Passive Voice is Okay (Sometimes)

We should stop telling students and emerging writers that the passive voice is some sort of mortal sin in texts. It is not. Sometimes, the passive voice offers the best way to control what a reader perceives as important.

Consider the following reasons to use passive voice:
1. Technical manuals.
2. Aphorisms with no agent (actor) involved.
3. Unknown agent with the result more important than the action.
4. Action-focused sentences without a named agent.

Technical instructions are passive to focus on the object instead of the user of the object, often for legal compliance reasons.

Valve X is set to 150 degrees by the operator after ten minutes.
The software settings are found in the preferences menu.
The car should not be left in gear when parked.

The emphasis in technical manuals remains on the object of documentation: the valve, the application, the car.

“Universal Truth” or aphorism are often passive statements.

Rules are meant to be broken.
The universe is for exploring.

Any revision of that “truism” would be awkward, at best. “The people making rules mean for them to be broken.”

Unknown agents result in passive constructions. If you do not know who committed an action, it is appropriate to use passive voice.

My camera bag was stolen.
The bank was robbed.
The victim was beaten severely.

The thief is unknown in these examples, yet was the agent of action. Revising as “Someone stole my camera bag” shifts the focus to “someone” instead of the more important camera gear now missing.

Action-focused attention, or sentences meant to stress the object of the action are passive (and often the agent is omitted).

The family albums were burned in anger.

Revising this would be matter of style: “The stepson burned the family albums” might or might not convey the desired importance.

Stories that Sell

An email exchange brought something into focus that I want to stress to all screenwriters and novelists hoping to pitch a film, series, or novel. A story needs to be unusual, yet obvious. The audience should anticipate some, but not all, of the conflicts and the outline of the story from the basic elements you intend to bring together.

Here is one possible equation explaining my ideal story:

naturally “different” characters + unusual challenge + good setting = a pitch that writes itself.

1) If you have characters that are, by their natures, going to be in conflict at times, that’s interesting to watch. Don’t think about “good v evil” or “pro/ant” yet. Ask yourself, if I put these people in a room, on an island, side-by-side at work, et cetera, would there be a natural conflict? Think “The Odd Couple” sure, but also think about it in more depth.

The new show “Limitless” is doing a good job with this “fish out of water” conflict. “Chuck” was based on this, as are most sitcoms.

Consider the shows and films you enjoy. How far apart are some of the characters? You should find some opposites in good scripts. They don’t sound alike, act alike, or share the same values.

I had a showrunner tell me that for every three characters, at least one has to be the “fish out of water.” Two against one is apparently interesting. Pairings can also work (think “Will and Grace” sidekicks or “Cheers” with Cliff and Norm playing off Sam… or Diane… or everyone else). In film, differences have to be obvious from the character introductions. You don’t have episodes to reveal how far apart people are.

2) Unusual challenges are as unique and shocking as possible. The challenge has to be a situation that increases the likelihood of conflict. How does the challenge bring out the differences among characters even more? How does it place two characters in opposition? Again, avoid “good v. evil” because interesting “evil” is often sure it is “good” and merely has another perspective of what is best. (Not that pure evil is boring, either, but try to imagine the perspectives involved.)

If your logline is a basic challenge, one we’ve all read and seen, it won’t rise above the static. Catch the real killer? Blah. Defeat the evil dictator? Yawn. Expose the greedy, inhuman corporate executive? Double yawn.

Wait. Don’t those films and shows with “predictable” challenges get produced? Sure, but by established writers and directors. To break into the market, you need to be submitting something that stands above the muck that’s being made.

3) Give us a setting that is interesting, in place and time. TV takes the lazy way out and imagines big cities are inherently interesting to everyone. I love “M*A*S*H” for its use of setting on TV. Setting is probably the toughest of these to develop and make stand apart from what exists. (Bonus if you pull off the setting. Few do.)

Setting can drive the action. If the setting is the Titanic, we know what some part of the story will be. Put people in a closed, confined space, and you have an obvious conflict. That’s why space stations, undersea labs, and other isolated settings work so well for stories. Don’t select a “boring” or familiar setting unless there’s no other choice.

New York is not compelling by itself. Neither is a generic small town. The setting becomes interesting when you place people and events in the setting that doesn’t suit them. Trap a spy in a small village, where she falls in love. Put the country farmer in the big city, searching for something that is lost.

Now put these together and test how compelling your concept is.

Writing Fiction about Writing: Please, Stop!

“I’m making a movie about a young filmmaker.”

“My new play is about a struggling playwright in New York City.”

“I’ve written a great book about a romance writer.”

And then we have…

“My new screenplay is about a playwright….”

STOP IT. Please. Stop writing about being a writer and assuming other people care. Only other writers will tell you that a story about a writer is interesting. Generally speaking, writers aren’t that interesting. They sit and write. They send out query letters. They beg friends and family for money to make their films, produce their plays, and self-publish their unsold manuscripts.

