending on whether you mean ‘fine’ or ‘virtuous’ or ‘obedient’ or ‘capable’ or ‘correct’ or ‘healthy’ or ‘enjoyable.’ Each of those distinct uses of the word ‘good’ offers multiple synonyms.
Bad – Same as good. The multiple meanings for this word present ample synonyms.
Pretty – Avoid this trite descriptor, especially in character descriptions.
Beautiful – Same as pretty. Especially in character intros. Readers hate this word.
Very – Avoid at all costs, except as an adjective to emphasize precision (i.e., only before a noun, as in the very bottom, my very eyes, those very words. When used to modify an adjective (very tired, angry, hungry, thirsty) or an adverb (very quickly), it actually detracts from the word it tries to emphasize, accomplishing the opposite of what the writer intends. Choose a more appropriate descriptor instead: exhausted, furious, famished, parched; hastily, speedily. Or just remove the ‘very’ and watch your original word work magic on its own. As Mark Twain famously wrote: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Better – This word can be an adjective, adverb, verb, or noun. Find more visual options: superior, finer, greater, preferable, recommended, healthier, recovered, stronger, fitter, progressing, improving.
Important – significant, consequential, momentous, of great moment, of import, of great import, of great consequence, far-reaching, major; critical, crucial, vital, pivotal, decisive, urgent, epoch-making, historic, seminal; serious, substantial, grave, weighty, signal, material. Or one of a hundred other more expressive words.
Really – See very. Avoid, except in dialogue. (Same applies to actually)
Cool – Cool, fashionable, in fashion, in vogue, voguish, up-to-date, modern, all the rage, modish, trendsetting, stylish, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, elegant, stylish, smart, chic, glamorous, classy, high-class, attractive, appealing, impressive, trendy, funky, with it, hip, in, the in thing, big, happening, now, sharp, swinging, hot, massive, mod, snazzy, kicky, kicking, stylin’, spiffy, sassy
Old/er – As in old/er man. Subjective – be specific.
Young/er – As in young/er woman. Subjective – be specific.
Girl/boy – only if they’re under 12 years old. Definitely ditch ‘young girl/boy’ – just state their age on introduction.
Hot (weather) – balmy, summery, tropical, boiling, blazing hot, baking, scorching, roasting, searing, flaming, parched, blistery, oven-like, sweltering, torrid, sultry, humid, muggy, close, airless, oppressive, stifling
Big or large – almighty, astronomical, bumper, capacious, colossal, commodious, considerable, cosmic, cumbersome, elephantine, enormous, epic, extensive, family-size, gargantuan, giant, gigantic, ginormous, Goliath, good-size, goodly, great, high, huge, humongous, immense, inordinate, jumbo, king-size, lofty, mammoth, massive, mega, megalithic, mighty, monster, monstrous, monumental, mountainous, outsized, overgrown, oversized, prodigious, sizeable, spacious, stupendous, substantial, tall, titanic, towering, tremendous, unlimited, unwieldy, vast, voluminous, whacking, whacking, whopping
Small – Compared to what? And in what sense? So many words to choose from: baby, boxy, compact, cramped, diminutive, dwarf, elfin, inadequate, inconsequential, inconsiderable, insignificant, insufficient, Lilliputian, little, meager, measly, microscale, microscopic, mini, miniature, minor, minuscule, minute, nanoscopic, negligible, paltry, pathetic, petite, petty, pint-sized, poky, portable, puny, short, slight, slightly built, slip-of-a-boy, small-boned, squat, stingy, stubby, stunted, teeny-weeny, tiny, toy, trifling, trivial, undersized, unimportant
Fast – accelerated, blinding, blistering, breakneck, brisk, expeditious, express, fast-moving, fleet-footed, flies, hasty, high-speed, hurries, lively, meteoric, nimble, nippy, pell-mell, quick, rapid, scorching, smart, spanking, speedy, sporty, sprightly, supersonic, swift, turbo, unhesitating, whirlwind, zippy
11. Unnecessary words, phrases, and punctuation
Again, we all have to be alert to avoid emulating someone else’s poor habits. And there are plenty of terrible examples online every hour. A handful of expressions and punctuation usage can separate you from the masses. Strive for more than ‘good enough.’
Disposables – Explanation
there is/there are/it is – In grammar language, these are called “expletive” or “dummy” subjects (not that kind of expletive; not that kind of dummy). These phrases add zero value, especially in a screenplay where minimal descriptions are prized. Remove them, or rewrite if necessary.
We see – Considered lazy writing in specs. Everything you include is ‘seen.’
That – Unnecessary, more often than not. Try removing it. If the sentence is clear, leave it out.
Of – Often indicates overwriting. Edit or rewrite.
! – See ‘shriek marks’ in formatting. These seem to be more common since current text messaging etiquette demands them. Remove all or most in your screenplays. Your writing should clearly show the reader your character’s mood and tone.
So – In speech, filler words like so, like, anyway etc. are considered aspirated punctuation, meaning they fill in a breathing gap and don’t mean anything. In writing informally, and certainly in dialogue, these are fine choices if they match the character’s voice. But use them sparingly otherwise, if at all.
ALL CAPS – Capping the occasional word is okay, if a character is screaming, for example. Emphasis on occasional.
Bottom line, writing is hard work. Screenwriting especially demands attention to these details because we have a finite number of words to tell our story. Make sure you consult our exhaustive Glossary for Screenwriters if there are terms you’re unsure of. Make sure you’ve selected the right words by double checking their meaning. The online Merriam Webster dictionary is a solid choice if you’re writing for the US market.