Peggy Bechko: Tighten It Up


by Peggy Bechko

Yes, writers, there it is. Almost every writer’s writing needs to be tightened, but when it’s your baby and you’ve written it, you, as the writer, frequently hesitate to do what needs to be done. So right here, right now, I’m going to spell it out for you.

Yep, you have to tighten it up and here are some ideas on how to do that.

1. Every Word Counts – how often have you heard this? It’s true. For novelists and even more so for screenwriters. Look, it doesn’t matter how many words you’ve actually written, just be sure every one is necessary. Check out those adjectives. Think about the adverbs. If you’re adding a character you better be sure that character is absolutely essential on many levels. If describing a location choose the words that make the reader feel he or she is actually there. Everything works together to move the story forward and to capture the reader or watcher. Don’t ramble, just don’t. Review, edit, and cut ruthlessly.

2. Think About Language and how things change. And about how the world around us changes. This isn’t the 1980’s when the web didn’t really exist. Now you have a lot of competition for your attention out there – and the attention of anyone who might come across your material to read. So modern writing has changed greatly from that of 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Everything seems abbreviated. Think twitter, facebook and other social media. Think the succinct advertising messages you’re bombarded with. Then translate that into how you write. Leave out the fluff and go for attention-grabbing. Show the reader the adorableness of puppies at play, don’t tell him about it. Strengthen your language.

3. Think in Details and Skip the Generalities.

Don’t: He jumped into a car and drove away.

Do: John flung open the door to his new Ram Charger, jumped in and peeled rubber out of there.

Remember what will really stick in a reader’s mind, whether novel or script are the little details that strike a chord with them.

Don’t: The dog ran down the stairs after the ball.

Do: Mary’s pug bounced down the stairs in pursuit of the red tennis ball.

When getting into a story people crave those details. The lack of them causes a disconnect with the story. So don’t skip the details.

4. Give Up The Qualifiers. Really, just toss words like ‘practically’, ‘almost’, ‘nearly’, ‘sort of’, ‘my thoughts are’, and their ilk. Stop it. Now. Seriously. Why would you think for a moment your readers would want to read stuff like: Joe was nearly exhausted and verging on the suicidal so he believed it wouldn’t be long before he checked out, permanently?

Oh, for crying out loud. Keep it simple and make it strong: Joe was exhausted. Suicide was his only out.

Uh huh, now that’s a line.

5. Ponder Cause and Effect. In life there’s cause, then effect. You know, house burns down then people mourn the loss of their effects (hopefully not a loved one). Earthquake happens. People start cleaning up the rubble. So your story needs to be peppered with questions that need answers. Curiosity is the key to dragging people into and through your story. If your questions are interesting enough people will read on or keep watching if it’s a film.

To accomplish it consider tossing the effect out there before the cause. Like – Mom and Dad are crying on the front lawn as the remains of their home smolders behind them. Immediately the image brings the questions. What happened? What caused the Fire? Did Granny leave the fat on the stove? Are there kids? Are they all right? A pet? Anyone get killed? Where are the firefighters? And more deeply, was there a cause beyond simple accident? Did someone have a vendetta against this family or a member? This back-tracking can add up to a very engrossing story.

Consider these five points when you go to tighten up your writing and remember method and style are always changing, evolving. A classic like Little Women reads nothing like Airport out of the sixties or The Da Vinci Code or Ender’s Game. Movies move ahead from Some Like It Hot through Lord Of the Rings through Taken and Avatar and Horns and the broad spectrum of movies along the way.

Cultivate a feel for the communication of our day and develop your own voice. There lies the path to success.

Wanna read some scripts? Check out Drew’s Script-o-rama

Wanna read some novels? Try your library or borrow from a buddy or check out and get a good deal or even some freebies.

And don’t just sit there, tell us what you think about this article – comment below.

One thought on “Peggy Bechko: Tighten It Up”

  1. Peggy, I couldn’t agree more with point #4: I’ve read far too many drama scripts in which use of qualifiers weaken and undercut the entire purpose of the thing: writing dramatically. “Even”, “just”, “simply”, seem to be favorites along with having characters having just done something that the audience hasn’t seen or that is near impossible to show (“looking like he just escaped a runaway train”).
    I have a feeling this is a kind of shying away, a fear of being too forceful and assertive on the part of the writer, almost as if they are hedging their bets. Characters should just DO the thing instead of “almost” “practically” “sort of” doing it. And as a writer I respect my characters more if they are assertive in the situations I’ve put them in!

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