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Old 06-30-2018, 06:38 PM   #1
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Default Voice (Descriptive Narrative)

(Note: In this post I’ll be using comments from many professionals in the industry along with excerpts from many screenplays, thus this is a long post. For those members who don’t enjoy reading long posts, then I suggest that you can either skim, or leave the thread.)

My focus will not be on the writer’s voice (a writer’s thoughts and expressions) that deals with the major elements of a story such as, common themes a writer enjoys telling, shaping characters, personality and quirkiness of dialogue, twists and reversals of plot, etc.

My focus will be on the writer’s voice in the basic elements of the descriptive narrative: word choices, style, imagery, narrative point-of-view, rhythm, texture, tone, energy, pacing (through white space and sentence construction), etc.

Story is king. Story is king! STORY IS KING!

We hear this mantra all the time. So, why should a writer have any angst, or spend valuable time and energy in expressing his voice in the descriptive narrative?

After all, wasn’t it brought out that Jeff Lowell once said, “industry people call the descriptive narrative the black stuff between the dialogue.” Jeff has since changed his opinion on the descriptive narrative, but the industry, overall, hasn’t.

In my years of learning the craft, I’ve experienced more examples of what Jeff was talking about:

I attended a seminar where a studio development executive named, Regina Lee, was speaking. Her credits included, “Seabiscuit,” “X Men Wolverine,” “Bridget Jones,” “Meet the Fockers,” and “The Fast and the Furious.”

Regina Lee told the writers:

“If it’s an action movie and you’re describing how the chase plays out, for example, then I understand why there’s so much scene description. But in general, scene description is what we all find the least interesting thing to read. … as little scene description as possible to get your point across. Scene description is truly the most boring thing to read, and the point is to captivate your reader as much as you can.”

William Goldman once said:

“This is a business where people strive to read a screenplay as fast as possible. Seasoned producers and studio executives can read a screenplay in an hour. They do this by reading the first 10 or 20 pages verbatim. Then they start skimming. They read only the slugs and the dialog, completely skip the direction. Or at least everything after the first line. That’s how they can tear through a screenplay in an hour. That’s why your dialog is so critical when you’re a new writer. The dialog is the only part of your calling card you can hope to be read. If you keep your direction brief, only conveying what is absolutely necessary, then it may be read, too.”

An industry reader for Warner Bros. and CAA said:

“The prose of action should always be efficient, small bites. X causes Y and Z happens. If you got the latest, greatest way for Bruce Willis to get out of a jam, make it short and sweet. I can guarantee this is the stuff that always gets skimmed.”


For those members who are vulnerable and sensitive to the realty of what the industry actually thinks of writers, then I strongly suggest that you skip past my next example. It’ll make you cry.

Christopher Lockhart is an executive, story editor, for William Morris Endeavor, and he says:

“Writing a screenplay is a craft. You’re not a writer. You’re a craftsman. It’s more important that you know how to construct a script than write a script. It’s not a novel where you’re being judge on your mellifluous prose. That’s not a screenplay, because what you write on the page, the actual words, your word choice doesn’t matter. We don’t see it on the screen. That all gets interpreted by the actors and the directors and the cinematographers. So it’s not about that. This is why some of our greatest writers couldn’t write screenplays. It has nothing to do with the writing.”

“your word choice doesn’t matter”

Every time I hear this it always drives me crazy.

Yes, you can say a screenplay is a blueprint where the writer would be considered the architect, and then the general contractor (director) will come in with all his subcontractors (cinematographer, actors, editor, set designer, etc.) and build the screenplay into a finished product (movie) to be sold to the public, but you know what… the writer is the originator. The writer starts with a blank page. Everyone else is just interpreting the writer’s work/vision.

Yes, unlike a novel, the general public isn’t gonna read a screenplay for their entertainment, so the actual prose is believed to be less vital to the process.

And yes, a writer’s descriptive narrative voice doesn’t make it to the screen. When a writer describes a world, or a setting, be it a sweeping, panoramic view of the countryside, or a scary looking farmhouse that unique description is supplanted by the execution of the director’s visualization.

So, why should a writer be concerned about his unique voice in the descriptive narrative of a screenplay?

