Saturday, August 6, 2011

To adverb or not to adverb - Line by Line participant response

Adverbs - On Writing

So yeah, last Line by Line found a few of us in a sporty exploration of the use of adverbs in our writing. I walked away genuinely puzzled as to what the hell I thought about them. If they are evil. If it's a witch hunt believing they're evil? Why do I have this idea in my head that it is? I know a few writing teachers have taken me to task before but is this legit or not?

What i'm talking about is (typically) words that end in ly. "She glanced at him resignedly." "He shrugged wryly"

- He flashes his finger towards her aggressively, "Don't tell me what I'm thinking!"

I googled around a couple of scripts. I went for Lost In Translation and The Kings Speech (which won the last best screenplay). In these I found rules being broken all over the shop.


If they are good rules or not I started to wonder…

I think it's one thing to write unplayable subtext, it's a bit different I think to use a few adverbs. I think there's reasons to try to avoid them both but think there's a couple decent counter arguments.
Firstly, on unplayable directions I found a host of fantastic examples in Lost In Translation. I should say first that I love the film. I thought it was fantastic. It seemed a film where so much is not being said that I wondered how Copolla had gone about writing these scenes.

A few examples were:

We see Bob's POV of tables of people talking. JAPANESE WOMEN
SMOKING, AMERICAN BUSINESSMEN tying one on, talking about
software sales. A WAITER carefully setting down a coaster,
and pouring a beer very, very slowly. It's all very foreign.


Charlotte lies on the floor with big headphones on, listening
to a book on tape. After a corny music intro, a very serious
scholar man's voice speaks clearly :

(text removed)

Charlotte tries to get into it, but can't get past feeling
like a loser listening to a self-help tape.
I reckon these, particularly the second one, is a real good example of writing that is unplayable. I remember watching the scene where she is listening to the tape and she is gazing off.

I gleaned that maybe she doesn't care for what she is hearing or her mind is elsewhere or that she is unhappy/lonely. I didn't get that she couldn't get into it cause self help tapes seem lame to her. Maybe some might in that moment but I think it's so ambiguous and unplayable that without a real caricature you wouldn't be able to make it clear. Even then you might misread the caricature.

Again with Bob's scene I remember him sitting there looking around glumly but I didn't particularly get at that MOMENT that everything felt foreign. At this point in the movie I didn't yet know where he was in his head.

So is it just bad to right stuff like this? I reckon yes and no. I think it could be useful because it informs the director and actors (and producers) of the subtext that the author at least has in mind. That can be useful in helping them build a picture of the character and how they might approach the scene or subsequent scenes.

Ultimately I think it's dangerous, particularly for those who don't have Hollywood opening up to them you cause of your last name. I feel it's writing moments that very likely wont land as you see them. We get so used to our work and what it all means.

Perhaps it doesn't matter so much whether the full meaning comes across to most viewers all the time. It wont stop Sophia's film from working if we just get that Charlotte is distant and sad at this point.

The habit is threatening I think cause we might not see really key things, elements might be starting to blur and not land and it really is important that they do. I feel I want to be trying to script stuff that is going to read for an audience through the actions, images and words alone.

The other benefit though, apart from suggesting subtext is that it is shorthand for producers and anyone in a funding body or pretty well anyone who could be trying to get through your script fast and make assessments on it and what you're trying to do. People who read 100s of scripts every month are going to hammer through ours also and clarifying subtext like this can help them get the point quickly.

Again though it is maybe troubling if they can't get that point without you signposting it? :( If it isn't in the actions and diaologue it's maybe not the best?

Again though, Kings Speech had a handful of unplayable subtextual notes and adverbs in the snatch of scenes I read and this won best screen play. So yeah; grains of salt.
In regards to adverbs, I think i've been swayed by a few influential figures who have published reams on why not to use them. I notice in my own scripts that I continue to use them and a lot of writers do. This is all your sadly, shyly, softly etc.

I was really influenced by Stephen King's book "On Writing" and wish i'd made more notes on what he had to say… He hates adverbs with such passion that he scans everything he every writes and tries to remove every single one. He's big on the idea that you don't even describe how a line is delivered but if you have to then try not to use more than "he said". The reason as far as I can recall - and this is on novel writing though the man has written a lot of screenplays as well (most of them pretty weak though he did write The Shining and whether you like him or not he has sold a TRUCKLOAD of novels - Sorry… point is, he's of the opinion that in what a character is doing and saying you should know what is going on. You should know how the line is being delivered by virtue of the context, what has gone before and the logic established by the writing craft and through their actions and words.

Maybe there is something to this. I did count a few adverbs on Lost In Translation & Kings Speech though...

I put my finger on the other source that had me trying to avoid adverbs lately and that's a director by the name of Judith Weston. I've been reading a text of hers on performance that i've found ridiculously good. Honestly i kinda feel like i've learned more from a few chapters of this book than I did from 3 years of Actor Director at VCA.

