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Visual Mindscape: Creating a Screenplay Narrative in the Absolute Present Tense

Depending on how the narrative of your screenplay unfolds it can either draw the reader into your story or alienate them.

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I can’t overstate how important it is that your screenplay be a fluid and engaging read and this is accomplished primarily through the prose, mood, and style found in your narrative.

The narrative is not only where the story unfolds and the action takes place. It is also where the tone, pace, visual, and visceral experiences of your screenplay are established.

The screenplay narrative is unique from any other form of writing. This is due in part to the fact that film, as we will discuss in more detail in a later column, has no real comprehension of time, tense, or flow of location. The past and the future of a scene are determined solely by either ‘triggers’ which I will also get into in later column (Do I have you hooked yet!) or in what order they appear in your screenplay.

Each and every scene only exists in the Absolute Present Tense.

The action in the narrative always takes place at the precise moment you write it and at the precise moment the reader reads it. The next sentence of your screenplay does not exist. It is simply ether in the universe until it, too, is read.

Everything happens in the here and now, even flashbacks and premonitions.

This style of writing forces an immediacy of participation on the part of the reader. They are drawn into the experience because it is happening as they read it. In a sense, they are creating it by the mere fact that they are reading it.

So what do I mean by the Absolute Present Tense? I’m sure English teachers would tear their hair out if they heard this phrase, but it really does describe what I am trying to say.

The following is ‘not’ Absolute Present Tense.

David is ‘driving’ down the street.

This is Absolute Present Tense

David ‘drives’ down the street.

The exception to this is when we have entered a scene and while within the scene we are introduced to an action that has already been in progress before the scene began.

Lisa enters the living room. She sees David sitting on the couch reading.

Lisa enters in the Absolute Present Tense to reveal David who is already sitting on the couch reading.

In order to remain in the Absolute Present Tense it is important to keep your sentences short and immediate.

Here is a scene from one of my scripts, Sealed With a Kiss. The first version contains conjunctive sentences which remove us from the immediacy of the present moment.

With a listless elegance, the woman slides from the bed and glides across the room in silence. She turns on the light in the adjoining bathroom and after removing her stockings, places them over her shoulder. She disappears into the shower and the spray of water is heard.

Here is the same scene written in the Absolute Present Tense. Note how much more involved you are in the story. Also note that some of the sentences are incomplete. This is a luxury that we have as screenwriters and we have it specifically because of the need for immediacy and pacing in our writing.

With listless elegance, the woman slides from the bed. Glides silently across the room to the adjoining bathroom. She turns on the light... Removes her stockings... Places them over her shoulder then disappears into the shower. The spray of water is heard.

In my next article I will discuss one of the two most underused and important aspects of a well-written screenplay; the Pacing of Your Narrative. The other is atmosphere and we will get to that in the not too distant future.

Don't forget to catch my free lecture at The Writers Store this Saturday, March 30th at 2 pm on Visual Mindscape of the Screenplay.

Thank you for those who commented last week. It helps in letting me know that I am on the right track with you. Also if you have any questions about any of the articles place them in the Comments and I promise I will respond.


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