A writer who is confident and in command of his voice will immerse/engage the reader into his story, making for an enjoyable and entertaining experience, which helps market not only his screenplay, but him as a writer. The writer wants his audience (the reader) to SEE his story and be moved emotionally. Also, leaving it up to the director to “get” what you, the writer, visualize for the screen is inviting disaster.

Filmmaking is a collaborative effort, but the writer is the originator. He guides all others that follow. If a writer does his job effectively, then what ends up on the screen will be closer to the writer’s intent/vision.

You’ve all heard that words are the tools of a writer, but it goes deeper than that. It’s the choice of words that separates the hacks from the masters.
Choosing the right words with the right shade of meaning, carefully strung together, makes for a compelling and powerful read.

It was Diablo Cody’s “voice,” on her blog, not a screenplay, her wit and intelligence, that got her noticed by Hollywood.

Jeffrey Katzenberg said:

“The screenplay is first and foremost a selling tool. It isn’t always the movie that gets made –- but it’s always what gets the movie made.”

Terry Rossio says:

“People tend to think of screenplays the way they think of novels. In truth writing a script is much more like writing poetry. The form and structure are paramount, and the goal is to convey as much information as possible in as compact a form as possible. Not only does every word count, every syllable counts. Song lyrics are one form of poetry. I prefer to think of screenwriting as song writing. Consider the following line, for example, as if it were the first line of a screenplay:

The screen door slams. Mary’s dress
waves. Like a vision she dances
across the porch as the radio plays.

Springsteen fans will recognize the opening line to ‘Thunder Road.’ But it reads quite well as a descriptive passage. If a screenplay began with such a simple, evocative line, I’d know I was in good hands; I’d be hooked. It conveys setting, tone, character, situation, with an incredible efficiency.”

Jon Cohen, “Minority Report,” says:

“My one rule is write big. No matter what they tell you, if your sentences are rich and compelling, then you’re telling the story that way as well. Somehow be spare and get to the good parts fast, the standard rule, but when you’re doing the good parts fast, remember fast does not mean skeletal and lean. Let them smell the copper in the blood and the slippery lick of the tongue.”

Stephen King says the following about writing description:

“…imagery is not achieved by over description –- a Roget’s full of adjectives by your typewriter may not be the answer to your problems with imagery. Good description produces imagery, then. The next question that always comes is, ‘How do I know what details to include and which to leave out?’ The answer to the question is simply stated but more difficult to apply: Leave in the details that impress you the most strongly; leave the details you see the most clearly; leave everything else out.

…the idea of imagery is not to set the picture by giving everything (that is for photographers, not writers), but to give enough to suggest a texture and a feel. Too many beginning writers feel that they have to assume the entire burden of imagery; to become the reader’s seeing-eye dog. That is simply not the case. Use vivid verbs. Avoid the passive voice. Avoid the cliché. Be specific. Be precise. Be elegant. Omit needless words.”

New writers either overwrite or underwrite. There must be a balance, which is tricky. You don’t want to be so lean where it’s dry and bland, and you don’t want so much flavor and color that it makes for a tedious read.

To demonstrate, I’ll repost a question from a writer to members of a writing forum on this topic:

“Do you feel it’s interesting and enjoyable to read descriptive narrative in action lines or distracting? I tend to do this because I spend much time writing prose and feel more colorful descriptions make action lines more interesting. The most enjoyable screenplays I’ve read were where the author had a distinctive voice in descriptions.

Case in point –- compare the following:


A car pulls up to the curb and TOM, 45, gets out and walks toward the courthouse.



A battered Lincoln Continental, definitely on its last legs, slams against the curb. TOM,
45, stumbles out, his long hair hanging down his forehead like the long legs
of a spider. He absent-mindedly pushes it aside as he slowly makes his way up the
crumbling steps of an old and decrepit courthouse.”

-- The first description does the job, but it’s bland and uninteresting. Just boring exposition.

The second description does the job, but this time it’s more visual. More flavor and color, but the problem with it is that the writer was so concern about adding details to make it visually interesting, he overwritten it.

