by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
As writers, words are what make or break us. Our ability to flex a wide vocabulary without alienating the reader can mean the difference between a pitch that opens doors for us and one that lacks anything memorable. While it is usually how we arrange words that determines the strength of our style, having strong words to arrange is a necessary part of the equation.
Adjectives can be an area where writers take short cuts. However, these descriptors can make all the difference when trying to convey the qualities of a character, the intensity of a situation, or the desirability of an external goal. Deafening is more emotionally expressive than very noisy. Excruciating affects a reader differently than extremely painful. Even an adjective such as fearless conjures up a different image than a similar word such as brave.
Here are seven power adjectives to consider using when describing the characters, goals, and scenarios in your pitch or logline.
The word instinctive describes a character’s ability to trust their own gut. It suggests that a character may be quite independent and even sometimes operate outside of given expectations. We only learn about the instinctive nature of a character when we see those instincts relied on in difficult situations. If we describe a character as instinctive in a logline or pitch, we infer that the character has been up against challenging circumstances before. The fate of Western Europe hangs on a single decision by the instinctive, newly-elected Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in Darkest Hour.
Horrifying has many uses as a descriptor. While it can suggest something that is truly horrific, such as the death of a child. It can also suggest something comedic, such as accidental nudity. It may also be modified to describe another adjective when suggesting, for instance, a character is horrifyingly unaware. In HBO’s Crashing, a New York comic is forced to make a new start after walking in on his wife in a horrifying sexual encounter with one of her co-workers.
Destitution occurs in matters of degrees. It can refer to an individual or a situation. While it can simply describe someone who is poor, it often is used to express an extreme situation. It suggests a lack of options, which creates the type of conflict most desired in storytelling. A destitute salesman takes custody of his son and struggles to build a new life for both of them while homeless in The Pursuit of Happyness.
In one story, a protagonist might be described as the ultimate bad girl. In another, he may be described as the ultimate playboy. In still other stories, the character might search after the ultimate artifact of antiquity. The word ultimate suggest that a person or item is uncommon, unusual, and to be taken note of. These are the ideas, of course, we build stories around. In The Handmaid’s Tale, a woman is forced to live under the ultimate theocratic dictatorship.
Historically, the word dashing has been used as a masculine descriptor, though the word has been freed from such patriarchy and is now used to describe the charm or charisma of any character. The words dazzling and enchanting have been similarly used in feminine contexts but also can be used without concerns for gender identity, and may be more appropriate than dashing in the context of your pitch. In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the dashing Madge is pushed from her comfort zone as a 1950s mother and housewife into the burgeoning New York stand-up comedy scene.
When a character has shown courage in the face of difficulties, we describe her as plucky. The adjective suggests a certain independence and even quirkiness about the character it describes. It paints the picture of someone who cares less about what is thought of them than being true to themselves. In Lady Bird, a plucky seventeen-year-old girl overcomes her suffocating environment in order to fully be herself.
The word shrewd sometimes calls to mind the image of a businessperson who is more concerned with capitalistic motivations than anything else. However, the word actually refers to someone’s keen powers of judgement – their ability to be astute. A shopper can be just as shrewd as a merchant. In The Florida Project, a shrewd hotel manager bonds with tenants while trying to keep their problematic behavior at bay.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.