Punctuation & Grammar Guidance for Screenwriters

Punctuation helps the reader read and understand your delectable dialogue and riveting narrative as you intend. Dave Trottier shares ten punctuation pointers every screenwriter needs.
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Punctuation Grammar Guidance for Screenwriters

As Dr. Format, I get lots of punctuation questions. I know what you’re thinking: Why do I need to worry abut punctuation? Because you want to communicate. May I give you an example? The following two sentences use exactly the same words, but different punctuation, resulting in opposite meanings:

     Woman without her man, is nothing.
     Woman—without her, man is nothing.

Punctuation helps the reader read and understand your delectable dialogue and riveting narrative as you intend. We’ll discuss common grammar goofs a little later, but for now, rejoice at these ten punctuation pointers.

PUNCTUATION PEARLS

1. The slash means two things at the same time. For example,

punctuation 1

means that camera can be inside (INT.) or outside (EXT.) the car at the director’s whim. That way, you don’t have to bounce back and forth between scene headings.

Here’s another example:

punctuation 2

That means we can be at either location at the director’s whim. Again, you don’t have to bounce back and forth between scene headings or indicate voice-over dialogue.

2. The dash (for scene headings) is made with a space-hyphen-space, including when you have two locations in a scene heading:

punctuation 3

It’s as simple as that. No, you would not normally place a slash between two locations, except in an INTERCUT.

3. The dash (in action and dialogue) is made with a space-hyphen-hyphen-space; and, in dialogue, indicates interruption:

punctuation 4

Notice we drop the space before the dash in Suzy’s speech so the speech is flush to the left margin. Incidentally, it’s not necessary to place a dash before Suzy’s speech (it’s your choice), but there must be one after Joe’s speech.

4. The ellipsis is made with three dots followed by a space. It is not made with two dots or four dots or five dots. Just three dots. However, if an ellipsis comes at the end of a sentence, add a period, making four dots. An ellipsis indicates a pause or shows continuity. Here’s an example of both uses:

punctuation 5

Am I crazy? No, those really are the rules for dashes and ellipses, and I know they can be baffling because they look odd. Do not use these rules in any other form of writing. We screenwriters stand out and dare to be different!

5. ALL-CAPS are only required for character first appearances and technical and camera directions, which should be very rare in a spec screenplay. You may CAP sounds if you wish; some screenwriters only CAP important sounds. You should not need to CAP words of dialogue. (See the rule for underlining next.)

6. Underline (underscore) words or phrases of dialogue or narrative description that you want to emphasize. Do this rarely. The less you do it, the more the reader notices what you underline.

7. You may use italics for song lyrics and any dialogue that is not spoken, such as text messages and sign language. For example:

punctuation 6

Although it is not necessary, it’s also okay to italicize foreign words, such as per se and E Pluribus Unum.

8. Put quotation marks around any words of narrative description that you want the audience to see and read, such as the words on signs, news headlines, and the content of SUPERs. If a character quotes something in dialogue, it’s okay to use quotation marks for the quoted material.

A comma or period always precedes the quotation mark: “And you can quote me on that.”

9. Spacing after periods is one space or two spaces—your choice. You can’t miss on this one.

10. In dialogue, write out numbers as words. The exception is dates (July 4, 1776) and names with numbers in them (R2D2). You can probably write out addresses and get away with it. I am implying that you can mess up your punctuation (to a point) and not get black-listed for it. Relax.

GRAMMAR GOODIES

Plurals and possessives. There is a difference. Possessives require an apostrophe; plurals do not. Examples:

Two girls bought hats – more than one girl (plural)
The girl's hat is red – the hat belongs to one girl (possessive)
The girls' hats are red – the hats belong to more than one girl (possessive)

That’s your central principle. Now a common example from a screenplay:

punctuation 7

There is no apostrophe in 30s because there is no possessive. It’s a plural. Here is another example:

punctuation 8

That is a plural, not a possessive; thus, no apostrophe is needed.

Common confusions. What follows are a few more of my favorite flubs:

Its is a possessive that does not require an apostrophe: The dog loves its toy.
It’s is a contraction for “it is”: It's your decision.

When in doubt, say the sentence with “it is” and you’ll know which word to use.

Your is a possessive that does not require an apostrophe: It’s your script.
You’re is a contraction for “you are”: You're absolutely right.

Their is a possessive that does not require an apostrophe: It’s their movie.
There is a contraction for “they are”: They're all here.
There is a location that is not here: It’s over there.

Lose is the opposite of win; it’s also something missing: Did you lose it?
Loose is the opposite of tight: It’s a loose-fitting blouse. It also means not strict: He has loose morals. It can additionally mean giving freedom: He set the dogs loose.

[Script Extra: Get more grammar tips with Writer's Digest's Grammar Rules!]

Finally, as the next great screenwriter, you favor active voice over passive voice, and use specific language, right? Examples:

Passive: Joe is walking to the boat (“Is” makes it passive.)
Active: Joe walks to the boat
Active with specific language: Joe staggers to the yacht.

Now you can stop worrying about punctuation and grammar, and write a great script. Good luck and keep writing!

More articles by Dave Trottier 

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