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Immediacy

microphone by Miyukiko © 2013
microphone by Miyukiko © 2013

SO, THIS GUY WALKS INTO A BAR…

Have you ever wondered why comedians choose the active voice for their routines? Or why someone telling a story at a party is so enthralling when they use the present tense? Have you even noticed that this is what they do? There’s a reason for it; and that reason is immediacy.

When telling a story, a memory that is shared in the past-tense is never as powerful as an event taking place in the moment (unless maybe the memory belongs to a ghost). Statements in the past tense lacks mystery – they just don’t evoke as much curiosity in the audience as statements firmly grounded in the present.

“I walked into the bar” is about the past. It happened, and it promises the audience little, being complete in itself.

“So, I walk into this bar…” is far more immediate, engaging, and intriguing. The audience is brought directly into the moment being re-told.  The words chosen imply the story isn’t over yet and invite curiosity about what will happen next.

Narration with immediacy

In audio drama if you’re going to use the famous Sam Spade style voice over, add immediacy by making sure it is spoken in the present-tense.

Here’s a past tense phrase…

SAM: It was a dark and stormy night as I walked down the alleyway…

There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, right? But here’s the same phrase brought into the present tense…

“It’s midnight and I walk down a darkened alley as a storm rages about me…”

It’s easy to see which one engages the listener/reader more.

Story telling with immediacy

Here’s another example, this time an exchange between a hard-boiled police detective and his lieutenant…

LIEUTENANT: So, what happened out at the McCabe Farm?

DETECTIVE: It’s the craziest thing. I arrive around nine, see, and head up to the farmhouse…

The present tense is always the better option whenever you have a character acting as the narrator or telling a story… BUT even better still, transitioning the story into a flashback creates the most immediacy of all

LIEUTENANT: So, what happened out at the McCabe Farm?

DETECTIVE: It’s the craziest thing. I arrive around nine, see, and head up to the farmhouse…

SOUND: TRUDGING UP DIRT PATH, ONTO WOODEN VERANDAH. KNOCK ON DOOR – LET IT FINISH.

MRS MCCABE: (CRANKY) Who’s there?

DETECTIVE: Sorry to bother you at this time of night, ma’am. I’m Detective Rogers of Star City P.D. We’ve had a complaint about something howling in the woods just west of your property. A man was found there earlier, pretty torn up. I was wondering if you saw or heard anything that might be able to help us?…

Of course adjusting the tense is just one tool that can be used to create immediacy.  And it’s important, also, to acknowledge that immediacy isn’t necessary in all instances – every tool a writer employs needs to fit that particular writer’s purpose and should be laid aside the moment it doesn’t do that.

So, what techniques are you aware of that help create immediacy in your scripts? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.