Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #11: Adverbs

One of the most important things you can do to improve your screenplay is to make the wording as brief and active as possible. A guaranteed way to make your wording less brief and less active is to fill it with adverbs, rather than choosing the right verbs in the first place. This usually happens when writers use non-descriptive verbs, such as “walk” or “go.” Instead of saying that someone walks slowly, isn’t it better to say that she meanders, creeps or lopes? Instead of saying someone goes quickly, isn’t it better to say that she rushes, bolts or hies? The right verb beats out even the most descriptive adverb every time.
The best way to remove adverbs from your screenplay is to do a search for “ly ” (for clarification, that’s “ly” followed by a space) and then replace that verb-adverb combination with a more descriptive verb. It’s okay to use the occasional adverb if you find that it reads better than any of the possible verb choices, but three adverbs that you should never (ever!) use in your descriptions are “very,” “suddenly” and “finally.” Those adverbs don't add anything to screenplay descriptions so be sure to remove all of them.
Though this change will probably not reduce the total number of pages in your script, it will make a noticeable difference in how your script reads. Even if the reader doesn’t realize that you went through the trouble to remove adverbs from your script, he will notice your brief, active word choices and will like your script better for it.


  1. Hi Phil.
    Thanks you very much for your efforts.
    English is not my first language and I was wondering if there is a book of verbs somewhere. I use the web a lot but never found something more aimed at writers.

  2. Hi Guetta,

    Yes, there actually is a book called "The Big Book of English Verbs," though I don't know how good it is since I've never used it.

    You might have more luck going to thesaurus.com and entering your verb-adverb pair, such as "walk slowly." If the site recognizes that pair, it will give you suggestions for verbs that mean the same thing, such as "mosey" or "amble." It's a great resource that I use frequently!


  3. Hi Phil. I am an aspiring screenwriter. These tips have helped me immensely already. I removed two of those words from a couple of scenes. Thank you.

  4. I made the mistake of assuming screenplays liked adverbs! I often omitted them as much as possible in novel writing because it helps with word count and vividness. In screenwriting, it seems to do the same thing but i thought getting to the point (using adverbs instead of a longer active voice) helped cut to the chase and have a more accurate time from page to screen. It was just an assumption, but also it's difficult to avoid adverbs AND not be too verbose.

  5. The line about not using 'suddenly' should be discarded. Tony Gilroy uses it in Michael Clayton and, applied judiciously, it can create exactly the right intensity to a beat.