Not long ago, I reread Stephen King’s how-to diatribe, On Writing. In fact, I read quite a few grammar books as a refresher and to help spice up my articles for Script Magazine. With respect to King, I’m sorry. The more I read his book, the more I disagree with him. His book is more pokable than the Pillsbury Doughboy. 1) A Thesaurus is actually a wonderful thing. Rogets can INSPIRE breathtaking sentences! And 2) don’t even get me started on adverbs. King was horrifically wrong about adverbs. But the one area upon which we can agree is that timid writers suck the big one.
As I’m sure most of my brilliant readers already know, King trashed timid writers when it came to passive verbs and sentences:
Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense. I’m not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in The Elements of Style.
(Oh, you mean that little grammar book that’s SO pre-digital age and revised only 4 times since 19-frickin’-18? That one? Did you know that E.B. White was an essayist and writer for The New Yorker? In 1957, he wrote, “I felt uneasy at posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.” Even Strunk, the English professor, said, “the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the readers will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation.” WHAT? You can break the rules? But back to King.)
Messrs. Strunk and White don’t speculate as to why so many writers are attracted to passive verbs, but I’m willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria. I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty. If you find instruction manuals and lawyers’ torts majestic, I guess so.
(But sometimes the passive sentence IS majestic. These are the times that try men’s souls. How are you going to improve upon that sentence? It’s perfect! If you wanted to make it active, you’d have to write, “We live in the kind of times that try souls.” Or maybe we should make the word “times” active since that’s what’s screwing with our souls? “These times try men’s souls.” Eh. “Times like these try men’s souls.” Ugh... We could make “souls” active. “Men’s souls must endure trying times as these.” Or how about: “Soulwise, these are trying times!” Oh puh-lease. Sorry! Back to King.)
I won’t say there’s no place for the passive tense. Suppose, for instance, a fellow dies in the kitchen but ends up somewhere else. The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa is a fair way to put this, although “was carried” and “was placed” still irk the shit out of me. I accept them but I don’t embrace them.
(It’s not “was carried” and “was placed.” It’s “was carried… and placed.” Nothing wrong with that. Sorry! Back to King.)
What I would embrace is Freddy and Myra carried the body out of the kitchen and laid it on the parlor sofa. Why does the body have to be the subject of the sentence, anyway? It’s dead, for Christ’s sake! Fuhgeddaboudit!
(Funny that King writes “Fuhgeddaboudit!” as this kind of “offbeat,” rogue word was strictly prohibited by Messrs. Strunk and White. Slang and diction? Are you kidding? In fact, White decreed about thirty years ago that you can’t write slang because, “by the time this paragraph sees print, uptight, ripoff, rap, dude, vibes, copout, and funky will be the words of yesteryear.” Sorry, dudes! Back to King.)
…And remember. The writer threw the rope, not The rope was thrown by the writer. Please oh please.
May I ask a question? What if you’re writing a mystery and this is the sentence that reveals the killer? Wouldn’t you want to save that revelation for the end? “The rope was thrown by… THE WRITER!” No way! Damn writers! Or what if you’re writing a joke? “All of these outrageous, sexually depraved emails were written by… my mother.” Bwaah ha ha ha ha ha ha WOO HAAA ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
Or what if you used the passive voice to emphasize a passive character like the way Germaine Greer did in The Female Eunuch: “The married woman’s significance can only be conferred by the presence of a man at her side, a man upon whom she absolutely depends. In return for renouncing, collaborating, adapting, identifying, she is caressed, desired, handled, influenced.” The structure may be passive, but there’s passion behind Germaine’s words.
In any case, I do generally agree about active verbs, although exceptions can be made, kinda like voice overs. Just because someone broke the rules, the world shouldn’t get hysterical. To King’s bigger point, I absolutely agree that timid writers suck. In novels, according to King, timid scribes tend to embrace a passive voice.
I’ve always wondered how this translates into screenwriting. Naturally, everyone knows you must keep your action lines in the present tense and use active verbs because you are in the moment with the characters as you are watching a film. But what are other qualities that would characterize the timid screenwriter?
I thought of 10 or so qualities.
THE TIMID SCREENWRITER
1) Avoids Drama, Tension, & Conflict – I believe the key to timid screenwriting is what King said, that the writer makes decisions so “There is no troublesome action to contend with.” This is what kills me about new writers. They dream and work hard to become a screenwriter, yet, they’re so reluctant to embrace drama. Hello? That’s screenwriting! And sometimes I think they deceive themselves when they’re writing happy warm scenes where all the characters are getting along because they’re feeling the happy feelings of the characters. And they assume the reader will feel those feelings as well. No, they won’t. That’s when the reader will be falling asleep because there’s no drama, tension, or conflict. That’s what a story is. FADE IN and something’s wrong. Or writers will just dip their toes into a conflict and then quickly get away from it, and I find myself telling them, “get rid of all that extraneous shit and dive right into the drama. That entire scene should be about the conflict!” Or in horror scripts, I’ll tell them to embrace the tension and fear and drag out the suspense to excruciating levels. That’s the fun of horror! There’s another aspect of avoidance. Some writers keep themselves distanced from the action, too. An important scene would take place off screen. Or we would have to watch important action scenes from a distance. Like a battle scene observed solely from a mountain or men going down into a tunnel filled with monsters or something, but we’d be watching the action only on TV screens in a newsroom. Put the reader in the middle of the action!
