Today we’re going to talk about something I don’t talk about much on the site.
Yes, you heard that right. The big W.
I’ve written about structure, about conflict, about plot. About characters, about dialogue, about suspense. I’ve written about Jersey Shore, Star Wars, and Honey Boo-Boo. But I haven’t yet written an article about writing. About the words you physically write down to create your stories.
I’ll tell you how this came about. A few weeks back, I read an amateur period piece. Then a few days later, I happened upon a professional period piece that covered the same subject. The plot, the structure, and even some of the characters were similar.
The difference? The amateur script felt empty while the professional script was immersive. Now there was more than one reason for this. The professional writer had a better grasp of the craft. He clearly had more experience. He knew, that especially with period pieces, you had to research the hell out of the period so that it felt authentic. You had to do a ton of character work so the characters felt fully-fleshed out and real. And the complexities of the plot were expertly woven together as opposed to being clunky and confusing.
The thing was, I’d covered all that before. I knew all that stuff was better. However, even with that, there was something about the professional script that was stronger and I couldn’t figure out what it was. It wasn’t until I physically started comparing the pages side by side that I noticed a difference. The prose. The prose in the professional script wasn’t just “better.” It was SAYING SOMETHING. The words were specific, and when an important moment came around, the professional writer always had a word ready to capture the moment. He had an ability that the other writer did not – to transfer me to the movie theater during the read. I could see what he was describing. How the hell did he do that? He did it in two ways.
1) Power Words
Power words are words, usually verbs, that evoke one of the senses. They often look the way they sound and therefore have an OOMPH about them that other, more casual words, can’t create. For example, I could say that blood “trailed” out of a severed artery, or I could say it “gurgled.” “Trailed” is a weak spineless word. It gives me the barest visual of what’s happening with the blood. “Gurgle” paints a more vivid picture. And it adds another sense to the element – sound. You can HEAR gurgling.
Or, if a woman is running from her attacker, and she finally gets to her car, writing that she “sticks” her key into the lock isn’t as powerful as if she “JAMS” it in there. And I probably wouldn’t say that she “runs into” the car. I’d say she “PLOWED” into it. Notice how the power word evokes more of a sensory reaction. And the cool thing about power words is that they’re fun to come up with. Go through your text and when you find a weak verb, see if there’s a more powerful substitution.
Joe Hero shouldn’t “remove” the cap. He should “pop” it off.
Jane Heroine shouldn’t “fall” from the building. She should “plummet.”
Sidebuddy Bob shouldn’t “twist” the peanut butter jar. He should “manhandle” it.
Now the question is, should we use power words in every single sentence? No. There are so many quick and dirty sentences in a script that to try and infuse all of them with a power word would be counter-productive. Plus, if Joe PLUNGES to the fridge where he SUBMARINES to the bottom shelf and JACKHAMMERS his hand to the back where he KITTYHAWKS an Orange Crush, it starts to sound stupid. Use power words judiciously and only if the word fits the moment. Overuse them and it’ll feel like you’re trying too hard.
Specificity is the process of using specific words and phrases in your description/action passages. This is what I noticed when I read those two period pieces. In the case of the amateur, his sentences had a bland and generic feel. He chose general words that didn’t create any imagery in the reader’s mind. This is not an actual sentence from his script. But it’s similar to how a lot of his sentences read:
The town is lain over the hill, its ancient buildings centered around a statue of a man swinging a hammer.
The only thing specific in this sentence/paragraph is the statue, and even that’s been described in the most bland way possible. “Town” is a general boring word. So is “lain.” So is the phrase “over the hill.” “Ancient” gives us some sense of a visual, but it’s still quite vague. Both an Egyptian pyramid and an English castle can be ancient, but the two are very different structures with very different details. Let’s compare this with a description from “Killing on Carnival Row,” Scriptshadow Readers’ favorite script.
An urban hodgepodge of crumbling rooftops, grimy belfries, and smoke-stained spires. Chimneys and smokestacks pump towers of soot into a stone gray sky.
Okay! Now we’re talking! Right away, the coupling “urban hodgepodge” helps us imagine a specific type of city. Also, note how the rooftops aren’t just “ancient,” but “crumbling.” That’s a power word. We can SEE that as soon as we read it. “Grimy” is another beautiful sensory word. “Smoke-stained” chimneys sure is better than, say, “old” chimneys. “Pump towers of soot.” We even have an ACTION that’s bringing this city to life! It’s no longer static. It’s alive!
THIS is what I mean by being specific with your words. Words have power. Every one you choose is another million you didn’t. Could one of those million have been a better option? You owe it to yourself to dig into that pile and find out. Because if all you offer is generic words every time you write a paragraph, you’re going to lose us.
Just like power words, specificity must be used judiciously. There’s no reason to dissect the DNA of a sentence conveying a simple meaning, like passing a cup. Just as there are passages like the above in Carnival Row, Travis Beacham also includes lines like “He takes out a notepad.” But if the occasion warrants it (an important location that needs to be described or an intense battle between two warring nations), then specificity is where you’re going to separate yourself from your competition.
I know that for some of you newbies, this may be confusing. You’ve probably heard that screenplay writing is about being sparse. “Less is more.” This is true. The problem is that too many people believe “sparse” is synonymous with “generic.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s because you’re only allowed to use so few words when you write for the screen, that they must be specific.
I’ve also encountered a new breed of writing where the focus is on being SO sparse, that there aren’t enough words left to provide meaning. All 500 paragraphs in the script are variations of “Joe zips down the street.” Yeah, the reader’s getting through the script faster, but it’s an empty experience. Which is leading to what I discussed in this week’s newsletter – studios aren’t buying scripts now because they’re all so damn thin. Nobody’s applying depth to their stories, to their characters, or to the prose itself.
There’s a happy medium here. Don’t write short. Don’t write long. Write SMART. Choose your words carefully. Think of every paragraph like a screenplay-version of a tweet, where every word matters. The sentence length should be the same as if you wrote generally. The difference is you’re pouring over every word. The steak “sizzles” is better than the steak “cooks.” The man “glares” is better than the man “looks at.” Power words and specificity are what bring your prose to life. Utilize both and I promise you, your writing will be better.
Here are few more examples…
The witch walks into the room. Her black dress drags behind her. She pushes her deep gray hair out of her face.
(Carnival Row version)
[The witch] hobbles into the room, an old crone, frazzled gray hair, bandaged eyes behind black spectacles. A dark cloak flowing behind her. She leans on a crooked walking stick.
The car skids noisily across the pavement until it comes to a full stop.
(Back to the Future version)
The car wheels lock up and the DeLorean comes to a SCREECHING HALT, smoke pouring off the body.
She sits across from him, nervous but trying not to show it. She looks at him every once in awhile as she checks her menu.
(American Beauty version)
He smiles, then opens his menu. Carolyn picks hers up mechanically, but continues to stare at him, enraptured, like a fervent Christian who’s just come face to face with Jesus.
After finishing the form, he looks down proudly at it and finishes it by adding his signature.
(Dances With Wolves version)
He looks over his work with a schoolboy’s excitement and affixes his signature with a wild flourish.