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.

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.

Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

My One-and-Only Beautiful Baby

I have been work­ing on the screen­play for 10 years.”

Few screen­writ­ers and play­wrights earn a liv­ing, and even few­er do so with only one or two pro­duced works. To make writ­ing a career, you must be receiv­ing resid­u­als and roy­al­ties from a larg­er col­lec­tion of works that are being seen by audi­ences con­stant­ly. Yes, there are sto­ries of one-hit won­ders, able to sur­vive for years on a sin­gle movie deal (few plays are that big, out­side of Broadway musi­cals), but those are out­liers.

The more scripts and man­u­scripts you have in your port­fo­lio, the more like­ly you are to have the type of play or movie a pro­duc­er wants.

After you com­plete a work, you should begin anoth­er project. After you type fade­out, cur­tain, or the end, take only a short break before begin­ning the next sto­ry. I do not wait to edit and refine the first work before start­ing the next.

Since a good writer often asks oth­er writ­ers and edi­tors to review a man­u­script, use the time while oth­ers have your work to brain­storm and plan the next. You might be sur­prised at how many ideas that did not fit in your first sto­ry will fit in a future work.

Do not let per­fec­tion­ism get­ting your way. The more works you do write, the bet­ter each new work will be.

I can­not tell you that a screen­play, stage play, or nov­el should only take a year to write. I under­stand that many authors have full-time jobs and oth­er oblig­a­tions uncon­nect­ed to writ­ing. However, it should be painful­ly obvi­ous that 10 years is much too long for fin­ish­ing a screen­play.

An approach that works for me is to set a clear and real­is­tic goal for pro­duc­ing more than one work per year. I attempt to com­plete four plays or screen­plays each cal­en­dar year. Many of these will nev­er be pro­duced, but each script improves over pre­vi­ous works. When time per­mits, I do go back and update unpro­duced mate­r­i­al, apply­ing lessons that I have learned since the first draft was fin­ished.

Blogging week­ly and writ­ing a month­ly pub­lished col­umn help me devel­op good work­ing habits. Find a way to write on a dead­line. Discipline is essen­tial.

Most poets I know write dozens or hun­dreds of poems each year. They fill note­books, exper­i­ment­ing and learn­ing as they write. For many years, I filled one or more note­books every two years with mediocre poet­ry, and that rou­tine improved all my writ­ing.

Likewise, short sto­ry authors, essay­ists, and oth­er writ­ers prac­tice their forms and gen­res reg­u­lar­ly. Again, my own expe­ri­ence is that blog­ging on a week­ly basis and more fre­quent­ly when pos­si­ble improves all the writ­ing on which I am work­ing.

Unfortunately, I have met many aspir­ing screen­writ­ers, play­wrights, and nov­el­ists deeply attached to a sin­gle work. This is their “one and only beau­ti­ful baby” prob­lem.

I can­not explain why these long form authors become stuck on sin­gle projects. If any­thing, I have far too many projects and strug­gle to focus on refin­ing and mar­ket­ing my works. For me, the thought of work­ing on a sin­gle sto­ry day after day, year after year, is fright­en­ing. Familiarity breeds con­tempt, and I am cer­tain I would begin to hate any work that demand­ed my atten­tion day in and day out.

Writers should have more dis­ci­pline than I demon­strate. Even my fin­ished drafts should be pol­ished and sub­mit­ted to pro­duc­ers and pub­lish­ers, but as I fin­ish one work I am like­ly to begin two or three oth­ers. Therefore, a part of me does admire the writer able to focus sin­gle-mind­ed­ly on one man­u­script.

The beau­ti­ful baby prob­lem is not con­struc­tive. Spending months and years refin­ing a sin­gle screen­play, stage script, or nov­el sel­dom results in pro­duc­tion or pub­li­ca­tion. I have met many writ­ers who optioned a script or had a play pro­duced that wasn’t the work they intend­ed to pitch to a pro­duc­er. The cliché is true, pro­duc­ers will ask “What else do you have?”

I lose track of what I have writ­ten. When I go through my com­put­er direc­to­ries or the stacks of hand­writ­ten pages, I redis­cov­er old works. Some writ­ers don’t under­stand how I can do this, but I write so much that I could nev­er remem­ber it all. (I have tried to keep an inven­to­ry of projects, so I can return to old works lat­er.)

Write, write, and write some more. Do not let your one-and-only get in the way of earn­ing a liv­ing. Do not allow your­self to become “stuck” emo­tion­al­ly on the suc­cess of that one great sto­ry you need to share. Move for­ward and keep mov­ing.