In this instance, character introduction, being specific by saying the vehicle is a “Lincoln Continental” instead of the generic “car” is good. It helps to reveal character, personality. There’s a difference between a guy driving say a Cadillac and a Toyota Camry hybrid.

“Battered” and “on its last legs”

Redundant. The writer just needs one to get across to the reader the expression he wanted.

“long, stringy hair” and “long legs of a spider”

Again, redundant.

“He absent-mindedly pushes it aside.”

This is unnecessary character business and unimportant information for the reader. Unless, it’s a character trait, a quirk he has through the story.

“crumbling steps of an old and decrepit courthouse.”

This type of detail would be included only if it was important information to express such things as setting, tone, atmosphere, etc. to the reader.

With the way the industry feels about description, I suggest for a writer to learn and get an understanding what details are necessary and not necessary to include.

Daniel Calvisi, former major studio story reader and a book author on the craft, says:

“Sometimes, it’s just one word or phrase that makes the description. From AMERICAN HISTORY X, by David McKenna:

TIGHT ON DEREK VINYARD. The young man has a shaved head, a trimmed goatee, and a
SWASTIKA on his right tit, the center of the symbol crossed perfectly at the nipple.

McKenna calls a man’s chest a ‘tit.’ It gives an edge, an intensity, a ‘street’ feel to this young man. And you notice he puts swastika in CAPS, because it’s such a strong image and it immediately and dramatically introduces the themes of white supremacism and hatred that will permeate the story.”

Christopher Lockhart expands on his craftsman and writer opinion with an example of a good balance of the two:

“Long, flowery sentences rivaling Faulkner are not tools of a screenwriter. Any writer can describe a sunset in a hundred words. As a screenwriter, the talent is to describe the same sunset and communicate the same vision and mood in only five words.

Producers and agents are looking for a MOVIE, not a literary experience. Screenwriters are craftsman first – writers second, Those who understand this truism are more likely to succeed in this business. Knowing how to write descriptively for a screenplay is part of the learning curve. Movies MOVE. And so should your script. Your job as a screenwriter is not to find poetry to describe your scenes – but find the most efficient words and sentences imaginable to create the imagery without eating up your pages.

Here is an example from Frank Darabont’s FAHRENHEIT 451:

She turns, facing them. A long look passes between them as her
thumbnail tightens on the match.

…and her thumbnail scrapes the sulfur tip, FLARING it to life.
Montag’s eyes widen in horror –

And the match flare leaps into the air, a heartbeat of white-hot
ignition, the air rippling as it catches fire. For a moment the old
woman is surrounded by an aura of flame swirling about her,
lifting her hair and catching it afire, making her eyes glow like
coals –

--and BOOOOM! The entryway EXPLODES, shattering window, a
HUGE FIST OF FLAME punching through the front door and
blowing Beatty and Montag right off their feet, hurling them over
the railings and onto the lawn in a storm of debris. Some other
firemen are caught on the run, also blown off their feet…

(Chris sums up) This is very effective. Darabont only tells us what we need to know in order to understand the scene. His word choice is thorough and exact. Note his use of white space to help organize the action. Darabont actually interrupts sentences with white space. As a screenwriter, your primary tool (as odd or maddening as this may sound) shouldn’t be words. Your primary tool as a dramatist is conflict.”

So, what should a screenwriter do? Description too lean may be perceived as dry and uninteresting and description with too much color and flavor may be perceived as a tedious read, slowing down the pace.

This boys and girls is what the cliché adages call, between a rock and a hard place, Catch-22, in a pickle. For the to-the-point writers, quandary, dilemma, conundrum. Or, taking Chris Lockhart’s cue about “drama,” sitting on a powder keg.


Last edited by JoeNYC : 07-01-2018 at 06:31 PM.
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Old 06-30-2018, 06:46 PM   #2
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Default Re: Voice (Descriptive Narrative)

My suggestion is in general to write with direct simplicity using strong nouns, vivid verbs, etc. that’ll evoke emotion on the page that’ll make the reader feel what the characters feel.

Jordan Peele, writer/director GET OUT, says:

“The whole trick that all of us are trying to do is bring the audience into the protagonist’s eyes. Behind the eyes. Not tell somebody you have to feel for somebody else but make somebody feel because they’re experiencing it through entertainment.”

