writing script
Technique

Why Nouns and Verbs are the Most Important Words in your Script

David Wappel explains why nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting in your script and how you can use adjectives and adverbs to supplement them.

A large house sits ominously on the hillside. 
Light emits strongly from its windows. A piercing 
yell comes loud from within.
A mansion looms on the hillside. Its windows glow 
with light. A shriek strains from within.

These two lines differ only in their word choice, and two types of words are not present in the second example: adjectives and adverbs. This is because nouns and verbs are doing the heavy lifting. As they should.

Utilizing nouns and verbs is a key skill for a screenwriter, for two main reasons.

  1. 1)  They increase the specificity of visuals.
  2. 2)  They decrease the amount of words used.

Let’s examine why these two things are desired in any script.

Specificity

Specificity is what can help paint the picture in your reader’s mind, and the nouns and verbs you choose will color that picture. If you are specific with your nouns and verbs, there will be less room for interpretation in the reader’s mind.

For example, let’s say a character needs to cross from one side of the room to the other. Maybe they see something out the window that sparks them to go retrieve some papers from the table. You could say

​They walk across the room and pick up the papers from the table.

Assuming the rest of the script is clearly communicating the tone, this might work fine for the reader. They are immersed in the world and they load these actions with the intentions of the character based on context. But is there a way to write this so that there’s less room for interpretation?

They dash to the table and snatch the dossier.
They shuffle across the room, and paw the notice.

These are two examples that show how the nouns and verbs color what we see differently.

Not only does it provide a more specific visual so that there’s less work for the reader, but this also can aid production. Actors and directors can, of course, put their spin on it, but you’re providing more specific direction as a starting point. You’ve pointed to what you think is the best interpretation, instead of leaving it too vague. A dossier or a notice are more specific than papers, and even if we never see them up close, you’ve already signaled to Production Design what these should look like, instead of kicking that can downstream.

An additional benefit of using specific nouns and verbs is that your script will read less monotonously. The same words simply get boring after a while. Sometimes with nouns, you can’t avoid it, especially if you’re encountering the same object or objects often.

But with verbs, this is particularly true. There are only so many times you can say ​walks​ before it becomes noise to the reader. Every verb is an opportunity to show character. How people do things reveal who they are. Show the audience with verbs.

This list of 1000 Words to Write By can be of great help!

Space

One of the most obvious benefits of utilizing nouns and verbs in your script is that you don’t have to use as many adjectives and adverbs, which means less words total, which means more space.

More space is a good thing because it means you can spend it on story itself, and not on description of story. Economy is the name of the game when it comes to screenwriting, and a good thesaurus is your best friend.

And less words doesn’t necessarily mean your script will be shorter. You want to reclaim those lines so that they’re there to use. Imagine a screenplay with this last line:

She looks at him. He looks at her. They leap together.

(I don’t know, maybe it’s a rom-com about two people bonding over their fear of heights and it ends with them bungee jumping. Just go with me on this.)

Anyway, let’s say you can be a little more economical by utilizing nouns and verbs and eliminating adjectives and adverbs. You were able to trim enough lines to get back half a page. Now you have room at the end to do this:

She looks at him. 
He looks at her.
They leap.
Together.

Space is there to be used, and a shorter screenplay isn’t always a better one, especially if it’s because everything is crammed together.

The better you are with your nouns and verbs, the less words you have to use to explain them. And the tighter your writing will be. And the more space you’ll have to play with.

Make sure to conjugate verbs the right way with our article: The Present Tense, and when NOT to Use it in Screenwriting

When should I use adjectives and adverbs?

Of course, there are plenty of times when you should use adjectives and adverbs.

Sometimes, there simply doesn’t exist a verb that accurately captures the action, and it’s fine to color with an adverb. These cases sometimes describe the tone of the action as it’s perceived, and not the action itself.

He wistfully snaps the photo. She frighteningly 
shaves her head.

Other times, you may want to draw attention to the way a character is doing something against the perceived action.

She brutally plucks the flower petal. He delicately 
hammers the nail.

And there are cases in which the verb is very specific to the action, so you need to dress it a bit to describe how this is different.

He haphazardly picks up the phone. She tenderly 
punches his chin​.

(I’m sure in all three of these examples, you may have found one or two verbs I could’ve used, which is great, but I hope you still take my point.)

And when it comes to nouns, there are also plenty of exceptions, such as when you may need to specify the state of an object.

The rusted pick-up truck squeals to a stop.

Notice there that ​rusted​ is added as an adjective to color the truck, but even pick-up is an adjective that may or may not be needed depending on context.

There are many reasons to use adjectives and adverbs, and the key is to make sure that they are all intentional, and that you’re only doing so because the information cannot accurately be captured with nouns and verbs only.

In closing, look to nouns and verbs as your friends. For specificity and for economy. Adjectives and adverbs will always be there to help you, but don’t rely on two words where one will do.

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David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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