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Stay in Present Tense and Active Voice

A common problem we find in non-pro scripts is the frequent use of both past tense and passive voice.

Here's an example of passive voice writing in a Sci-Fi spec script (non-professional) found on the web (not submitted to us):

INT. LAB 103

Technician #1 is looking down at his tablet computer as he walks into the lab. He takes a few steps forward then looks up. He is stunned to find a holographic projection of a raging battle in deep space before him - he drops his computer (it smashes on the floor) and steps back until his back hits the door.

The holographic projection shows a fleet of battleships waging war against a larger fleet. Missiles and laser fire blast into both fleets. Ships on both sides are obliterated in a hellish barrage of enemy fire. A dreadnought explodes in a blinding nuclear flash.

Hopefully you'll find it reads flat, uninspiring - you're not connected to the writing or scene. If you don't that's mostly likely because you write using passive voice too, maybe even past tense as well.

The above sample's greatest problem is that is has been written in a passive voice style, common to many non-pro screenwriters. It could also so with some tightening - it's a tad verbose.

Past tense and passive voice 'screenwriting' is not engaging - the reader is distanced from your words, disconnected from the scene.

You want to draw your reader into your writing, into the scene - that necessitates writing in present tense and active voice, the heart of true screenwriting.

Pro screenwriters stay almost exclusively in present tense and active voice.

Script Analysis Active Voice and Present Tense

Past tense Vs Present tense

This is English 101, most can skip the below table.

Past tense Present tense
Amanda had run away Amanda runs away
The race was won by Tom Tom wins the race
Kyle was killed by a ricochet A bullet ricochets, kills Tom

There are some legitimate situations that require a screenwriter to use past tense - that's fine, just don't overuse it.

Passive voice Vs Active voice

Most of the non-pro scripts we read contain some passive voice. It's not a huge issue if the amount of passive voice used is minimal, unfortunately that's rarely the case.

Example: passive voice

Here's another example of passive voice screenwriting from a non-pro script found on the internet (not submitted to us):

EXT. ROOFTOP - DAY

The rooftop is 100-200 meters away from the ambush site, has an excellent view of it.

Mila is kneeling beside a large rooftop air conditioning unit. Shooter #1 is standing nearby, looking out for trouble.

The rooftop A/C unit has been opened. Mila works on the bomb unit.

Near them, a sniper/spotter team is watching the street below.

The snipers are armed with Barrett M107 anti-armor sniper rifles. They're wearing communications gear.

EXT. BUILDING - DAY

Speeding SUVs come racing up to the building, stop. Agents, wearing FBI-labelled body armor and carrying a mixture of carbines and handguns, exit the SUVs. They start running to the building.

PHFT!-PHFT!-PHFT!-PHFT!-PHFT!

The snipers start firing at the agents.

The above reads very flat by action screenplay standards. The biggest failing is the frequent use of passive voice. The writing standard's okay - about par for a non-pro screenwriter but a good few steps away from pro level.

Example: active voice

To use active voice you need to:

Limit the use of the words 'is', 'are' and words ending in 'ing'

Let's rewrite the scene in active voice - we will tighten it a bit as well:

EXT. ROOFTOP - DAY

The rooftop's 100-200 meters away from the ambush site, has an excellent view of it.

Mila kneels beside a large opened rooftop air conditioning unit, works on a bomb unit. Shooter #1 watches over her.

Near them, a sniper/spotter team scan the street below.

EXT. BUILDING - DAY

Speeding SUVs SCREECH to a halt.

Heavily armed men, wearing FBI-labelled body armor, stream out. Race towards the building.

PHFT!-PHFT!-PHFT!-PHFT!-PHFT!

Sniper fire blasts into them.

The active voice version is a much better read. It's more engaging, faster, flows better, makes you feel more part of the action.

Active voice pulls readers into your script, passive voice distances them from it.

I Robot

Here's an example of active voice used to immediately engage the reader, taken from the 'I Robot' screenplay by Hillary Seitz:

EXT. SUBURBAN STREET - MORNING

Spooner steps outside. Into the flow of COMMUTERS heading for the elevated trains. Elbow to elbow. A river of humanity. He moves along, like everyone else. Suddenly. His shoulders tense. That feeling at the back of his neck. He turns and sees...

A ROBOT. Just behind him. Humanoid in design, but still obviously a machine. Metal and synthetic casings covering hydraulic muscles. The thing senses his stare. Looks up with a muted WHIR...

ROBOT

(metallic voice)

Good day, sir...

Hopefully you see how much more interesting and engaging present tense and active voice writing is. If you want to see your script as a movie, start using both.

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