Why So Tense?

by limebirdlaura

Well hello there! A little bird told me you want to write a script. Wait, what’s that? You don’t, you say? Well what the heck are you doing here, be gone with you!

No wait! I was just kidding, come back come back! No, don’t give me that look, you’re killing me here. How about I give you some candy, will you stay then?

Phew glad we settled that. Alright so maybe you don’t think you want to write a script just this moment, but hear me out OK? It really is a lot of fun, but a lot different from writing your standard short story or novel.

There are many elements that make up a script, but today I’d like to focus on the one thing about scripts that I always find myself having to fix in the glorious re-write phase. The present tense. You heard me right, all of the action in the script must be written in the present tense. Well don’t frown at me…I didn’t make up these crazy rules!

The reason for all the present tense writing is the fact that the only thing that belongs in your script are the things that can actively be seen and heard. You have to say what your character is doing at that exact moment.

For instance, you couldn’t get away with saying; “Laura sat around hungry wishing her darn husband would make her some lunch already.” Nay dear reader, Hollywood wouldn’t want to read that.

Instead, you have to be creative and find a way to convey your character is hungry, in the present tense. You could do something along the lines of this:

Laura sits on the couch, her stomach growls.


Can’t you hear my stomach, why aren’t you feeding me yet?


Woman, get in the kitchen and make your own biscuits.

Now we know in an active and present voice that Laura is in fact hungry, and has little hope of her husband feeding her.*

I find that no matter how hard I concentrate on my script, I always slip into the past tense. One time I was writing a short 10 page script, thinking that I hadn’t made any mistakes with the present tense/past tense struggle I always have, only to find that I had written about half the script in the past tense! I think I could have “Present Tense” tattooed on my hand, and I’d still mess up and slip into past tense description.

But that is OK, that’s where the rewrite comes in, right?

Well there you have it! Now you should head over to our LimebirdForum and join in on the discussion. Some of us are going to do ScriptFrenzy in April, anyone else up for the challenge?

*Also, I should mention that my  husband actually does roughly 100% of the cooking around here, and in fact I should probably make him biscuits for once.


24 Responses to “Why So Tense?”

  1. Great post Laura! I’ve always been really drawn to scriptwriting but I’ve never really tried it. It seems pretty hard! Thanks for this advice though… maybe I’ll have to give it a go!

    • Thanks Beth! I actually hadn’t thought of doing much screenwriting until I took some classes in it, now I’m hooked! I can definitely try to help if you do ever decide to give it a go 🙂

  2. I love your enthusiasm, but I’ve never tried it either and I don’t know anything about it! Something to ponder for the future…

    • Thank you Chrissy! If you ever decide to try your hand at it my best advice would probably be to get a script formatting software (Celtx makes a free one) that way you don’t have to worry about any formatting, it does it for you.

  3. SALLY
    Welcome to the team. Great post and I didn’t leave at the beginning.

    Sally holds out hand. Looks at sweetie jar. Looks at Laura. Looks at sweetie jar. Whimpers

  4. I’m sorry – I can’t resist replying. Haven’t any of you ever read a play? I presume most of you have gone to university and some of you may even be English majors. Didn’t any of you ever read George Bernard Shaw or Eugene O’Neill or Shakespeare, for that matter? You ought to have absorbed by osmosis the business of the present tense. For example, “Man and Superman” begins this way: “Act I. Roebuck Ramsden is in his study, opening the morning’s letters. The study, handsomely and solidly furnished, proclaims the man of means. Not a speck of dust is visible … ” Etc. Shaw almost writes a novel in his stage directions, but even the minimal stage directions and descriptions that Shakespeare uses.are always in the present tense. So my advice on writing scripts would be – go out and study some plays!

    Sorry to sound cranky – I’m in a cranky mood this morning!

    • That’s good advice indeed, or to read some scripts to get used to them. Sorry if this bothered you.

    • Reading a good range of scripts is certainly great advice for a budding scriptwriter but I know I’ll be a lot more conscious of writing in present tense now that Laura’s highlighted it. Now if I try my hand at a script I’ll have, ‘Shakespeare takes away Sally’s bowl of candy,’ running through my mind every time I slip into past tense, quickly followed by, ‘Sally snatches bowl of candy back from Shakespeare,’ when I correct it.

      Now I have a great visual cue to really reinforce the learning too, thank you both!