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about from Script Reader Pro’s (a script analysis service using pro writers; never used their service) breakdown using an excerpt from WHIPLASH written by Damien Chazelle:


The players are taking their seats. Slowly, Andrew walks in.
Eyes the DRUMS. Takes a deep breath. He can do this…

Carl is seated in the alternate’s seat. The drum throne is
empty. Just waiting for Andrew…

Andrew sits down. WE MOVE IN CLOSER ON HIM –- as he adjusts
his seat, lays his music out, gets his sticks ready…

Alright, gang.

Andrew looks up. Fletcher has just entered.


Script Reader Pro says, “Andrew walks in, slowly. Eyes the DRUMS. This brings to our attention straight away just how nervous Andrew is, without stating it explicitly. It’s all there in the choice of words. We can see him eye the drums and know exactly what he’s thinking. Similarly, the choice of the word, ‘throne’ reinforces the idea that drumming is everything to Andrew – a precious commodity that he must conquer or die trying, just like kings of old. Some so-called screenwriting gurus will tell you never to use camera angles, and while it’s true you shouldn’t overuse them, a judicious line like ‘WE MOVE IN CLOSER ON HIM’ can really help give the impression that we’re watching a movie. It puts in our mind how the camera moves slowly toward him, accentuating the tension, which can only be a good thing.”

I suggest for the writer to expand and elaborate on description, and this is generally speaking, ultimately, it’s whatever works, will be at choice/important points in the story that’ll have an impact on the characters, affecting not only them, but also the reader, such as, character introductions, opening settings, special situations, etc.

For example, character introductions.



It is grandiose and grim. The whole place is one of those abortions of silent-
picture days, with bowling alleys in the cellar and a built-in pipe organ, and
beams imported from Italy, with California termites at work on them. Portieres
are drawn before all the windows, and only thin slits of sunlight find their way
in to fight the few electric bulbs, which are always burning.

Norma Desmond stands down the corridor next to a doorway from which emerges a
flickering light. She is a little woman. There is a curious style, a great sense
of high voltage about her. She is dressed in black house pajamas and black high-
heeled pumps. Around her throat there is a leopard-patterned scarf, and wound
around her head a turban of the same material. Her skin is very pale, and she is
wearing dark glasses.



is coming slowly INTO VIEW… Behind its barred front wall is a second barrier of
stout nylon net… Sparse, bolted-down furniture, many soft cover books and papers.
On the walls, extraordinarily detailed, skillful drawings, mostly European
cityscape, in charcoal or crayon.

DR. HANNIBLE LECTER is lounging on his bunk, in white pajamas, reading an Italian
Vogue. He turns, considers her… A face so long out of the sun, it seems almost
leached - except for the glittering eyes, and the wet red mouth. He rises smoothly,
crossing to stand before her; the gracious host. His voice is cultured, soft.

For example, opening settings.



Epic beauty: cobalt mountains beneath a glowering purple sky
fringed with pink, as if the clouds were lid too small for
the earth; a cascading landscape of boulders shrouded in deep
green grass; and the blue lochs, reflecting the sky. We hear
a voice, husky, Scottish…

I will tell you of William Wallace.



A lone palm tree rises up into a yellow afternoon sky.
Behind it, the sparkling blue of the Pacific Ocean and the
city of San Diego. A dry, hot Southern California day.
Even the wind is lazy, and a little bored.

For an example on a special situation that’ll have an impact on the characters I’m going to use a scene from my script. In the “voice” thread in the basic forum, I gave an example of my opening page, post 56, where the descriptive narrative writing was simple, to-the-point writing.

On page 8 of my script there’s a romantic scene where I break out the adverbs and adjectives. Now, my story is not a romance story. The main genres are adventure/drama/action.

This romance scene is a special situation that requires elaboration because on page 9 the Inciting Incident (II) happens where the two protagonist are forcibly separated.

The romance scene expresses a beautiful world and a deep love where when the II happens it enhances the stakes and motivations of the characters and hopefully the emotional involvement of the viewer/reader. She’s taken to this cold, cruel world. He struggles to find her and she struggles to survive until he does.


Cabins are barely visible through a beautiful, morning mist.


