Q&A: Simple Present vs. Present Progressive (“-ing”) Verb Tense

Michael asks:
Is it ever okay to use the “ing” present tense to describe action? “The Complete Screenwriters Manual” says no, but I don’t buy it.

Monica says:
Thanks, Michael. Great question.

Here’s the deal with what I refer to as active verbs vs. passive verbs and screenwriting. The standard for screenwriting is to use the most evocative verb choice and to write it in the simple present verb tense (“kicks”) as opposed to the present progressive tense (“is kicking”).

The simple present is the more immediate and active form of the present tense. Writing in the simple present tense with active verbs does take some getting used to for new screenwriters because it’s not the way we would write literary prose were we writing a short story or a novel. There are many verb tenses, passive and active, and as writers, we are encouraged to use them all – except in screenwriting. I myself felt somewhat limited by this style when I first started writing screenplays, but now the simple present tense is more intuitive for me.

The reason why we write in the simple present tense using the most evocative verb choice is because it brings the reader into that moment on the page. When I am wrapped up in a great script, I actually forget that I’m reading and I just see the “movie” take place in my mind. Present tense, evocative verbs will keep me inside the story in the moment as the protagonist experiences it, and so this is always the best choice. Once you’re reading, present progressive verbs (which I consider to be more passive) call more attention to the style, which actually detracts from the simple action at hand. Passive verbs are thus stylistically not necessary.

Read more scripts. Screenplays are written in the simple present tense. You might find some writers who, on occasion, use a more passive voice. However, the majority will still be written in the simple present tense with very active verb choices. Screenwriting is about the conservation of words, the white on the page, and so the more evocative and specific a word choice can be, especially as regards verbs, the more punch you’re going to get per word.

The active voice keeps the reader firmly planted in the present reality of the screenplay. The more passive voice detaches us. Just as an “s” sound is crisper than an “ing” sound, which is more calming. When you write, “Eleanor sings,” I have a very clear picture in my mind of a woman singing now.

Sings vs. singing
Screams vs. screaming
Runs vs. running
Kicks vs. kicking

And, if we want to get into semantics, the simple present active voice puts the emphasis on the completion of the action, whereas the present progressive form puts the emphasis on the process of the action, which diminishes the punch of the verb. “Kicks” implies a leg whipping out and thus something has been kicked, so the mind naturally drifts to what has been kicked and what comes after. Whereas “is kicking” places more of an emphasis on the process of the action itself as opposed to the implication of what follows.

Another way of looking at this is that the verb “to be” indicates state of being. “Is singing” puts emphasis on the state of being that is currently singing. The action itself comes as a secondary state to the awareness of being. Within screenwriting, the emphasis should always be on the action in the present moment, and to a lesser degree (or not at all depending upon the genre) the state of being.

In common English usage, many passive verbs come as a dependent clause. Again, this is how we would write in other formats. “Susan crouches down low, hiding in the corner.” The hiding is a dependent clause. She wouldn’t be hiding if she weren’t crouching. In a script you could just write, “Susan crouches. Hides.” Or, using more evocative verbs, “Susan folds herself into the dark corner. Disappears.” To me, this later sentence evokes more a tone of fear, a sense of urgency, thus upping the stakes, whereas the first sentence seems more like a child is playing hide-and-go-seek with a girlfriend.

It is to your advantage to choose active verbs that will elicit specific emotional and visual responses in the reader. The more specific imagery you can conjure up together with the richest emotional response in the reader, the better off you’ll be.

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6 Responses to Q&A: Simple Present vs. Present Progressive (“-ing”) Verb Tense

  1. Tom January 30, 2011 at 8:34 am #

    The word “passive” here is a rather generic term and not as specific as “passive voice” (is done) Vs. “active voice” (does). Is passive voice also pretty much taboo? Should one write, “We see a fire.” Rather than “A fire is seen,” for example?

  2. Monica May 25, 2011 at 12:15 am #

    The active voice is more impactful. This underscores my point about the literary voice, which doesn’t translate intuitively to the screenplay. Scripts, in general, are about how the protagonist is propelled through the world. In that case, I am not sure what specific benefit you would have in writing “a fire is seen.” Seen by whom, in what context? Why not just state the context explicitly. The protagonist sees the fire. Better yet, detail the protagonist’s relationship to the fire – did the protagonist start the fire and then runs away? Does she run directly into the fire?

    If the active voice is still unclear, read more screenplays.

  3. Vishnu June 17, 2011 at 11:56 am #

    I’ve always been writing in simple present not knowing its the rule but,

    How to write a scene which was unfolding even before we witness it(like in media res) eg: is it ok to write “Mike is reading the last page of the magazine when the receptionist entered” or is it “Mike reads the last page of the magazine. The receptionist enters”. Not sure if my example really projected the need but I seriously could not decide which one seemed appropriate.

    And is there any exception to the simple present. You’ve mentioned people use other tenses on rare occasions. It will be very helpful if you could enlighten me by citing an example of such occurrence. Thank you

  4. Henry April 7, 2012 at 9:10 am #

    Thanks! Doing some edits and this is really helpful.

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