So I read screenplays for a living, plus I spend a huuuuuuge part of my life reading FOR FUN (wtaf!), so I’ve discovered there are certain words that crop up again and again and again which threaten to TORPEDO writers’ narrative efforts.

I call these ‘crutch words’ (quiet at the back). Crutch words are those we may rely on in EARLY DRAFTS, which we need to seek out with a torpedo of our own and DESTROY in the edit process. Whether you’re a screenwriter or novelist (trad or self published), look out for these suckers …

1) ‘Suddenly’

The actual word ‘sudden’ means ‘quick and without warning’, so it’s especially ironic that including the word LITERALLY SLOWS THE ACTION DOWN. WTAF is the point?? Compare:

Suddenly, the bomb blows up and she’s thrown to the ground.

The bomb blows up and she’s thrown to the ground.

See??? Don’t like to say ‘I told ya so’, but I TOLD YOU SO BIATCHES. MORE: Top 10 Killer Words That Make Readers Switch Off 

2) ‘And’

While we’re on the subject, you may want to seek and destroy any extraneous ‘ands’ that so frequently *go* with words like ‘suddenly’:

The bomb blows up and she’s thrown to the ground.

This one isn’t quite so obvious, but can really speed things up, especially in set pieces and moments where your characters are shocked by something, be it script or novel.

3) ‘Clearly’ (also ‘obviously’, ‘noticeably’, ‘evidently’ etc)

I REALLY hate this one and all its synonyms. I see it in novels every now and again, but ALL THE TIME in spec screenplays. Grrr. But feast your eyes on this:

The bomb blows up. She’s thrown to the ground. She’s clearly hurt.

The bomb blows up. She’s thrown to the ground. She’s motionless, blood pools around her head.

Always, always substitute VISUALS for boring filler words like ‘clearly’.

4) ‘That’

‘That’ is a useful word, but it is massively overused, especially by novelists. 9/10, you don’t even need it. Chew on this:

The bomb blows up. She’s thrown to the ground. She’s motionless, blood pools around her head. Another woman in the crowd screams, looking for her child that she’s lost.

The bomb blows up. She’s thrown to the ground. She’s motionless, blood pools around her head. Another woman in the crowd screams, looking for her lost child.

Screenwriting and novel writing is about economy of words, remember. This means ‘that’ needs to earn its place. Too often it doesn’t.

5) ‘Remember*’

(*aka ‘wonder’, ‘think’, ‘reminisce’ ‘decide’, ‘notice’, ‘realise’, etc)

Obviously, what you see is what you get in screenwriting. It’s very, very, very unlikely you would be using any of these words in your scene description … And if you are? You may well need a rethink (arf):

The bomb blows up. She’s thrown to the ground. She’s motionless, blood pools around her head. Another woman in the crowd screams, looking for her lost child. She remembers seeing him last, standing right next to her.

Yeah … Not going to work, is it? This could though:

The bomb blows up. She’s thrown to the ground. She’s motionless, blood pools around her head. Another woman in the crowd screams, looking for her lost child.

YOUNG MOTHER: He was standing right next to me!

Oh, look at that — you STILL don’t need ‘remember’, even in dialogue. Fancy.

But what of books?? Well, veteran novelist Chuck Palahniuk calls these ‘thought verbs’ and suggests they take us out of the story too EASILY. I reckon he’s dead right. Too often thinking about stuff becomes a crutch for taking the reader out of the ‘now’.

Don’t believe me? BAN thought verbs in your novel. Do not allow yourself to use them AT ALL. See if it forces you to come up with alternatives … Chances are, they will be muuuuuch better. Check this out:

The bomb blows up. She’s thrown to the ground. She’s motionless, blood pools around her head. Another woman in the crowd screams, looking for her lost child. There’s a space right next to her, her hand empty. He’d been holding it just seconds ago. 

Yup, keeping it in the ‘now’, keeping it gritty and real works much better than simple ‘remembering’. MORE: Top 10 Words Or Phrases Storytellers Gave Us

6) ‘Actually’, ‘Very’ or ‘Really’

‘Actually’ is a BIIIIIIIG problem for me. I already knew this thanks to various edits, plus my epic use of it online via social media, but I ran a check on an early draft of The Other Twin for the purposes of this blog post. It came back with a WHOPPING 86 out of 300 pages!! Whhhhhaaaat!!! Even worse than I thought. Praise be to the writing Gods I got rid of them before submission. Phew:

The bomb blows up. She’s thrown to the ground. She’s motionless, blood pools around her head. Another woman in the crowd screams, looking for her lost child. There’s a space right next to her, her hands empty. He’d been holding it just seconds ago. Had it actually just been moments earlier that life seemed normal, safe?

Yup, much better. In the same way, modifiers like ‘very’ and ‘really’ also slow down other novelists, but even other screenwriters too. Keep an eye on these pesky blighters … and ‘thats’ that might creep in, too.

7) ‘In order to’ or ‘However’

I put this to you. In novels you hardly EVER have to use either of these (and probably never in screenwriting). Chew on this:

The bomb blows up. She’s thrown to the ground. She’s motionless, blood pools around her head. Another woman in the crowd screams, looking for her lost child. There’s a space right next to her, her hand empty. He’d been holding it just seconds ago. Had it just been moments earlier life seemed normal, safe?