Emily lies in bed asleep. She rolls over and sees Liam,
Maisy and Reid at the end of the bed, grinning at her.

Why y’all standing there with that
goofy smile on your faces?

Pa has a surprise for ya.

Excited, she pops up.

(to Liam)
You do?

Liam holds up a black blindfold.

A blindfold? You gonna shoot me?

Sometimes that’s crossed my mind,
but not today. Get dressed. We’ll
wait for you outside.

They leave. Emily springs out of bed and grabs her clothes.


Emily steps out to her waiting family.

What’s going on?

Come, you’ll see.

He holds his hand out. Emily takes his hand and
Maisy’s. They walk off with Reid following along.


Emily, blindfolded, is guided through by Liam with Maisy
and Reid tagging along beside them. Liam stops Emily,
pivots her to a perfect angle and removes the blindfold.

Emily’s face beams with wonderment. In front of her
stands a magnificent Carolina Silverbell tree rising
thirty feet. Broad rounded crown of hundreds of
silverly-white, bell-shaped flowers dangling from every
branch. It pops gloriously with the evergreen backdrop.

Carolina Silverbells.

Emily ambles under the silverbells and looks
up. She eyes a slender shaft with a yellow tip
hanging down the center of the flower like a
clapper in a bell.

Liam unfolds an item inside a cloth. He shows
Emily a charming, white carved Carolina Silverbell
flower pendant, hanging from a thin leather necklace.

I carved it from a cow bone.

It’s beautiful.

Liam lays it around her neck and attaches it in the back.

Happy wedding anniversary.

I thought you forgot.

Liam and Emily gaze into each other’s eyes. It’s
magnetic. They cannot look away.

On our wedding day we stood in
front of God, family and friends
and declared our love for each
other. I’ll always remember and
honor that day, because on that
day my life changed forever. I
got to share it with a special,
earthshaking lady named... Emily.

Liam and Emily kiss. They hold each other like they
want to stay there together... forever.

Lastly, what is the poor industry person going to do when a script crosses his desk with little or no dialogue? Just descriptive narrative.

For example, A QUIET PLACE has like a total of 4 pages of dialogue in a 67 page script (90 minute film).

The writers of A QUIET PLACE handled the mostly descriptive narrative very well. Keeping the reader in mind by not having daunting, dense blocks of black, which would give a reader an uncontrollable urge to skim.

The writers used a simple, to-the-point style. Using a lot of white space to make the descriptive narrative airy and inviting to the reader. In this instance, the writers also bolded the master scene headings to help break up the description narrative. Not having it look like one dense block of black.

An example from A QUIET PLACE’s opening page:


The hilltop is lined with corn. Golden and brown. Shimmering
in the morning heat.

There’s a structure in the distance…


A FARMHOUSE built from old lumber. There’s no cattle or
livestock in sight. Unusual for this fertile land.


APRIL (8) gazes out the window pane. Nervous, eager, sweet.
She has a HEARING AID in one ear.

She’s focused on a TOLL SHED one hundred feet away, isolated
under a crooked apple tree.

Her eyes drift from the shed to her older brother WILL (10)
who stands outside. He sticks his tongue out. She ignores
him. This is their dynamic.

Well, it was a long post, 14 pages, but I felt the thoroughness was necessary for the new writers to get an understanding on the topic.

If you’re a new writer and you’re reading this, or you’ve made it this far without skimming, then that’s a good sign that you have a thirst for gaining knowledge on the craft in order to achieve your goal to write at a professional level.

It shows you’re not lazy, looking for short cuts, which is a good attitude to have in order to succeed in anything you strive for in life.

Last edited by JoeNYC : 10-18-2018 at 11:31 AM.
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Old 07-03-2018, 11:45 AM   #3
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Default Re: Voice (Descriptive Narrative)

Thanks for posting this - there's lots of interesting stuff.

