The Timid Screenwriter (1)

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.

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.

(to be continued)

– Mystery Man

In his own words, Mystery Man was “famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. A homebody jetsetting around the world. Brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.”

MM blogged for nearly 4 years and tweeted for only 4 months, then disappeared – mysteriously.

The Story Department continues to republish his best articles on Monday.

Here, you’ll also be informed about the release of his screenwriting book.

5 thoughts on “The Timid Screenwriter (1)”

  1. An interesting idea has crept into all sorts of writing, including screenwriting, in recent years – grammar and punctuation don’t matter. Unfortunately the reverse is true – they do matter.

    When spoken, a sentence marks a thought; and the full stop, the end of the thought. Modern language has become a sanitised parody of power via swearing instead of choosing strong verbs that reverberate and have innuendo. But, there again (and I know it is not always proper to begin a sentence with ‘but’ unless it is to mark out the sentence as requiring attention by the reader i.e. for effect) innuendo tends to be lost in the diminishing craft of reading never mind writing. There is a difference between howling and crying; between earnest (deadly as it is to act) and sincere.

    Tight dialogue and tight scene images do not mean small words (in case a dummy is reading) – it often means one word to say the same thing as two, or three, or five.

    Yes, punctuation matters especially in the dialogue. It forms the ‘Didascalia’ (the plural is didascalie and the spell checker hates this one too- thank heaven for wikitionary) – albeit the implied directions to the actor, and director and DOP, lighting person, sound person etc rather than the stated ones. An ellipse usually means the thought has trailed off, and the speaker leaves the words hanging. A comma isn’t just put in for the sake of simplifying the thought – it is a pause and a change in the direction of the thought. An exclamation mark is a bit more of a challenge and is situational – it might be a expletive, an interjection or even a forceful ending of a thought, and they tend to be overdone by people who don’t use strong verbs.

    The problem with adverbs is that some people rely heavily upon them. “She moved swiftly into the space” sounds good until you realise that it is a direction – how does she move, yes swiftly but by what means? Does she ride a broomstick? Walk? Glide? Float? Run? Of course, when the character moves slowly do they walk slothfully, skulkingly (versus skulking – and no it isn’t in the spell checker but it is a proper formation), dawdle etc. ? How much more powerful and evocative are the instructions when they use better words?

    Most times a first draft is the narrator’s voice for all characters and for all directions and it is almost a spewing forth of ideas and images that must be, and should be reworked on subsequent drafts. Different people have different ways of working their drafts and there are numerous articles on the subject. Unfortunately, some writers in their attempts to bring their imaginations to life on a page forget that they are creating an imaginary world which must be as specific as possible to allow others to enter that world both on paper and when it is being read for performance by the ‘Creatives’ and the Technicians. They also forget that different voices emerge in the telling (over the course of the drafting process) at different times and rarely all at once.

    As for passive versus active voice in the telling of stories, even academic papers tend to favour an active voice in the arts and humanities whilst the sciences and maths prefer a passive one as theirs is the province of report writing. This doesn’t mean that all sentences are of the same length and of the same structure. There is still a good selection of sentence structures available for the active voice even if it is loosely based on “The cat sat on the mat.” Note the cat is the subject doing the action and the mat is the object having the action done to it. Somehow ‘The mat was sat upon by the cat” doesn’t seem to work as well except in screenwriting where you appear to be telling the reader that you see the mat as having the more important role – the close-up and the focus of the shot with the cat walking over to it and sitting down on it.

    Present and past tenses also seem to present a problem. In film the convention is to use the present continuing tense as it tracks what the camera will/ should be seeing. The same holds true for treatments. Dialogue, of course, can be either depending on what the character is trying to communicate within the dialogue segment. On the other hand, simple past tense is the convention of the short story or novel. Notwithstanding this, in the last twenty years more and more stories are being written in the present continuing tense and in what in the 1990’s was known as ‘Euro-speak’ see ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’ – the novel by Peter Hoeg.

    I won’t even try to touch on the other differences in writing for the different media, nor other aspects of punctuation or grammar or I will be writing a book not a quick response. And (just in case you haven’t gauged the tone by the imbedded remarks in the parenthesis,) it is about now I miss the wry looking smiley to give you a wink because obviously I am teaching my grandmother to suck eggs…

  2. Oh dear.

    Both MM and FC, you have made me feel quite self-conscious about my own writing style – right on the tail of receiving notes from my amazing intern Rusty on my use of language on this blog!.

    What to do?!

    I guess: just write less words.

  3. Oops! First draft. Forgot to edit and put in the punctuation. Should read: sometimes less is less, sometimes it is more depending on the word choice.

  4. I don’t know if it’s because no-one’s noticed or because no-one cares, but ‘these are the times that try men’s souls’ is not in fact a passive construction.


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