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Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Gerund is the Th-ing

The Wave-inatrix has charged me with looking at a rather specific bit of writing principle as it pertains to screenwriting. I have to admit that grammar always gives me the willies because it was taught to me by the only person that I ever actually wished would die - my 8th grade English teacher. Not only was she the most evil woman that ever lived, but she taught archaic
grammar that was twenty years out of date in the 1980's and has ever since plagued my existence with editors. OK, enough griping....

So it seems there is a bit of a disagreement over whether gerunds should be used in action lines of screenplays. I've always liked the word gerund in and of itself. It makes me laugh for some reason. I don't know why, really. Any way, just as a refresher a gerund is typically when you take a verb and add "-ing" to the end. The result is that you take something finite like "walk" or "walks" and make in non-finite such as "walking". An example of this would be that "walk" or "to walk" means to place one foot in front of the other and move. That's it, nothing more. Move forward on feet. Whereas "walking" is usually modified by adverbs or a preposition of some sort such as "walking down the street" or "walking slowly". So how does this translate to screenwriting?

I can see an argument for not using gerunds in action lines for you want your characters doing definitive things. You don't want them to be passive. Also since things are happening at the present time, it makes sense to use that tense. Then there is the notion that you want your screenplay written simply so that executives can breeze through it quickly. A lot of gerunds means lots of modifiers which means more black on the page. And some might say the "how" should be left to the director's interpretation. We are the whipping mules of this medium folks. Sorry. So "he walks" or "she drives" or "it rains" conveys definitive, time pertinent action on the 5th grade reading level that the powers that be seem to adore.

However, I am never one to be confined by too many rules when it comes to writing. There are several ways you can use gerunds to move the action along. For example, if someone were slowly creeping (hee hee) down a dark hallway trying to sneak up on someone, you could write: "Martha walks down a hallway. Creeping. Creeping." Sure you could write "Martha creeps down a hallway," but you aren't drawing it out to create suspense. Mood counts heavily in screenwriting and any way you can move your reader to an emotional response is fair game.

So that's my two cents worth on the subject. Now go forth with your creating. Crap I did it again...sorry Mrs. Koltisko. You old, dead b*tch.

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PJ McIlvaine said...

LOL! I had a couple of crabby English teachers, notably Mr. Ruddy and Mrs. Van Damm. Mr. Ruddy refused to sponsor me in a writing contest and broke my heart. Mrs. Van Damm took great exception to an oral book report I did one of her favorite books (this turgid English melodrama) and told the class to ignore my report. Dumbasses!

Mike Scherer said...

I avoid gerunds at all costs. Don't like 'em. Never will.

You stated:
"Martha walks down a hallway. Creeping. Creeping." Sure you could write "Martha creeps down a hallway," but you aren't drawing it out to create suspense.

How about "Martha creeps down the hallway. Cautious. Nervous."

Just my two-cents worth.


Cathy Krasnianski said...

I guarantee that, if the story merits praise, any gerunds used in the writing will be completely ignored.

Future Man said...

I had wished to ring a death knell for my grade 11 English teacher. A closeted alcoholic with a harsh grading curve. I was so incensed at my mark, I repeated the class with another teacher -- and got my petty revenge when the old boozer was forced to congratulate me on my "A" and first-place essay in the school exam. Meh.

Gerunds can be found in surprising places. B.J. Novak uses 'em liberally in his OFFICE scripts. But I find myself mentally correct-ing the dang th-ings while read-ing.

Diane Stredicke said...

From Michael Clayton by Tony Gilroy:

KAREN CROWDER sitting fully dressed on the john. She is Senior In-House Counsel for the largest agricultural/chemical supply manufacturer on the planet. She is hiding here. She is trying to fight off a panic attack using a breathing exercise she read about in an airline magazine.

From No Company For Old Men:

Some of the passengers are getting out. Moss is up in the aisle reaching a bag down from the overhead rack. He lifts the document case from the floor where Carla Jean still sits next to the window.

From Things We Lost In The Fire:

She pushes him back against the wall, kissing him, untucking his shirt.

From The Brave One:

The TELEPHONE is RINGING. Erica walks out of the bedroom, pulling a blouse on. She tucks David's cross hanging around her neck, between the buttons of her shirt.

From 1408:

Mike falls, BANGING his face on the wall.
He DROPS, about to plummet, desperately clambering, scratching his fingers into the old brick...

Dr. Bob Sir said...

I guess we can be inspired by our toughest teachers, especially those who have been honored with the most teaching and community service awards of any teacher in the history of a school Mrs. K. Sounds like you learned something from her English class !
Son-of-the-old dead b*tch

Anonymous said...

You stated:
"Martha walks down a hallway. Creeping. Creeping."

FYI - Gerunds are nouns. In the above context "creeping" is an adjective (so it is a participle).