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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Repeated Words and Alliteration

Clearly, the Wave-inatrix reads a lot of scripts. A lot. At least one full feature on a daily basis, and very often, two. When I read your script, I have a huge advantage over you - I've never seen it before. When you've spent that much time with your pages, it's hard to see the forest for the trees after awhile. That's where I come in.

If you use the word "angry" or any version of it on your pages more than once, I see it. It's like that scene in A BEAUTIFUL MIND when Russell Crowe sees all the patterns in the numbers. It's like I put 3-D glasses on and suddenly everything that is not working comes into full view. If a writer needs to work on the flaw of their main character, or has a typo here or there - I have no judgment about that. My job is point it out and help fix it. But, as Wavers know very well by now, when I catch something that the writer overlooked, I get a little nuts. Like typos, malaprops and just plain laziness.

Here's a quick, made-up but scarily accurate example:


Quietly, Jim pulls back the covers and goes to the window. All is quiet outside.

SHERRY: Jim, what are you doing?
JIM: Shhhh, be quiet.

Okay so here we have "quiet" used three times in short order. Hello? Make like an Eskimo and come up with other words to describe that it's quiet.

I might be reading a page and notice the word "she" used maybe ten times in one page. Or "they", or "damn" - doesn't matter what the words are but it's lazy writing to repeat the same words over and over. Words on your script pages are like pointillist paintings; you are going for this larger image of beauty, but that image is made up of tiny dots. And when the tiny dots are spelled wrong, repetitive or my personal favorite - malaprops, the larger image has a hard time arising from them.

Now. Is this something that falls under the screenwriting priority list of theme, character arc or the originality of your premise? No. Your words won't be seen onscreen at all, so in the end, using "quiet" six times on a page doesn't matter. Or does it?

Alliterative words are defined technically, as words with the same consonant sound: She sold seashells at the seashore, or Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers. But in the sense I use it here, it simply means words that sound an awful lot alike and therefore make the read slightly clumsy.

Think twice before naming your female ensemble characters Sharon, Susan, Cindy, Sookie and Sally. Because I am going to get them all confused. They sound too much alike. I recently read this: a stray ray of sunshine blah blah blah. Stray and ray. Back to back.

Much has been made of the multitudinous and egregious spelling errors in Tarrantino's INGLORIOUS BASTARDS. Spelled Inglourious Basterds on the copy that I have. Must we really pause here to point out that this is an established, and some would say, very gifted director and so he gets a free pass where you don't? Okay. I said it.

When someone reads your script, you are not only not preceded by a reputation for greatness, coolness, celebrity-ness or artistry - you are actually preceded by loads and loads of really bad scripts. So the assumption is, on page one, that this script probably won't be very good. Because you're one of the hoi polloi. Guilty by association.

So this is your shot. Don't blow it. Don't give them the satisfaction. Scan your pages for alliterative words and names, for typos (god knows) and vis a vis today's lesson - repeated words. Use a highlighter and go through your pages - have you unwittingly used a word over and over again? Get rid of those repetitive words. Stand out from the crowd with stellar pages which represent a stellar script.

As we duke it out over the final, final, top scripts in the Silver Screenwriting Competition (and there's been some um, lively duking-it-out, trust me) not one of the scripts in question has typos, repeated words or malaprops. Not a one. Otherwise they would have been knocked out in an earlier round. We want the best of the best. You need to do anything and everything to be sure you fall under that category and what may feel like a silly chore - making sure you don't use "they" ten times on one page is actually not silly at all.

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Anonymous said...

The thing that helps me most of all is reading my script aloud. This helps me find alliteration, repeated words, many misspellings and missing words, ultralong sentences, and all other sorts of mischief.

It also helps winnow out crap dialogue.

Happy writing!



meg said...

One of my pet peeves is the use of repeated words. I thought maybe I was being obsessive about it when I edit my stuff but I guess not. It's not anything that I've seen mentioned any place else. In fact maybe I do carry it too far -- if I had a character tell someone to be quiet in one scene then I won't have that appear anywhere else in the script.

I certainly appreciate your perspective as a reader. There are many times I ask myself as I write and rewrite if the page reads well. Hadn't given that as much thought as I should have until I discovered your blog.

millar prescott said...

@meg - I know. Isn't Julie's blog just the best. The Rouge Wave is at the top of my subscription list.

Thanks Julie.

Luzid said...

Very interesting post. It's reflective of the axiom, "different strokes for different folks".

I say that because my last script, which didn't place anywhere in this contest, was praised by another professional for "beautiful prose" (that's a direct quote), specifically *for* my use of rhythmic alliteration, something that comes to me naturally.

Yet I do agree about repetition. I often search my pages just to make sure I haven't used a verb or adjective more than once in a script.

Dave Shepherd said...

It's more the redundancy than anything else. The important thing to remember is context.

