Daily Dojo

Rapping On Writing - Keep It Active & Mind Your Tenses

Today’s Wednesday Rapping on Writing tip.

Keep it active.

Okay Josh, but what does that mean?

Primarily in action descriptions for plays or screenplays, a passive sentence would look like one of these.

INT - STUDIO BOARDROOM - DAY

Rush Limbaugh is molesting a Border Collie. The poor dog is whining for help.

The “is” makes it passive. To make the sentences active, you’d write them thus:

Rush Limbaugh molests a Border Collie. The poor dog whines for help.

That makes it more active, get it?

And just to get the image out of your head, let’s finish the scene:

INT: STUDIO BOARDROOM - DAY

Rush Limbaugh molests a Border Collie. The poor dog whines for help.

KEITH OLBERMANN walks in. Stops in shock.

Rush looks up, guilty. Drops the poor dog. Tries to pull his pants up.

RUSH
It’s not what you think-

KEITH
You sick son-of-a . . . you sick fuck. That’s it, your lard ass is gone!

Keith grabs Rush by the front of this shirt. Tosses him at the window. Rush’s fat ass breaks through the glass.

Rush falls ten stories to his death.

The dog wags his tail and licks Keith’s hand.

KEITH
Don’t worry. No one will hurt you now.

FADE OUT

Get it? So whenever you write a descriptive sentence, try and make it active. Try not to write “COULTER is sitting on a stove” - instead say “COULTER sits on a stove.”

It’s tricky for self-taught writers like me who learned via character voices, we often make that mistake because we begin by writing dialogue and tend to write our action / description sentences the same way.

Verbally, people tell stories passively, as a rule, if you asked your buddy what the President is doing today, your buddy is likely to say, “He is sitting in the White House with his thumb up his ass,” right?

He wouldn’t say, “He sits in the White House with his thumb up his ass,” even though that’s grammatically correct, it’s not how most people talk.

So a CHARACTER speaking passively is normal.

But when writing a screenplay, in your action descriptions, you should put - “Bush sits in the White House, his thumb firmly up his ass,” because it’s far more active.

Keep that in mind, it’s a subtle thing to catch but it will make your plays and screenplays read that much better.

Same is true in fiction, always try to keep it active, as the Great One tells us in ON WRITING.

The difference between fiction and screenplays is the tense. In screenplays, you always want to write PRESENT TENSE, pro readers will jump up your ass if you don’t. An example of present tense action description is thus:

Rush goes into the bathroom, gets his drugs. Ties off his arm and injects some quality pharm into his fat elbow.

Most fiction is written PAST TENSE, and in my opinion it reads better. Here’s an example:

Rush went into the bathroom, got his drugs. Tied off his arm and injected some quality pharm into his fat elbow.

“Ah,” Rush said, “love those big Pharm subsidies.”

Get it? Rush said is past tense. Rush says is present.

Most fiction is past tense, some authors use it (A MILLION LITTLE PIECES was written present tense) but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Past tense just reads better for fiction.

Think about it next time you read one of your favorite books, notice the tense. That’s only my opinion, and there are some authors who switch it up depending on the story. One thing you must do is keep it consistent, whichever it’s going to be, but for fiction, I recommend past tense.

But for plays and screenplays, keep in active and present. So you gotta be mindful which game your playing in.

Thus endeth Rapping On Writing Wednesday.

UPDATED:
See Christina’s comments for her correction of my definition of active / progressive.

UPDATED 2:
Cat-Daddy adds his two cents on the subject HERE
so go see his take as well.

13 Responses to “ Rapping On Writing - Keep It Active & Mind Your Tenses”

  1. Christina Says:

    I think you’re mixing up the present continuous (or progressive) tense with the passive voice:

    Rush Limbaugh is molesting a Border Collie. –present continuous/progressive tense, active voice

    Rush Limbaugh was molesting a doll last night. — past continuous/progressive tense, active voice

    A Border Collie is molested by Rush Limbaugh. — progressive tense, passive voice

    A Border Collie was being molested by Rush last night. — past progressive tense, passive voice

    He shits a brick. –simple present tense, active voice

  2. Joshua James Says:

    Hmm, you have a point . . . LOL!

    I never considered putting the subject first (the collie) and certainly that is passive . . . what I have done is usually use the IS for present - but I’ve found it to be less active than justing using the verb form . . .

    Rush molests a border collie.

    Is a more active sentence, to me . . . but your examples work even better.

    Josh shits a brick.

  3. Mystery Man Says:

    Even still, to fill action lines with “is -ing” will absolutely drive a reader flippin’ out of his mind. Like me. I recently read a script that was full of “is walking,” “is talking,” etc. It was annoying as hell. ACTION VERBS for ACTION LINES. Now, if you’re should enter a scene LATE, then it’s quite possible that we’ll find characters already in the act of doing something, in which case “is screwing” or something would be fine.

    Even in novels, Stephen King bashed passive writing and I tend to agree. ‘Tis far more exciting to put people right in the middle of the action as if it’s happening RIGHT NOW as opposed to talking about something that took place in the distant past.

    Great post, Josh.

    -MM

  4. Joshua James Says:

    Thanks man -

    I feel the same, and sometimes I’ll read an old script of mine with a description in it, like “Jill is waiting,” and I’ll go “what?”

    If you have to use IS for a description, Christina pointed out the way to do it. But in a screenplay or play, it’s best to avoid it when possible.

    Somewhat different for fiction . . . and Christina outlines it more proper than I do.

    My pet peeve for fiction is going present tense, like A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, I’m not saying it’s not a technique that one can do and make work, it just kinda makes me crazy to read it.