While I feel the passage below isn't gobsmacking stuff I think it is fairly solid. If you really can't be bothered reading it then i'll try to sum up as imperfectly as I can.

Using adverbs is a means of making a clear, defined line reading (or meaning) to all your lines. It's saying: "when he says this he is just joking and when she responds she is a bit nervous" It's how we control the logic of our scenes and make the drama clear.

There are two reasons why it might not be the best idea to do this. One, is that in using adverbs it's easy to make a scene seem to convey something that perhaps is not there so clearly in the actual material (discussed later). Two, and this might seem contentious at first, but it discourages interpretation. It pushes the writer's instincts of structure and control onto every moment of the film. What we see while we are writing is "This is the moment where he goes from not caring to caring. He starts off cavalier as hell and is offending her but the way she responds and charms him makes something change. This is what is important. This is what i'm going to make work every line and fibre of this discourse. That is it. Here is how it happens. Done."

The subconscious currents in the act of writing however can be deeper at any point than we realise. We might see two main things as happening in a scene but we might be missing some really fascinating dynamics that could also be at play. In fact I think it's almost probable that we will. A way of seeing is a way of not seeing.

Since we are so concerned with the arc of the scene or this portion of the film we might be missing something fantastic that could be happening at the same time and it could be as simple as the attitude applied to a line.

So can't this be found on the day? Isn't that the "director's" job? To work the material and find whatever can make it better? Yes. Damn straight. The only problem is that spattering everything with adverbs can really start to straightjacket the writing. If the director or the actor is struggling just to get a shot in the can then time and time again they might play with the most SURFACE read of each line. You're handing it to them in a lunch box. If there is no time in pre for script analysis then again everything might be played straight as arrows.

So what? Maybe we know what it is we're trying to say and what our character's are feeling and if it's directed the way we write it then relax, it's gonna be great. In fact, with luck it'll be me directing it and I like it meaning what I want it to mean.

I think this is a danger again. Same reason as why it can be bad to edit our own films. We get so locked into seeing something one way that we don't look as hard for other clues. I know that personally if i'm directing someone elses writing I look over the whole thing and every moment and examine how I think it can be turned into flesh and blood and work as action. It's surprising how often the best way to play something turns out to be skewed from what you first thought when you wrote it. Chemistry in performance, magic in filmmaking tends not to come from closing down possibilities from the beginning.

This is moving a little sideways from the discussion of clarity. Where we started the discussion the other night was around whether adverbs are clouding a scene and making it less playable. Now we've been looking at freeing up a work on one hand but what about clarity?

Well trying to avoid adverbs isn't to say you shouldn't try to right a clear, defined narrative where you know what is happening and what your character is feeling (to you) and you want to communicate that. I think adverbs though are the writer constantly tapping the director (and actors) on the shoulder and saying REALLY. PLAY THIS RESULT TO THE LINE/SCENE. YOU ARE ANGRY. It's another layer to push beyond to find the best film buried in there. In fact Weston's approach is to cross out every adverb in a script before you start directing it. Paradoxically they can sometimes act as a barrier to finding the truth and playability of a line because it's suggesting a result. Play this line sexy. Play this line angry. Play this line sad. Adverbs put that barb in before each line or gesture. They're performance notes, line reads, and get in the way of finding the overall objective and through line of a scene
. It's really the stuff of directing.


However. And this is a really big but. Honestly. Weston herself admits it can make a lot of sense to use adverbs in the writing just to be sure that when that script is being read at 100 miles an hour by some funding body, producer, etc, that what they need to see happening is clear. This is a reason why maybe scripts tend to have these but maybe directors then go and cross them out.

I tend to feel (even with the real valid point that this script could be read FAST) that again Stephen King is watching me and saying that "it should make sense and play right without the adverbs explaining what is right there already. If you have to explain what it means then it quite possibly isn't transmitting on its own.
Having said all this I do find myself using them myself because it is just EASY sometimes and seems so damn natural. I don't think they're the devil with horns.

My feeling is just that I think it's worth being cautious with them as we all approach feature writing cause it is such a taxing business writing a script AT ALL that we could find ourselves slipping in to them when the actions and dialogue really are NOT saying what our descriptions are suggesting. They can sometimes start blurring scenes towards something playable on a very basic level (play it angry/sexy) or straightjacketing a director and actor one day from doing something greater because we want to make sure we're making story point A perfectly in each and every line of the scebe. It could be a contributor to the writing not working as well one day as it might.
This is just the journey i've gone on in my head and poking around these last couple of days. Feel free to disagree. At the end of the day two amazingly strong scripts were written that were littered with adverbs and unplayable directions. Though I am talking out of my arse there a little since I have only read a snippet of those scripts.

Below is a passage from Weston's book that describes her approach as a director to adverbs. She is a lot more clever than me so if you are still reading I reckon check it out. I know i'll keep writing flourishes that I think are worth writing, to suggest MY TAKE on subtext and performance and i'll be a hypocrite in this way : D but oh well!


Richard Williamson
Line by Line paritcipant

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