Debunking Screenwriting Myths, Part XVII: “I’m No Billy Shakespeare, but…”


Screenwriter’s riddle: “What has forty-two starts, but only twenty-four beginnings; sixty-two walks, but only eight runs?

Give up?

The last spec script I read.

True. It also had eighty-three “looks” but I couldn’t find a clever way to include that in the riddle. The writer has this nasty habit of continually telling us that Character A “starts to” do this, while B “begins to” do this in response.

Forty-two starts and twenty-four beginnings. Ugh!

Another highlight from this particular screenplay was the amount of people who “walk”. Just walk.

They didn’t saunter.

They didn’t stroll…

…and they certainly didn’t step, ambulate, perambulate, stride, pace, tread, foot it, hoof it, pad, shank, saunter, amble slog, trudge, plod shamble, shuffle, galumph, lurch, stagger, wobble, waddle, sidle, slink, mince, tiptoe, move, go, advance, proceed, or march.

When the protagonist isn’t walking everywhere, or beginning to walk somewhere or starting to walk somewhere, he’s often looking.

Just looking. Pretty much what every used car salesman hears when he asks a customer if they have any questions.
“Just looking.”

I’ll spare you the ENTIRE page of synonyms for “looks” but here’s a few to whet your appetite:

“see, visualize, behold, notice, take in; bend the eye, cock the eye, fix the eye, fix one’s gaze, focus, rivet one’s eyes, regard, study, inspect, take stock of, examine, contemplate, pore over, review, check out, overlook, monitor; peruse, read, scan, run the eyes over, scrutinize, give the once-over, view, survey, scout, sweep, reconnoiter, watch, observe, witness.”

Get my point? I hope so. My yellowed Thesaurus is shedding its pages with every turn.

In contrast, I recently reviewed the first ten pages of a screenwriter’s screenplay that actually suffered from the exact opposite syndrome: the over-write.

This writer clearly was a highly- skilled wordsmith…a talented pen-pusher… an excellent word-slinger… first-rate author…remarkable composer…splendid scribbler…a great word painter… a potboiler of the first order…a notable ink-spiller…

As beautiful as he wrote, I felt that this particular “first ten” was impacted negatively by the multiple “fanci-isms”. What made it worse was the redundancy of the same. In one descriptive line, the writer described a minor character as he “peers through the windshield…petite half-smile…eyes swell…wheels turn…pupils dilate.” Overall, that’s really terrific cinematic language, but in my opinion, the point was made after the smile.

If I had a choice of which writer to read, though, I’d choose the over-writer many more times than the clichéd “repeat” offender. Having a command of the language like that is a learned skill that just improves every screenplay much more significantly, and that cannot be overstated.

Or exaggerated…

Or hyperbolized…

Or overstressed…

Or oversold…



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