One sentence in yesterday’s screencast drew a number of questions in the comments section:

Seated at a laptop computer, Phil is watching live video from a tiny camera in Mike’s headset.

First off, that’s not passive voice, as some readers suggested. Passive voice would reverse subject and object, so the clause would be… video from a tiny camera in Mike’s headset is being watched by Phil.

…which is truly awful. Rather, “Phil is watching” is called present continuous, or present progressive. You can almost always substitute the simple present tense.

Seated at a laptop computer, Phil watches live video from a tiny camera in Mike’s headset.

And that’s fine.

But what I like about present progressive in this case is that it implies that he’s been doing this for a while, and that he’s not completing the action in this moment. Consider the difference between these two sentences:

Mary is cutting coupons.

Mary cuts coupons.

With the second one, you get the sense she might have put the scissors back in the drawer and moved on to something else. Or that her coupon-cutting is something she routinely does, perhaps as a character trait. (“Well, you know Mary. She cuts coupons.”)

Remember, screenwriting is about what is happening at exactly this moment. Traditional fiction is rarely written in this super-present tense, which may be why some readers find screenplays weird.1

For screenwriting, the most useful thing about the present progressive is that it’s interruptible:

Bob is scrubbing the ketchup out of his hair when he hears a SCREAM.

That’s handy.

Here’s the thing: No screenwriter is ever going to talk about the present progressive tense. It’s not a movie thing; it’s grammar esoterica. In fact, I had to look it up to make sure I was using the right term.

Rather, writers use the words and forms that best suit what they’re trying to do. In screenwriting, you’re always looking for the shortest, most elegant way to get the point across — which is usually the simplest. Focus on getting the words to flow together naturally, rather than proscriptive rules.

  1. Also worth noting: Many languages don’t have the same plethora of pseudo-tenses as English, or use them differently. A non-native speaker will find they don’t match up particularly well. Q: “Did she have dinner?” A: “She does.”