Rescue workers pick their way across the rubble, in order to tend to the fallen woman. However, the young mother accosts them, desperate to find her son.

You can include the ‘to’ if you want (depending on context), but you don’t even need it if you don’t want here. Furrealz.

8) ‘Starts/ Started’

No one in your screenplay OR novel should ‘start’ to do anything. If characters are what they do (and they are), then they should simply DO STUFF:

The bomb blows up. She’s thrown to the ground. She’s motionless, blood pools around her head. Another woman in the crowd screams, looking for her lost child. There’s a space right next to her, her hand empty. He’d been holding it just seconds ago. Had it just been moments earlier life seemed normal, safe?

Rescue workers pick their way across the rubble, tend to the fallen woman. The young mother accosts them, desperate to find her son. She starts to beg them to help her. 

Yes, you need to add an ‘s’ to ‘begs’ but again, this not only takes us into the ‘now’, it cuts down on words as an added bonus. What’s not to like??

9) ‘Momentarily’

Usually I find American writers use this, because in Standard American ‘momentarily’ means ‘very soon’. We don’t have this use in the UK, though it’s in movies and TV enough to sway British writers towards it unconsciously:

The bomb blows up. She’s thrown to the ground. She’s motionless, blood pools around her head. Another woman in the crowd screams, looking for her lost child. There’s a space right next to her, her hand empty. He’d been holding it just seconds ago. Had it just been moments earlier life seemed normal, safe?

Rescue workers pick their way across the rubble, tend to the fallen woman. The young mother accosts them, desperate to find her son. She begs them to help her.

Momentarily, she stops, as if hearing something behind her.

Again, it’s simply not needed. It’s keeping time for no reason, which takes us OUT of the story. While we’re at it, most ‘as ifs’ are probably not needed either. Fine toothcomb, baby!

10) ‘Then’

Like ‘momentarily’, ‘then’ exists as a clarifier with reference to time and very often writers simply don’t need it:

The bomb blows up. She’s thrown to the ground. She’s motionless, blood pools around her head. Another woman in the crowd screams, looking for her lost child. There’s a space right next to her, her hand empty. He’d been holding it just seconds ago. Had it just been moments earlier life seemed normal, safe?

Rescue workers pick their way across the rubble, tend to the fallen woman. The young mother accosts them, desperate to find her son. She begs them to help her.

Momentarily, she stops, as if hearing something behind her. Then the dust cloud parts and a child appears before her, unharmed and alive.

Sometimes writers shove ‘then’ in like ‘that’ randomly, too. Whatever the case, think very carefully about including it. MORE: Top Useful Infographics To Help You Pick The Right Words

BONUS!!

Stay away from what I call ‘laundry list intros’ – i.e. introducing a character by what s/he is WEARING (most people wear clothes, who cares!!!) – plus avoid commenting on characters’ appearances generally, but especially if it’s a female character. Words like ‘beautiful’ and its variants (‘gorgeous’, ‘sexy’, ‘hot’ etc) are especially hated in screenwriting where there is a plethora of female character intros like this.

Buck the trend! We’re writers, people! GET FRESH AND ORIGINAL OR DIE TRYING.

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14 Responses to Top 10 Words That Will Kill Your Writing DEAD

  1. You have planted the seed of doubt. You have inserted the niggle, or the scratch which cannot be reached. Now I must read through 6 of my features to eradicate the niggle.
    A great start for Monday, but I’m sure it will be worth it.
    Thank you.
    Best,
    Chris.

  2. A says:

    As usual, sound advice and so simple and obvious in theory but constantly dismissed when it comes to me writing.

  3. Ginny Monroe says:

    Hello Lucy
    “Top 10 Words That Will Kill Your Writing DEAD”, is outstanding advice for a screenwriter.
    I am just polishing my first ”consider” screenplay, so I did a ‘find’ on the 10 words in your list, I removed about 30 words. The result, my ”Masterplayer” screenplay, reads stronger.
    So big thanks.
    Ginny

  4. Does this advice hold true for those of us who write nonfiction?

  5. John Connell says:

    There is nearly almost absolutely nothing at all on earth or out of it that could possibly in any conceivable way force, push, or even cajole this already anxious, self-critical scribbler to even come close to agreeing with or even consider the imputed value of almost any finicky point at all that you touched upon or even alluded to in this over-analytical, critical diatribe.
    Phew!… Oh, wait a minute…. 🙂

  6. Rose Byrne says:

    Thanks Lucy – I agree, As writers, we need to watch every word and put them to good use. I will be watchful of these words in my own writing from now on in.

  7. morgan says:

    Great post!!
    Hemingway app has helped me get rid of some of these words. Thanks for turning me on to “that”. Definitely over-using it.

  8. A. S. Templeton says:

    Sorry, but there is no good reason to summarily banish “thought” verbs from a literary work. A class of “filter” verbs, these supposedly distance the reader from a character’s POV, a faddish literary notion that has gained many adherents among agents and editors. However…

    From lexical analysis described in a paper by researchers at Stony Brook University (“Success with Style: Using Writing Style to Predict the Success of Novels”), verbs that describe thought-processing–recognize, remember, consider, ponder, perceive, believe, wonder, recall, etc.–are in fact generally found in more-successful novels.

    Incidentally, they also confirmed that adverbs in any form, whether general or as adverbial phrases, are indeed frequent (i.e. overused) in less-successful novels.

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