Thursday, December 9, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #32: Non-active verbs

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.

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