One of my friends good at English suggested that better storytelling of a movie be in conditional modal verb 'would' over present tense 'is'. Having said that...

The hero would be a salesperson struggling with his boss all time. Then he would meet the heroine who would be a millionaire. They would fall in love then.


The hero is a salesperson struggling with his boss all time. Then he meets the heroine who is a millionaire. They fall in love then.

I think both are correct but what a native speaker would prefer?

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    There is no source for this, but the conditional version gives me the impression of a child telling you about one of its fantasies. ("And then they would jump down the rock and save the little rabbit." "Oh, dear, how would they get up again?" Well the rabbit would be a magical rabbit and would suddenly grow and they would sit on his back and he would jump back up with them.") The present tense works better for me. You could check some movie reviews or one of this websites listing the plot for every single part of a series to compare how they do it there. – skymningen Dec 5 '13 at 8:19
  • @skymninge. Thank you for the answer but then fantasies are different from (existing?) movie story that I watched a week back. Would in your context works perfect. But then I was talking about a movie storytelling where there's no fantasy but the story actually exists. I already checked the reviews and the plot is always in present tense. – Maulik V Dec 5 '13 at 11:04
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    Well, that would suggest your friend is wrong. – SF. Dec 5 '13 at 12:00
  • The difference is more that you are an adult and the conditional version sounds a lot like " a childs speech" – skymningen Dec 5 '13 at 14:32

The convention in English for at least five hundred years has been that when you are describing an existing story/novel/drama/opera you employ the present tense, as if the story were unfolding before your eyes. Correspondingly, you write of the author as if he were alive and present.

I fancy (it is no more than a guess) that this convention arose to mark a distinction between the original telling and the re-telling. (Note that narrative (non-dramatic) forms usually employ the past tense, casting the story as virtual history, although this convention does not hold in ‘performed’ genres such as the joke or folktale). The convention may have been reinforced by the 16th- to 18th-century practice of setting a play’s scene with a present-tense narrative prologue; this practise carried over to the ‘argument’ which often introduced a printed version.

Irrealis forms such as your friend proposes would be quite inappropriate. These are used only for hypothetical, projected tellings, narratives which have not yet been realized—scenarios under development, for instance, as in skymninge's Comment, or grant proposals. A finished narrative does not represent a hypothetical but a virtual reality.

  • I share your dislike of would, but what's wrong with the past tense? After Gandalf and the dwarves visited Bilbo, they started on a long adventure... That seems like a viable option, particularly in one-on-one conversation. – J.R. Dec 5 '13 at 13:31
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    @J.R. The big difference is that, by convention (no more, but no less, either, and convention, whether followed or broken, is the basis of all art) this marks what you're doing as your version of the story, not just an account of Tolkien's version. It is no accident that the Tales from Shakespeare (which tells the stories in the past tense) is always called Lamb's Tales. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 5 '13 at 16:24
  • Do you think there may be a difference between storytelling as an art form and, say, me asking you, "I never saw the Hunger Games movie; tell me a little bit about it." – J.R. Dec 5 '13 at 16:56
  • @J.R. I'm not saying it's wrong; but convention is strong, and I betcha if you ask ten people that question at least eight or nine will talk about the plot in present tense. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 5 '13 at 17:47
  • I will have to pay more attention in the near future; you have me curious now. I think I'm used to hearing it mostly in the past tense, but then again, I usually get these recaps from my daughters, who are probably not the best sources in such matters. But I notice I am explaining this to you in the present :^) – J.R. Dec 5 '13 at 20:43

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