  5. Christina Says:

    I don’t think you understood my point.

    First off, I totally agree with the main thrust of your post - write action in the simple present tense:

    “He throws a book at her. She kicks him in the nuts.” Etc.

    I do it. And it bugs me when people don’t. I notice it. It’s icky.

    The following sentences, however, are NOT considered passive (in grammatical terms):

    “He is throwing a book at her. She is kicking him in the nuts.”

    Rather, they are written in the present continuous verb tense, ACTIVE voice. [Sometimes this tense is called the progressive tense.] English verbs are inflected for five things: person, number, tense, voice and mood. You’re confusing tense and voice.

    What you despise so much is the present continuous tense (active voice), in addition to the dreaded and much hated passive voice. The reason you are confused is because the tense LOOKS like sentences written in the passive voice. Consider:

    The dog bites the postal worker. [simple present tense, active voice]

    The dog is biting the postal worker. [present continuous tense, active voice]

    The postal worker is bitten by the dog. [present tense, PASSIVE voice]

    What characterizes a passive construction from an active one is that the direct object of the verb, in this case, the postal worker, appears in subject position and the subject is the object of an optional prepositional phrase, i.e., “by the dog.” That’s passive.

    So what you really want to say is not only keep it active, but keep it SIMPLE.

    My friend read over my post and told me I have “tense voice” - Ha Ha.

  6. Joshua James Says:

    Hey Christina,

    No worries, and I got your original point - I think I misunderstood King originally, but I’d note that a host of screenwriter books / blogs mix up the definitions of active / progressive, which is the semantic term here.

    Rather than tell a screenwriter that they’re writing present / continuous, which can confuse some, it’s simpler just to point out that their sentence isn’t “active” in the sense, that the “is” or “was” puts the brakes on the sentence.

    I cannot tell you how often I’ve been told, by various scribes on ladders above me, that “He is kicking the Republican” is passive and “He kicks the Republican” is active.

    Technically, they’re right for pointing out that “is” or “was” slows it down but they’re wrong in the terms that they’re defining it, does that sound correct?

    It’s a reminder to me that screenwriting and fiction / essay writing is essentially different in how their creators define the terms.

    I’m gonna have to reread ON WRITING again, but I’m due anyway, just to go over the section where King covers this, but for my part, I’m glad you defined the terms for me here.

    As I’ve mentioned, I’m largely a self-taught writer, and all good information is welcome information. Thanks!

  7. Christina Says:

    I’m actually not coming at this from the world of fiction/essay writing — like you, I’m a self-taught creative writer. I am, however, a trained linguist. I spent years (too many years!!) studying grammar and I can harp it out like an uptight English teacher. I too have seen this confused in screenwriting books.

    .
    .
    .

    Yep, Mystery Man’s favorite, Trottier, calls “Suzy is walking past the cafe” a passive expression. Argh!!

    I’m sure if you hooked up electrodes to a person’s brain while they read a passage full “is” expressions (both types - passive and progressive) vs. the simple versions, it’d take more processing power or time. Here is a study of Japanese kids that showed passive constructions were more difficult for them to comprehend.

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/62t1rk7d80cehmp1/

    That is the kind of stuff I used to study when I thought I wanted to be a researcher. Gack!

  8. Joshua James Says:

    I actually checked it out after you wrote your original comment, and you were exactly right (which is why I didn’t feud, heh-heh) but I couldn’t remember which screenwriting guy or guys identified “is” as passive (I have like twenty or thirty books like that) . . . Trottier makes sense, but I’m pretty sure there are others as well, which is how I got the idea . . .

    It’s really laziness . . . it’s too hard to differeniate between progressive / etc, so they just show what they think you should do and label that as active.

    Japanese, what a complex language . . . I can’t tell ya, and I have to learn how to speak soon, too, before my son gets too old, heh.

  9. Christina Says:

    Ha ha… we’ve hit upon a vein of laziness!! Granted, most Americans don’t know grammar well enough to understand stuff like mood, voice or tense. I did not know what the subjunctive mood was until I learned French. In fact, I really didn’t learn anything about English grammar until I learned the French counterparts first. I think that is true for most language learners.

    So, Japanese. Good luck with that, it’s gonna be a challenge but I’m sure you’ll be successful. The only way I would EVER take on the study of a non- indo-european language is if I had a child who was going to speak that language. You have the ultimate motivation!!

    Funny tidbit, as an undergrad, I had two teachers who were married - he was german, she was japanese and neither spoke the other’s language. Their relationship was entirely negotiated in… English. I’ve always thought that was interesting. Like, maybe because both of them spoke such hobbled English, they could never really fight and be mean the way you can with a fellow native speaker.

  10. Joshua James Says:

    The Samurai Lady fights pretty well in English, heh-heh.

    Japanese doesn’t really have sarcasm or irony, but seeing as that myself and my actor friends are highly steeped in the dark sarcastic arts, and she’s quickly earned her black belt in cutting sarcasm, trust me.

  11. Empirical Pleasures » Wednesday Says:

    […] the best article on screenwriting I’ve read all year. It’s all about keeping things active. Brilliant examples, too. I […]

  12. Jonny Atlas Writes » Blog Archive » Umbra, Alien and the Value of Mystery. Says:

    […] as his writing). Only one sentence of action in this entire scene, and it’s a fragment with a progressive verb. Seriously, I can’t get past it. Thank God someone was there to grab the spoon from my hand […]

  13. Emmanuel Afrifa Says:

    “The difference between fiction and screenplays…” Do you mean “The difference between PROSE and screenplays..” ?

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