Screenwriting : Adverbs by David Henderson

David Henderson


I just read some screenwriting rules from an "expert". He said it's lazy to use adverbs and every one of them should be removed. What do you think about this? I actually think it can add richness when the perfect verb is not available. Is it amateurish to use them sparingly?

CJ Walley

It's dogmatic and reductive advice that has some basis in the truth. Writing something like "they quickly walk along the sidewalk" shows poor technical writing skills but that's not to say adverbs themselves are bad by default. While there may be an alternative verb that works better, you may end up alienating readers because it's rarely used; e.g "they dogtrot along the sidewalk".

Is this list the "Seven Deadly Sins" from Your Screenplay Sucks by any chance, as the list is mostly bupkis. The author also thinks that car chases are a bad idea.

Noel Hoffmann

If it ends in an "ly", I generally remove it or rewrite the segment to better describe what I want to convey. Personally, I think the total absence of adverbs is lazy. I'm like you, I prefer an adjective in there once in a while.

Nick Assunto - Stage32 Script Services Coordinator

That's interesting. I haven't really paid attention to adverb use and now will probably be self-conscious of it moving forward. But I've never had someone complain about it. Nor do I have any idea how many I've used. Curious who the "expert" is. But I tend to write my action in simple active beats. Like in CJ's example my line would probably be. "They walk down the sidewalk. Fast." And I can't imagine criticizing anyone for their use of adverbs, but maybe if the action is all clunky possibly make a general note about it.

David Henderson

Thanks everyone. CJ, I do believe that's where I read it.

Doug Nelson

It's not amateurish to use them SPARINGLY but in my opinion, it is amateurish to overuse them ('overuse' is subject personal opinion). I go out of my way to find a more suitable verb but occasionally there just ain't none.

C.J. Car chase scenes here in the U.S. are prohibitively expensive to shoot so from a production pov; yes they are a bad (costly) idea. Maybe not so much in other countries (India, Taiwan, Australia...).

Dan Guardino

Try to avoid words that can usually be eliminated such as “are”, “there”, “it is”, “it's”, “to go”, “to say”, “is”, “to be” and words ending in “ly” and “ing” and replace “and” with a coma or start a new sentence when possible. These aren't rules but would help make a script read better. At least that is my opinion.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Adverbs are their function, not their ending. There are adverbs called "flat adverbs," which are adverbs without "ly." So... "Look close" or "Look closely" are both using an adverb. The former does read more active and immediate. Another good example is the word "near." Example: "The deadline draws near" (adverb); or "Summer is nearly here" (adverb). Both these options are adverbs; they look like their related adjective forms. Also, keep in mind an adverb can describe how, when, and where an action happens. So brush up on your grammar and use every writing tool available to you—do not let anyone tell you otherwise! Sorry, but saying something is "lazy" is lazy, no? Like all things in screenwriting, use adverbs effectively and judiciously. ;)

Pablo Diablo

I'm always reminded of Stephen King's quote from his book "On Writing": The road to Hell is paved with adverbs. When I used to cover scripts, I remember being triggered by the word "gingerly," because it was hardly used in the correct context.

If a verb needs one, that word can be punched up. So "walked hastily" could be changed to "jogged." I do agree with Dan G., verbs need to remain active. Remember, you're telling a story, keep us excited, our eyes on the page.

CJ Walley

David Henderson, yeah don't take it too seriously and don't take my word for it. Look the author up on IMDb and decide for yourself. It's still a good book overall but the sins are scaremongering garbage.

Doug Nelson, I've shot two car chases now in the US on a tight budget. Only one car caught fire unintentionally LOL we but got a ton of production value out of it. The author doesn't discredit them for cost reasons. He just doesn't like them.

Nick Assunto - Stage32 Script Services Coordinator, there's nothing wrong with that but the point is that "walk" has so many alternatives that render an adverb redundant such as "they trot/jog/scamper/run/dash/sprint/naruto-run along the sidewalk".

This is subject close to my heart because. after reading the rules in this book and taking the "words that end in 'ly'" thing to heart, I went and trashed the prose in a load of my screenplays at the time.

For me, it's all about the rhythm and flow combined with expression, passion, and accessibility.

Beth Fox Heisinger

For fun, looking at Nick's shortened example above, I count two adverbs: "They walk down the sidewalk. Fast." Lol! Anyway, for me, I'm solely focused on what works effectively and, typically, could care less about garbage-filled over-simplified fearmongering nonsense.

Mike Stahl

Use them sparingly :)

Dan Guardino

I try to make every word count in my screenplays. Adverbs describe verbs that don't need further description. Using Nick's example all I would write is "They walk down the sidewalk" or just “They walk” if it is obvious that they are on a sidewalk. There are cases when it might be necessary to use words ending in "ly" but is best to do so sparingly.

Craig D Griffiths

My default to these types of rules is “oh please”.

She lightly dusted the cake with sugar. Is fine. Better than the normal purple action lines (no adverbs though). She dusted the cake with sugar that drifted down like fresh snow caught in a crisp winter breeze.