      • HAHA that is a great visual, the old bard needs to leave your candy alone! He should know it’s not nice to steal candy.

        That sounds like one of those mantra’s that people print out and plaster on their wall to remind them of things, I can just see a dimly lit room with wallpaper of nothing but “Shakespeare takes away Sally’s bowl of candy” over and over!

    • Hi Lorinda,

      Yes, I do agree that reading plays is a good way to begin with writing scripts. However, I would just like to point out that the main ethos of our site is to give advice and tips to writers (including beginners), so it could be that people who are reading this are not particularly well versed in the works of Shakespeare, Shaw etc.

      Although your advice about reading plays is good, and constructive criticism is welcome at Limebird, negative or discourteous comments towards our writers and readers are not. Please do keep this in mind before commenting again.


  5. Great post Laura! I’ve never really thought about tense in screenwriting, having only ever tried my hand at it once during uni, but I just dug out the short script that I wrote and I actually did do all the directions in present tense –
    I must’ve been subconciously paying attention to my lecturer while pretending to be asleep!

    (I say ALL directions… maybe most! 😉 )

    Is ScriptFrenzy like NaNoWriMo but for a script instead of a novel? I think I stumbled accross it a while ago but I’m not sure I’m brave enough to try, good luck though!

    • Thank you 🙂 I don’t know why I have such a problem with tenses, I really do go back and forth on them even when I’m trying really really hard not too!

      Yep ScriptFrenzy is ran by the same folks that do NaNo, the goal is to get a 100 page script done by the end of April (So that would be a movie around 100 minutes or so)

  6. I did start a script… It was a near-ish future tale of a drowning world and the faerie who emerge from underground to reclaim the world. I got the first draft done, but didn’t know where to take it from there (this was in the days before I started looking for advice…)

    What I have ultimately decided is that it stands more chance of being seen if it is a YA novelette. It is third on my list of things to complete!

    I have found that writing the script really helped me with the voices (of course! you say…) and I did write quite lengthy stage directions (although not Shavian in quality…). So, in my opinion, writing a script is also perfect for producing the first draft of a novel!

    • Oh that is so true Dennis! I’ve had issues with stories and gone back and forth in format, script to short story or short story to script (I’ve only ventured in novel length writing one time). That sounds like a great idea in finding a character’s voice, i had never quite thought of it that way.

  7. Cool post, Laura. I have never done any scriptwriting but I have wrestled with tense shifts. I think tense is connected to voice, and you may have a stronger, more natural feel for writing in the past tense.

    I once did a writing exercise where I wrote a page in past tense. Then re-wrote the page in present tense. I found that the characters wanted to behave differently and that the tension shifted to another calamity that wasn’t even in the piece!

    Present tense, while more immediate, can also feel limiting. I can understand your compulsion to write in past tense, and no matter what anyone else might think, studying a whole bunch of plays to get you in the groove isn’t going to change your natural affinity for writing in the past tense. 😉

    So, you’re not unusual for slipping into a different tense midway through a writing piece. Eventually, it will click for you and you’ll be able to do it without thinking twice.

    Welcome to the team, btw! We’re lucky to have you.

    • Thank you for the warm welcome Kate 🙂 (maybe I’ll remember to log into my limebird account to make comments someday.. hehe)

      I struggle with tenses a lot, in any form of writing. I probably write my blogs back and forth in tenses. It did drive my professors crazy though, trying to mark thru all my tense flip flops back and forth.

      I like reading screenplays – especially of favorite movies. I like seeing what was written on page vs. what ends up on the screen. I found something fun the other day, I had rented “Crazies” from Netflix, popped it in my computer to watch it from bed and noticed on the disk there was a PDF version of the script! I’m going to be on the look out to see if more DVDs have that, I hadn’t really noticed any including those before.

  8. Reblogged this on Cheesecake Summer and commented:
    Woot, I’m a fluffly green bird now! If you haven’t seen the Limebird Writer’s site you need to go there RIGHT NOW, I don’t care what you are doing. Well, you shouldn’t be doing much but sitting there, I’d like to think you aren’t reading blogs while driving, or doing heart surgery. Unless you are using what my best friend likes to call “space phones”, and if that is the case….well kindly pull over to the shoulder of the road and THEN go read the Limebirds! The Limebirds are not responsible for any car accidents or heart surgery flubs.

  9. Welcome Laura! This made me laugh so much. I just love you style. Thanks for the top, its going to come in handy in April!


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