2) Passive Protagonists – Much has been written on this topic, and I’m sure my readers do not need this explained. Just as timid writers embrace passive sentences in novels, I think they also embrace passive protagonists in screenplays. This is where things are being done to the protag, as opposed to a protag being active and mixing things up. One of my cigar friends is in sales and he says he gets up at six a.m., works out, and then gets into his office to “make things happen.” That’s a good protagonist. There are exceptions to this rule. I have few problems with Forrest Gump or Benjamin Button. But I’d have to say that new writers should master the art of the active protag first before delving into exceptions. You need to be established before people will be willing to embrace an exception like that.
3) Weak Antagonists – Even pros make this mistake, which at times can be just poor decision-making. But sometimes, with new writers, I think they make certain decisions to weaken an antagonist because they want to be accepted SO MUCH as a writer that they water down the antagonist to make it easy on the reader. That’s crazy! Readers WANT to go on that wild ride. They WANT to feel that tension and suspense. Otherwise, what’s the point? Or maybe timid writers think that nasty antagonists will reflect poorly on their personalities because they want to be viewed as nice people. Fuhgeddaboudit! If you love stories, you must love a good strong nasty villain. Besides, the nastier the villain, the more satisfying the finale.
4) Excessively Pared-Down Dialogue and Action Lines – Some writers have read so much about “Show, Don’t Tell” that they’re almost afraid to write dialogue. Look, your characters need to be alive on the page! There’s nothing at all wrong with dialogue so long as it’s good dialogue, which for me means forgetting about realism and aiming for layers and subtext. Also, some writers pare down the action lines to keep as much white on the pages as possible. There’s nothing wrong with action paragraphs either, so long as there’s a reason for every single word you write and you avoid incidental actions. Follow Dave Trottier’s principles of keeping the action paragraphs down to four lines or fewer. It’s all good so long as it serves an important purpose.
5) Wrong Emphasis in Action Lines – Sometimes I think that timid writers pay an extreme amount of attention to the action lines and descriptions of rooms and incidental actions as a way of avoiding conflict. This is about HOW the scene plays out. This is about WHAT happens, not so much all of the little details you’ll see on the screen. I once came across a script full of “maybes” in the action lines. “John (maybe) shoots Kate (or he stabs her or poisons her).” I said, “What the hell is going on with these actions lines?” Well, he had read an article that suggested adding “maybe” to the action lines because screenplays are a collaborative effort and this would invite collaboration. Are you kidding me? It’s your job to figure out the story! I told the writer to stand up, straighten his back, stick his chin out and write, “John shoots Kate.” There. Don’t you feel better?
6) Thin Plots – There’s nothing wrong with starting out on a simple plot. In fact, there’s wisdom in starting out simple. But that doesn’t mean you should stick with one plot and nothing else. To do this risks stretching your story too thin. Throw in a subplot or two.
7) Flashback Structures – With a few exceptions, I despise flashback structures. There was a time when I was actively writing reviews on TriggerStreet that it seemed almost everyone had a flashback structure. I think this stems from a need to hook the reader early because they aren’t confident enough to think they can hold the attention of a reader through a normal 3-act structure. So they try to hook a reader by showing part of the ending first and then making that reader sit through 120 pages to actually see how the ending ends! Fuhgeddaboudit! Do the hard work. Master the 3-act structure.
8) Lack of Trust in the Reader – I touched upon this earlier, but it’s worth repeating. An inevitable sign of growth in a new writer (and we all go through this arc) is in the area of trusting the reader. Newbies and timid writers who haven't developed the discipline of trusting the reader tend to over-explain simple things in the action lines or they over-explain obvious reactions in characters or they indulge in on-the-nose dialogue to convey obvious emotions we all know that particular character is feeling. Over time, you'll learn that you only need to explain something once (or not even explain it at all) and then move on because you know very well that your readers are with you, will get it, and will appreciate you more for trusting them.
9) Copy Instead of Create – Creating is what makes screenwriting so much fun! And I think timid writers tend to pull from scenes and techniques and style choices in other successful films (thinking that it will make their own story successful) as opposed to taking a concept and making it your own. Just because a certain sequence or technique worked well in another film does not necessarily mean that it’ll work at all in the context of YOUR story. Sit back and ask yourself: “What’s the best way to tell THIS story?” “How can I tell this story in ways we haven’t seen before?” Brainstorm about ways you can be different.
10) I Can’t Think of Another One – What are your thoughts?