Revolutionize Your Writing (In Three Letters Or Less)
By Jacob Krueger
Want to revolutionize your writing in three letters or less? Do a hunt through your writing for these three letters: I-N-G.
No, I’m not talking about the internet bank. I’m talking about the three letters at the ends of words that turn verbs into nouns (gerunds for you English teachers). It’s not that gerunds are bad in themselves. If you tried to cut every gerund out of your script you’d probably go crazy, and your script might not be any better for your troubles. At the same time, gerunds can often be red-flags for missed opportunities in your writing. So if you’re using a ton of gerunds in your action, you may want to take a closer look, and make sure you’re getting everything you can out of them.
The Difference Between Verbs and Gerunds
Movies are active, and they’re told through exciting images of exciting characters doing exciting things in exciting ways. And because movies are told in the cuts between scenes, they work best when we’re cutting from one big moment to another– big changes, big decisions, big choices your characters make. Unlike the active verbs that capture the unique ways your characters pursue their objectives and react to problems in their world, gerunds suggest states of being, continuing action and static images– the opposite of the specific moments that truly capture your character and make your movie feel like it’s happening NOW.
Is all this really so important?
In a word, yes. At first look, there might not seem to be a big difference between phrases like:
Elizabeth is standing/Elizabeth stands
Mary is running/Mary runs
John is dancing/John dances
But the big problem with gerunds is not just that they can often feel static. It’s that their very nature can make it difficult to isolate the specific moments that capture your character’s journey. You may feel like you’re writing actions, but oftentimes you’re not. You’re writing states of being.
And that means you’re not thinking in movie time.
“Elizabeth is standing” tells us Elizabeth’s placement– as if she was a static figure in a picture. As a writer, your job is not to be a set decorator. And let’s face it– it’s hard to visualize placement of stuff in a room you’re not even seeing. “Elizabeth stands” doesn’t exactly capture the Academy Award for excitement. But at least it can suggest that a choice is being made– that she stood up for a reason. That she is no longer seated. That something is happening. “Mary is running” suggests that Mary is in the process of running. But this isn’t what your director is going to shoot. What she is actually going to shoot is a bunch of cool moments and specific actions that when strung together capture the feeling of Mary’s run.
When you write “Mary is running” you’re not thinking like a filmmaker. You’re once again thinking like a set decorator– setting the scene, rather than capturing the moments. If instead you forced yourself to capture the moments that say “Mary is running” and the actions she takes as she runs, you would learn all kinds of important stuff about your character.
Mary is doing more than just running.
You might visualize the awkward way her arms flop as she runs. You might imagine the slap of a flip flop against the pavement. You might see her stumble over her paisley skirt and tumble into the mud. Or, you might imagine the rhythmic thump of Mary’s 300 dollar running shoes. Feel her rock hard biceps strain against her moisture-wicking running shirt, hear her heart rate monitor sound an alarm, and see her ignore it and quicken her pace. These visual moments would not only be a lot more fun to watch than “Mary is running”, they would also reveal so much more about who Mary is, what she wants, and the unique way she pursues those desires.
Revolutionize your writing
Each specific moment you create in your action becomes something you can riff on later in your script, to capture your character’s journey in powerful ways. The moment when the first Mary struggles to get the stain out of her paisley skirt, or trades it for a pair of running shorts, or jumps effortlessly over the mud puddle she once dreaded. The moment when the second Mary hears the heart rate alarm sound and stops running, or when her bicep strains against a hospital blood pressure cuff rather than her running shirt. In this way, you can transform missed opportunities into transformative moments that create a visual language for your movie, capture the unique spirit of your character, and drive the action of your story forward in exciting ways.
Keep a lookout for those three little letters. And notice what it does for your writing.