Technique

The Present Tense, and when NOT to Use it in Screenwriting

The present tense is the most used in screenwriting. David Wappel explains why and how other tenses can provide storytelling opportunities.

“To be,” or not “to be”

To screenwrite well you have to use verbs. Actually, to do any sort of writing, you have to use verbs. But especially screenwriting, because the only thing we write is action. It is what happens. It is what is said, what is done. What is heard, and what is seen.

It’s why screenwriters aim to eliminate using the verb “to be” for character actions because it indicates a state of existence, and existence is not action.

Samantha drinks a cup of coffee. She is a new mother.

In that action line, we can see only one of those things. We can see Samantha drinking a cup of coffee. We cannot see that she is a new mother until the writer shows us that she is a new mother.

Samantha drinks a cup of coffee. A baby monitor sits 
next to her on the table.

Ok, so we may not fully get that she’s a new mother, but we’re starting to paint the picture. Perhaps next we add a line of dialogue of her on the phone (“I don’t know how you did it with three of us, dad. I’ve only got one and I feel like I’ll never sleep again.”) You get the idea.

My point is that showing a “state of existence” is something that requires a writer to show it visually. And because it unfolds in front of us visually, we almost always write it in the present perfect tense. Watch what happens when we don’t.

Samantha drank a cup of coffee. She gave birth a week ago.

Even though I’m not using “to be,” we can’t see these things. They already happened.

Samantha was drinking coffee.

Ok great, but what’s she doing now. That’s all I can see.

Samantha has been drinking coffee.

How do we know?

Samantha will drink coffee.

Well, now you’re just giving spoilers!

As you can see, writing in anything other than the present tense can cause problems. But every so often, it provides an opportunity for storytelling.

The Tenses

First, let’s review some verb tenses. We won’t cover all of them, but don’t worry, there will be plenty.

Present (Simple) – He jumps.
Present (Continuous) – She is jumping.
Present (Perfect) – He has jumped.
Present (Perfect Continuous) – She has been jumping. Past (Simple) – He jumped.
Past (Continuous) – She was jumping.
Past (Perfect) – He had jumped.
Past (Perfect Continuous) – She had been jumping.

If you’re already confused, that’s fine. There isn’t a quiz, and you don’t have to remember the names of the tenses to understand when to use them. And don’t even worry about the future tense. As I wrote above, that’s just giving away spoilers.

Present (Continuous)

The Present (Continuous) tense can help show an ongoing action that is already in progress. I’ll use bold to highlight the verbs we’re looking at, but otherwise, these are as they may be written in a script.

Fred looks down over the water. Looks out, tears streaking 
his cheeks.

We don’t see the first tear streak down his cheek. By the time we see Fred, tears have been running down his cheeks, and we perhaps didn’t see them before because he had been looking down.

The beach is empty. Sally shakes her head, but then 
looks across the water, and spots George: swimming.

We’re able to infer that because George is swimming, he’s been swimming for at least a bit before Sally saw him. It is an ongoing action.

Notice how these two examples provide context for the ongoing action. If there isn’t context, then it’s almost always an indicator that you should be using the present tense.

Billy is studying.​ ​Doesn’t work as well as Billy studies.​ ​

Additionally, the present (continuous) tense really only works if it is a simple ongoing action.

Sarah is playing softball.

Ok, but is she at bat? In the outfield? Pitching? On base? It’s too vague and the reader must do a lot of work to create a specific picture.

(By the way, this is true of any tense. The more specific the verb, the easier it is to imagine the specific action.​ Billy studies.​ ​​ should be Billy highlights a passage in his book.​)

Another time that you could use the present (continuous) tense is to tie two verbs together as part of one action.

She digs in the soil, scooping out a small hole.

The first verb, “digs” is expanded upon by the second verb “scooping.” Not only does it clarify the digging, but shows that these two actions happen immediately after another.

Returning to a previous example:

Fred looks down over the water. Looks out, tears 
streaking his cheeks. Arms suddenly surround his 
waist, ​pulling​ him back.

Here, the writer is perhaps attempting to show this as one continuous (hey, that’s the name of the tense!) action. It isn’t ​​ Arms surround his waist. They pull him back. ​ ​​The use of the present (continuous) tense ties them together, and the reader pictures it more as one motion. ​

Present (Perfect)

The present perfect tense can come in handy when you want to indicate that something just happened off-screen. It’s almost like we’re seeing the result of the action, and while it won’t work every time, when it does, it can lead to some powerful reveals.

Tom nods to the safe.
Rachel turns, unlocks it, grabs the gold, turns back, 
and freezes. Tom’s ​drawn​ his gun. He’s pointing it right 
at her head.

​Without contradictions, this would be Tom has drawn his gun).​ ​

We don’t actually see Tom draw his gun, because we’re looking at what Rachel is doing. And by the time she turns back his gun is already drawn. And look, I threw a little present (continuous) in there for you!

In most cases, you’re going to be sticking with the present (simple) tense, but there are plenty of reasons to use other verb tenses, so long as they communicate your story clearly.

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David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.