Plus adverbs add to performance. Is it done “softly”? Remember until people start converting paper to performance you are responsible for it all.

Debbie Croysdale

I studied under a few best selling screenwriters (amongst several others from general Academia) who quote “There are no rules”.

Doug Nelson

It's certainly true that there are no rules but there are many nuances that make one script more readable than another; and isn't that the point?

CJ Walley

Since you asked, I feel the point is to maintain a happy and fulfilled mindset that derives satisfaction from our writing and, if we want to make money from it at the same time, a career that doesn't compromise that.

My main issue with creatives who impose dogmatic advice while claiming that ignoring them will lead to failure is they are all too often lacking in success and artistic merit themselves. Their curt mocking of those they snigger at for being less informed is almost always a crutch for their own insecurities.

These rulesets propagate on the viral effect of fear and over-simplified thinking. I'm not arguing the point at hand but there's a healthy and an unhealthy way to make it.

One of the most beautiful things about the medium of screenwriting is it's accessibility to those who want to tell stories without the ball and chain of being able to churn out Booker Prize winning prose as result of a good education and decades of practice.

Should we always strive to improve, absolutely, but that motivation has to come from a passionate love of writing itself. The fear-mongering which runs rampant in so many books, blogs, podcasts, and forums only serves to cripple the ambition of those already concerned they may not have what it takes. It festers a servile and apologetic attitude within a world where rebellion and bravery is critical to standing out.

I am so tired of being told there are rules by people who cannot prove that following them led to success, especially when so many can prove that breaking them did.

We need to be empowering people with insightful information that bolsters their confidence to continue such as how Beth has framed her note on flat adverbs.

As dyslexic who got into writing late in life, I've personally found this is a kind industry overall where decision makers are constantly giving people the benefit of the doubt. As a result, you can develop and succeed at the same time. All I ask is that people re-read David's original question and consider if things have been presented realistically to him.

Barry John Terblanche

CJ. Very well put, said!

Beth Fox Heisinger

Doug, sure, there’s nuance. But what happens too often is toxic misplaced blame; writing tools themselves are blamed as the reason a script is “bad” when bad writing is the true culprit. How writing tools are used is what matters. I mean, here we go again, right? Adverbs are called “lazy” in a generalized over-simplified way. No context. Ignore complexity. What is telling is examining the writing of a person making such claims and seeing that they use adverbs quite often. Why? Because adverbs have a grammatical function and the writer doesn’t seem to know or doesn’t recognize or won’t acknowledge the multiple forms of adverbs. What is also an issue is that it is so much easier to discuss and argue over the superficial aspects of screenwriting because in truth screenwriting and storytelling is very difficult. It takes a lot of work and talent. These superficial aspects make screenwriting sound simple and easy. Gosh, here’s a rule, just take out whatever you think is an adverb and your script will be great! Nope, sorry, it’s probably not the adverbs that’s the issue. It’s the substance and skill of the writing that shines in a script. So talking about how to use the system of writing (grammar) and writing tools and devices effectively with specific purpose in a healthy manner fosters good writing instead of further perpetuating creative fear and bad writing.

Rohit Kumar

If I could remember, the concept comes from Novel writing mostly "Show and Don't tell". Adverbs basically pushes the whole sentence into "tell" what's happening rather than making the reader visualize what's happening. That's the core reason of it, if I'm right. I mean you can use it, it's not like shouldn't, but it's good to use a simple verb.

Dan Guardino

I never considered not using adverbs was even a rule and I’m not now suggesting that is. Unlike most forms of writing screenwriting has a certain cadence to them that comes from writing economically. So when I write a screenplay one of my goals is to make them less wordy and reads faster. One way I accomplish that is to eliminate as many adverbs as possible and replace them with more descriptive verbs. For example I might change “he quickly walks out” to “he bolts out” or “he rushes out” or “storms out.” However to answer David’s question I don’t think it is “lazy writing” or is “amateurish to use them sparingly. Again I am not claiming this a formatting rule and I am not suggesting someone would be doomed to failure if they ignored my advice. It is just my own opinion is all.

Craig D Griffiths

CJ Walley a fellow dyslexic. As a dyslexic we should untie, oh I mean unite.

Is it lazy no Adverbs have been added to our language to achieve a result. If you believe that a screenplay (your screenplay) doesn’t need that function don’t use them. It is like words ending in “ing” or describing what the audience sees and no one else by saying “we see”.

If we took out everything “experts” advice we would have


The end.


Doug Nelson

Craig - you wouldn't need 'The end.' lol

Doug Nelson

Beth, 'toxic misplaced blame'? Where'd that come from?

Beth Fox Heisinger

Doug, huh? The misplaced blame on writing tools/grammar/devices/etc themselves for making a script “bad,” i.e. “adverbs are lazy” which is toxic, misleading, and over-simplified. It’s not the tools, rather how they are used is what matters.

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