Views From Your Muse


By David Trottier

In an article from a previous edition of my newsletter, another writer challenged my notion of writing lean description. The example of lean description that I used was from the spec script Rocky. It reads as follows:

The gym looks like a garbage can turned inside out.

I like it because it says a lot with just a few words plus a reader could easily visualize it. He preferred the following version (below) because it would better help the actors, the director, the set decorator, and the art director. “After all,” he said, “that is who we are writing for.” It contains more details, even though it is not as readable.

The gym was littered with food wrappers, leftover hot dogs and tacos, gym clothes, and other debris. It looked like no one had cleaned it in over a month. It was truly a mess.

A key principle is at issue here. Unless you are being paid in advance to write, you are not writing for the director or set decorator, or even the actors. You are writing your spec for a reader—that is, a professional story analyst, an agent, or a producer. All those extra details can be added to the shooting script.

It’s important to use concrete language and provide specific details, but choose only those details that help the reader visualize the action. The essence of spec writing is to say as much as possible with as few words as possible.

When writing description, try using specific verbs to describe actions without relying on adverbs, and choose specific nouns without using adjectives. Am I saying that adjectives and adverbs should be avoided?

No, I’m saying that you should focus on verbs and nouns first. You won’t need to use as many adjectives and adverbs if you use specific, concrete nouns and verbs.

For example, here’s a sentence containing an adverb and a couple of adjectives: He is walking slowly to the big, yellow boat. Notice that the adjectives and adverb provide little help because the verb and noun are not specific in the first place.

Now, here is the same sentence, using a specific, active verb and a concrete noun: He staggers to the yacht.

Because I use concrete, specific language, I do not need the adverb and adjective, at least in this particular case. And notice how the verb staggered characterizes my character better than the weaker verb walked. Finally, do you see that the active verb staggers is stronger than the passive form is staggering? Specific language can help you bring characters and action to life.

Even when you use concrete nouns and verbs, you still may see a need for concrete adjectives and adverbs. In the following sentence, I use a couple of adjectives for visual clarification: She sashays to the pink brick bungalow. Thus, my real point is this: Use concrete, visual language in your narrative description. Adjectives and adverbs are helping words, so first make sure your verbs and nouns are strong and then look for helping words if you need them.

The late, great Paddy Cheyvsky (Marty, Network), once said, “I have two rules. First, cut out all the wisdom; then, cut out all the adjectives.”

I don’t think he meant he actually went through the script and omitted every adjective; I believe he is referring to lean, concrete and specific language. The “cutting out all the wisdom” alludes to the tendency of some writers to sound preachy, or overstate their theme, or write pretentious, unnatural dialogue.