I just finished evaluating a nice batch of scripts for a screenwriting class and am always impressed with the creativity of young, energetic writers. Even the scripts that I wrote the most feedback for were imaginative and inspiring pieces of work. However, I did find myself writing a number of suggestions over and over on most of the scripts, and it thankfully wasn’t “redrum” or “All work and no play makes jack a dull boy.” Most of those suggestions are already listed on this blog, but one common problem that I have neglected to mention thus far is that new screenwriters tend to use far too many non-active, non-present-tense verbs in their descriptions.
Most scripts that I’ve read contain descriptions that use a lot of “be” verbs, “-ing” verbs, passive verbs and a healthy dose of “there is” and “there are.” I’ve even read some scripts that, for some reason, contained past tense in the descriptions: “Becky opened the window and looked outside.” Screenwriters should always use active, present-tense verbs in their descriptions, unless they need a present-progressive verb for an interrupted action, or if there is some other really good reason why a different type of verb would describe the action better. I don’t know what that reason would be, but it’s always possible.
Here are some paired examples to demonstrate why choosy screenwriters choose active verbs. See which descriptions you prefer:
1. There are five roses lying on the bed.
2. Five roses lie on the bed.
1. John is dragged across the lawn and thrown into a car.
2. Bill drags John across the lawn and throws him into a car.
1. Shelly is happy.
2. Shelly smiles.
1. Steve is walking warily down the street.
2. Steve walks warily down the street.
I’ll take #2 every time! Hmm, I should probably rephrase that. The point is that a good way to keep your descriptions as brief and active as possible is to use only active, present-tense verbs. It will make your script read faster and will never leave any doubt about which one of your characters is doing what.