Thursday, January 18, 2007

Weak Verbs and Pansy Words

I set out to write a detailed post about how to use stronger verbs. This is the extent of what I came up with:
Weak verbs and pansy words. Don't use them.
I can no more tell a person to stop using weak verbs than I can tell a person to stop snoring. It's not logical. A person doesn't KNOW when he's snoring. How can I tell him to stop? Writers who can't identify weak verbs can't stop using them. It's that simple.

What are weak verbs? Well, weak verbs are verbs that are, you know -- weak. Sit, stand, look, walk, run. These can be, but aren't necessarily always, weak verbs. Most of us use them in our initial drafts, outlines, and beat sheets but trade up with each draft.

And pansy words? Well, let's see... um. I would say that they are overly simplistic words that don't contribute to a visual description of action. I guess it's like the difference between writing that a girl "tied her shoes" and that same girl "fumbled with the Sponge Bob laces in her red high tops ".

Just how do you TEACH somebody to form more visual sentences by eliminating weak verbs and pansy words?

Honestly, I don't think you can.

This issue is one that defines where the rubber meets the road, where the peanut butter meets the jelly, and where the Captain meets Tenille -- weak verbs and pansy words will separate the real screenwriters from the posers.

Here's why --

I caught some grief from this reprint of Jim Mercurio's article, "Everything I Needed to Know About Screenwriting, I Learned from American Idol" but after watching AI last night, I gotta tell ya, the one similarity Mercurio doesn't draw between amateur singers and amateur screenwriters is the parallel that seems the most profoundly on the money to me -- people don't know when they suck.

How does that happen?

A subterranean fear of mine is that one day, when I finally become a Nicholl finalist, I'll be exposed as a fraud and learn that not only am I NOT a Nicholl finalist, but I'm in some kind Twilight Zone-ish solitude toleration chamber, wearing Underdog pajamas and drawing with crayons in my Wizard of Id coloring book, while producers, directors, and accomplished screenwriters observe through sound proof Plexiglas, shaking their heads in feigned sympathy and wondering why nobody ever told me that I couldn't write.

It happens! Just watch American Idol. Many of those people live in their own red carpet worlds of screaming fans and mega-bucks recording contracts and the only thing standing between them and stardom is sound proof Plexiglass, behind which judges, who can't hear amazing talent, shake their heads in feigned sympathy and wonder why nobody ever told those people they can't sing.

People who suck don't know they suck. You can't tell them they suck and you can't teach them not to suck. It's a great American tragedy. We're deaf and blind to our own suckdom (suckness?) so we challenge, berate, and flog anyone who tries to uncover our ears or drag us out of denial and into the painful truth-revealing light.

You can't teach a person who thinks they already know it all and you can't call attention to weak verbs or pansy words if the writer is incapable of recognizing their own flaws, even when those flaws are potentially fatal and identified with warning labels and detour signs.

The good news about weak verbs and pansy words - when you point them out to real writers, they will instantly know what you're talking about - no explanation necessary- and they'll wonder why the heck they didn't notice those problems themselves.

The bad news about weak verbs and pansy words - when you mention them to posers, they'll wonder what you mean, ask you to explain why the words are weak, scratch their heads in confusion when you elaborate, and most likely, walk away thinking you are the Simon Cowell of screenwriting -- unreasonable, nit-picky, blind to their talent and vague.

So, I can't write a post explaining weak verbs. Perhaps a better writer can. Nor can I go into great length about puny, lame, or pansy-ish descriptions. Again, maybe a more seasoned screenwriter can. All I can say with total confidence is that when it comes to using weak verbs or pansy words, don't.

Yeah, that's pretty vague - like telling a contestant to stop being a bad singer and be a good one.

But I do know this -- Point out pitch problems to real singers and they will adjust. Point out weak verbs and pansy words to real writers and they will trade up. However, pointing out weak verbs and pansy words to a poser is like trying to teach a tone-deaf person to sing. You might just as well tell them to stop snoring.


ECHenry said...

Funny post, Marry Ann. I love it when you throw arround the word "pansy" -- the Texas in you just can't help but seep out.

Keep rockin' my world little Texas girl.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Anonymous said...

the word 'suck' itself is such a great verb. I am happy to see it used in a different connotation than I am used to... and no, I am not freelancing writing Penthouse Forum stories to earn a few sheckles as I wait out my own ice storm

Anonymous said...

Who gave you heat?

It is sad to see the denial, I agree.

jim mercurio