For instance, if two characters are sneaking around a mansion with a villain following them, obviously they're going to be quiet.

You don't have to say:

Bob's quiet as can be.

You see him?

Once you've established something you don't have to repeat it.

E.C. Henry said...

Julie, it sounds like you have magic powers. If by chance you could have gotten in "The Justice League" what would your superhero handle be?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Future Man said...

A very timely article. I caught a few minutes of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK the other night and found myself getting irritated at an exchange between Han Solo and Leia.

Which brings me to my own pet peeve: repetitive dialogue. It's lazy, soap operatic, and prolongs the dramatic beat. Let us listen...

You could be a little nicer, though. Come on, admit it. Sometimes you think I'm all right.

Occasionally...when you aren't acting like a scoundrel.

Scoundrel? Scoundrel? I like the sound of that.

Han takes her hand and starts to massage it.

Stop that.

Stop what?

Stop that! My hands are dirty.

My hands are dirty, too. What
are you afraid of?


You're trembling.

I'm not trembling.

You like me because I'm a scoundrel.
There aren't enough scoundrels in
your life.

I happen to like nice men.

I'm a nice man.

James said...

"not one of the scripts in question has typos, repeated words or malaprops. Not a one. Otherwise they would have been knocked out in an earlier round. We want the best of the best."

Typos and "best of the best" aren't mutually exclusive.

Just one more reason screenwriting competitions are pointless.

Julie Gray said...

James - thanks for your comment. You are right that a few typos here or there does not mean that a script might not be really great. Absolutely true. But. Aspiring writers who are really serious about breaking in take every single precaution available to make sure that the pages are as perfect as can be. In my experience, there's a huge gap between an errant typo, which happens to the best of us, and a pattern of misspells, typos and malaprops. Particularly, repetitive word usage and alliteration are not generally traits of a good writer. And good writers make it into the circle of the best of the best.

Luzid said...

@ Julie:

Ahhhhhhh. I just realized my disconnect with you on this subject - I've got the terms confused!

What I use, and defend the us of, is assonance, not alliteration. Assonance creates an enjoyable rhythm and flow in writing.

Overuse of alliteration (such as in the case of the infamous Amanda McKittrick Ros), does indeed make for too-cute gag-worthy writing.

Sandra Montgomery said...

I am a script supervisor working in the film industry in Vancouver, BC. One thing I see all the time when working on a show is stories with a breakdown in logic; whether time line, plot wise, or with an important item in the story. The first two are fairly self explanatory, and I have an example for the third.

The show I just finished working on involved several people trapped in a mansion with a murdering thug. He had a gun and one of the others had a gun. At a point in the story he came into possession of both guns. He was overpowered and the guns repossessed. He then escaped his bonds and got back his gun. Yep....GUN. Somewhere in all of the mayhem the whereabouts of the second gun got lost. Now, in a house where 6 intelligent people are in fear of their lives, do you think for one second the whereabouts of a means to salvation would just disappear without a trace or explanation? Yet it had. It was left up to me and the director to figure out what happened to the gun and then write that into the story. It sounds easy to do but it wasn't. No matter which way we tried, it materially changed the story. Eventually we came up with a way to track both guns and keep the story in tact. But what a hassle for us. And what the writer risked with such careless writing was ending up with a different story than he wanted to see on the screen.

When you write a script, go over it to make sure that time lines and plot lines work. Give every scene a day and time [not on the script itself but in a breakdown]. That is sometimes the only way you can see how having someone leave Seattle in a car after arriving at work in the morning and arriving in California by lunch just won't work logically. Track the possession and/or location of key props. Make sure that an injury can be healed by the time someone who broke his leg is now leaping over a fence. You catch my drift. To turn in a script that is other than logically perfect is just plain lazy, yet it happens ALL THE TIME. And it is the bane of my professional existence and may be the demise of yours.

Sandra Montgomery

Edward Martin III said...


On occasion, one can use repetition to make a crucial point.

The example from "The Empire Strikes Back" is one of those situations where the repetition increases the tension, where Han and Leia are playing a chess game and he counters her every move. So, in that case, it does exactly what it's supposed to do.

Another example of where repetition clinches a point and is used in a very natural way is "My Cousin Vinny" when the Sheriff is questioning Bill about when he shot the storekeeper. He and Bill go back and forth on the "I shot him" line. Bill is saying the line in disbelief, and the Sheriff is just collecting evidence. That's a very natural sort of exchange that comes back and bites Bill right square in his sit-upon later.

Repetition CAN serve a useful purpose, but one should use it (as one uses all other words) with deliberation and care.

Julie Gray said...

Absolutely true, Edward. I'm talking about writers who are either too lazy or not verbally equipped to do better than using a variation of the same word over and over. Huge difference. Readers can tell that difference pretty quickly, in context. Because if it's a conscious choice - it works. If it's not - it's annoying.