Write about interesting characters. Not that some writers aren’t characters, but leave that for biographers. Plenty of artists (including writers) are fascinating train wrecks. If you’re writing about one of those famous drunks, addicts, or otherwise interesting writers with a great story, then ignore my pleas. Otherwise, get away from this self-exploration.

Write what you know? No. No. And again, no!

I don’t want actual psychopaths writing murder mysteries. We don’t need police stories written only by cops. It’s called research and creativity. Do fantasy writers know real unicorns and go shopping on the back of Pegasus? No. You write good stories about interesting characters facing unusual challenges.

Okay, I get that Murder She Wrote was about a writer, but it wasn’t the navel-gazing nonsense of a play about plays or a movie about making movies. Please stop writing about writers. It just feels lazy to write about a writer. It feels like you’re trapped by being a writer, in a writer’s world. Escape.

Someone told me, “But I’m supposed to write what I’d want to read.”

When you were discovering your passion for reading, I doubt it was through stories about other writers. Please, I hope not. I hope you were reading great works of fiction. I hope you were watching epic films and beautiful comedies. If those works you loved were about writers, expand your horizons.

Avoid writing films, plays, or books about writers, unless you have something beyond spectacular to share.

Writing Coaches are “Mean” People

Recently, I met with screenwriting coach Jim Mercurio ( to discuss some ideas and screenplays I was trying to pitch.

Jim is a wonderful, highly ranked writing coach and former columnist for Creative Screenwriting. He knows writing and he knows Hollywood. He told me right up front, this is going to be challenging. It was weird, because he said to me every warning I offer my own clients.

Being a writing coach means telling people what they need to fix. Most writers don’t want to hear what isn’t working in a manuscript or screenplay. Having spent months or years on a work, the writer has invested serious emotional energy in the work.

And this horrible, mean coach, is about to tell the client that the work isn’t finished. It isn’t as good as it must be. It’s just okay, if that, and needs to be refined. You hire a writing coach like you hire a personal trainer: expecting to be pushed harder and being told you can be a lot better than you are at this moment.

When a writing coach pushes you, and certainly Jim pushes his clients, it’s because you really do have to be 10x, 100x, maybe 1000x better than what’s already in Hollywood. Your script has to be better, from formatting to the structure. You don’t get to bend or break any rules. Your query letter, pitch, treatment, and logline(s) have to be better. Way better than what you might imagine.

During my last meeting with Jim, he destroyed every logline, every concept, every treatment I offered, shooting them down like he was playing the old Atari 2600 Shooting Gallery. And if I tried to defend my idea, the answer was quick: you aren’t big enough to rely on being okay or good or even slightly better than most.

There’s a reason I don’t charge and seldom work with new writers. They aren’t used to how the system works and how much is expected of a spec script. They don’t have a clue how hard the film, stage, and publishing markets are in this economy (media markets have never been easy to enter) and many writers don’t want to hear anything but how great their ideas are or how easy it will be to tweak the ideas.

It’s not easy for a spec writer. Statistically, it’s nearly impossible. You have to be writing, and writing, and writing. You get rejected, you revise. You get rejected again, you revise.

If you pay for coverage, sometimes they’ll tell you how close you are, or even how great you are. That’s usually not the truth. Sorry, but the truth is your work likely isn’t that close to perfection. These analysts and contests want your money. Have you seen the lists of scripts making “quarter finals” or “finals” in these contests? Pages of scripts, 98 percent of which won’t be optioned, and 70 or more percent of those optioned will collect dust.

Pay someone like Jim or David Trottier (“Dr. Format”) if you want unvarnished, brutal truth. If you don’t want to pay, and are okay with strong opinions based on my experience, that’s fine — but listen and take the advice seriously. Jim, Dave, and even I WANT you to succeed. We WANT you to sell a script or manuscript. But we also know how awesome the package has to be. It’s not personal when we point to weaknesses in a story or in some other aspect of a client’s work. It’s not trying to show that we are mean or picky. It’s to help you sell the thing you’ve created to someone, to some publisher or producer.

I am not a famous script consultant. I’m not a major name. I have taught at universities and I’ve worked with a handful of clients. So, if you don’t want to listen to me, that’s understandable. Yet, my students seem to have done okay and my clients have had some small success.

None of us, from the big name consultants to the (currently inactive) university professors like myself, want you to fail. We want to help other writers be the best they can be. That’s why we point out formatting errors, grammar errors, and problems with story structure. We’re not being picky to demonstrate our expertise: we are teaching you what not to do, so your story will be read and treated with respect by a studio, producer, publisher, or editor.

And if you don’t believe that, fine. Whatever. But I want every student I’ve had, every client studio, every friend I’ve tried to help to SELL something each writer can feel was a great effort and represent the best possible product handed off to a studio, publisher, or media house.