I'm not sure that the overall subject is really 'voice', but more the 'technique' of efficient and effective screenwriting.
Know this: I'm an amateur, so trust not one word what I write.
"The ugly can be beautiful. The pretty, never." ~ Oscar Wilde
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Old 07-03-2018, 04:27 PM   #4
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Default Re: Voice (Descriptive Narrative)

Originally Posted by Crayon View Post
I'm not sure that the overall subject is really 'voice', but more the 'technique' of efficient and effective screenwriting.
It’s understandable you may think this way, because besides going into the actual thoughts and expressions of the writer that dealt with word choices that evoked imagery, i. e., “a SWASTIKA on his right tit,” “The drum throne is empty,” I did go into the mechanics and technical choices of the writing, which may be perceived as not part of a writer’s voice. Just how to write efficiently and effectively.

A writer’s thoughts and expressions dealing with the basic elements in the descriptive narrative that I mentioned at the top of my first post, i. e., word choices, style, tone, rhythm, texture, etc., in my opinion, work together, in culminative action, to create a “brand” voice for the writer.

The details that you express in your storytelling, from shaping characters down to a punctuation mark, is all part of your voice as a writer.
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Old 07-04-2018, 05:24 AM   #5
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Default Re: Voice (Descriptive Narrative)

Thanks Joe, a good read, lots of food for thought.

I like to use the term "economical" when I think of my word choices. If I get it right (which I'm not sure I do yet) then I should have a slick script that reads well and doesn't bury the vital information.
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Old 07-04-2018, 07:21 AM   #6
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Default Re: Voice (Descriptive Narrative)

Originally Posted by Harper8484 View Post
I like to use the term "economical" when I think of my word choices.
“Economical” is a good way to think of it if you’re applying it in the context of the craft of screenwriting like the writers of WHIPLASH and AMERICAN HISTORY X did and not with the thinking that it means a writer needs to be cheap/penny-pinching with the words.

What worries me is when there’s talk about being lean, concise, to-the-point, brief, succinct, etc. a writer will literally apply this to the point where he’ll lose his voice.

For example, in the past I’ve demonstrated what I’m talking about from a past discussion on concise writing with the following line of description in a member’s script:

“Her heart jams into her tonsils as she spins toward the noise.”

A member pointed out that the action/description could be expressed with less words and gave the following example:

“Frighten, she spins toward the noise.”

Yes, expressing she was “frighten” was written more concise by using less words but he didn’t realize he butchered the writer’s voice.

Every word in that member’s line of “Her heart jams…” does necessary work that expressed necessary information to the reader, so it wasn’t overwritten. It was good voice where the writer used strong, vivid verbs that expressed not only a sense of color, but also tension and suspense, making for a compelling and interesting read.

And don’t get me wrong about the use of something like “frightened.” I’m not implying that telling a reader someone is frightened, puzzled, happy, etc. is wrong. If you, the writer, feels that the –- situation -- is right for you to tell and not show with a written out image, such as expressing a character is “frightened,” a reader can visualize that and an actor can portray that.
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Old 07-04-2018, 08:39 AM   #7
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Default Re: Voice (Descriptive Narrative)

Agreed, but
Her heart jams into her tonsils as she spins to the noise.
fits on one line.
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Old 07-05-2018, 05:59 AM   #8
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Default Re: Voice (Descriptive Narrative)

Hi Joe, I agree, I don't mean boiling lines down to baby speak. I think it's using words as a weapon, creating the right dynamics from them.
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Old 07-05-2018, 06:02 AM   #9
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Default Re: Voice (Descriptive Narrative)

Originally Posted by catcon View Post
fits on one line.
"Her heart jams..." line wasn't overwritten but just because an action/description fits on one line, don't automatically assume it's not overwritten. There are many reasons a line could be perceived as overwritten, no matter how long: redundant, unnecessary words, unnecessary information, etc.
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Old 07-09-2018, 09:18 AM   #10
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Default Re: Voice (Descriptive Narrative)

Originally Posted by catcon View Post
Her heart jams into her tonsils as she spins to the noise.
But "to" doesn't mean the same as "toward", and therefore "she spins to the noise" reads rather like "she dances to the music", or "she pirouettes to the industrial techno". I guess the context excludes that behaviour, but it risks the reader being given pause for amusement at the thought of it.

You spin me right round baby right round like a record baby...
Know this: I'm an amateur, so trust not one word what I write.
"The ugly can be beautiful. The pretty, never." ~ Oscar Wilde
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