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.
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.