Yes, I take this very, very personally. You want help, I’ll ask questions and hope you listen to what I’m asking. If you want guidance, that’s what I can offer. It might not be perfect and it might not be what you want to hear. If you don’t want my experience, research, or plain opinion, don’t ask for guidance or tips or ideas to help polish and sell your writing.

Look into a mirror, and tell yourself how magical you are and how stupid Hollywood is. You’ll feel much better than I’ve ever made anyone feel about their works.

If you want to self-produce, do it. That’s the best way to get movies made. It’s like theater today: self-produce, and you’ll have a show. Self-publish, you can sell a few copies of a book. If your work is so great, then you go make it happen if nobody else wants it. It has worked for a few dozen filmmakers and playwrights, and even a few authors have sold millions of self-published books.

You want affirmation? Find another career, because screenwriting is about getting fired and replaced by the second or third writing team. You SELL the script, you let go, or you get hired to replace someone you know and like. Writers end up replacing each other, and trying to laugh it off over coffee or drinks.

Professionals all know that writing is hard work, especially writing for hire in the media. There are a lot of writers, all trying for the few jobs and trying to sell one of the few works that a media company will buy and produce or publish. It’s not an easy career choice, and a good coach or teacher reminds you that it is difficult.

Writers and Silly Media Biases: Stories are Flexible

“This story is a movie. That other story needs to be a novel.”

One of my pet peeves is the common assumption among writers that particular types of stories are best suited to a single medium. This assumption belies either a lack of skill or a lack of understanding and appreciation for various media.

Cinderella can be a picture book, a novel, a short story, an animated short, a full-length feature, a musical, a play…. The possibilities for telling any story are limited only by the writer’s knowledge of a particular form and audience expectations. It is possible to tell the story of Cinderella without words. In fact, silent films, animations, and ballets exist without dialogue and yet audiences understand the story being told.

The basic story of Cinderella is well known in our culture. A young woman is raised by her selfish stepmother alongside two equally narcissistic sisters. A grand ball is announced, during which the Prince is expected to find a suitable wife from the nobility. The magic of a fairy godmother transforms Cinderella from a household servant into a beautiful lady, complete with fine glass slippers. For the rest of the story, I encourage you to read, watch, and listen to as many variations as possible.

A short story of Cinderella might not explain how the stepmother came to mary Cinderella’s father. A full-length novel or motion picture might explore the complex back story. A ballet would rely on the music and motion to convey thoughts, emotions, and the general plot. The original fairytale features some startlingly grotesque imagery, which contemporary children’s books and animated features have removed.

My point is that a well-known fairytale such as Cinderella can be adapted to any media by a talented writer. However, not every writer is a master of all forms and genres. I certainly could not score an opera or ballet based on Cinderella. Nor could I illustrate a word free picture book of the story. My limitations as a writer are not the limitations of the story.

Most early movies were adaptations of famous plays. Yet, I frequently hear screenwriters claim that a story is a “good play, bad movie.” Instead, a screenwriter should be considering how to tell the story maximizing the strengths of cinema.

A colleague posted the following to Facebook:
If your protagonist is a THINKER you have a BOOK.
If your protagonist is a TALKER you have a PLAY.
If your protagonist is a DOER you have a MOVIE.

The problem with the preceding simple checklist is that a main character can be adapted to doing, talking, or thinking based on the medium destination for the story. Sometimes, you must add a character or other device to allow thoughts to become dialogue. Sometimes, voiceover works well in a film and can reveal thoughts. Great directors can reveal thoughts with quick cuts and suggestive images. Never limit yourself by asserting any character is only one aspect of the above list.

We are all thinkers, talkers, and doers. Choosing which to emphasize is a choice made based on the form and genre selected by or for the storyteller.

As an aside, I also dislike the emphasis on the protagonist in the above list. Main characters may or may not be “protagonists” in the traditional sense of good versus evil. Equally important, opposing characters (antagonist, opposition, impact, muse, et al) can be adapted to any form and genre. Evil thoughts can be expressed in dialogue, or suggested through action, limited only by the skill of the writer.

When someone states that a movie was not as good as the book this can reflect either a bad movie or unusual expectations. The audiences for full-length novels might not be the same as the audiences for two-hour movies. However, it seems more likely that the adaptation is to blame for audience dissatisfaction. Nobody would try to compare the short story of Cinderella to a full-length feature film. Each medium must stand apart even when telling the same story.

Lose your media biases. Stories themselves are flexible, ready to be told in any medium by a talented storyteller, someone aware of that medium’s strengths and weaknesses. If you cannot see a story in a particular medium, maybe you aren’t the right choice for writing that adaptation. That is not an insult or a criticism. As I mention above, I’m not the best choice for any number of forms and genres. Know your strengths and tell the stories you want to tell in the medium or media you prefer.

Just don’t tell another writer that his or her story must be told in a particular medium, according to your biases.