Directing through Punctuation, Part 1.

Punctuation Foursome

One of the secrets that all great screenwriters understand is how to direct through punctuation.

Direct without directing.

Instead of camera angles and the royal “We,” force your reader to see the movie you want them to see by using the tools at your disposal: punctuation and grammar.

Write your movie the way it should be seen. 

Describe the action on screen in a way that focuses the reader’s attention on the single most essential element in that moment.

Use word choice, intentional grammatical usage and specific punctuation to convey these ideas.

Your Grammar never gets old.

Most people don’t know how to use grammar correctly.  A lot of people don’t even know the rules of grammar.  But adult native speakers have been reading words for a long time.  Even if just menus and instruction manuals.  They know when a sentence looks right and when it looks wrong.

When you use grammar incorrectly, it catches a reader’s eye.  They may not know why it’s wrong, but they will stop – if even for a nano-second – and try to understand what is intended.  Or worse, they’ll misunderstand.

Either way, the result is that in that moment, rather than focusing on your characters and the movie you’ve written, the reader is jerked out of their experience to find themselves staring at the written page trying to make sense of what the writer intended.

If this happens only once or twice, you might get away with it.  But every time it occurs, you are wasting your reader’s goodwill and creative energy on the wrong problems.  Instead of creating detailed images in their head or trying to guess what’s coming next in your story, they are using their brain power to understand how you’ve written something rather than what you’ve written.

The danger is that every decision a person makes requires energy.  The more energy spent deciphering grammar, the less energy spent imagining your ideas.  And when a reader runs out of energy, when they no longer have the ability to keep imagining possibilities in their head, they give up.  They put down your script, and they walk away.

You’re my typo.

The same goes for typos.  Sure, the reader can suss out what you mean.  But every time they see a misspelled word, it catches their eye.  It pulls them out of their imagination and puts them back in the real world looking at a typed page.  Every time this happens, creative energy is squandered as they ramp back up to imagine the world of your script.

Imagination is a limited resource.   It builds up momentum.  When a reader’s imagination is interrupted by typos, creative energy is required to re-engage their imagination.

If you squander a reader’s attention in ways that require their creative energy, you run the risk of losing their interests in your story.

Keep your sentences simple.

The narrative description in a screenplay informs the reader what they are seeing onscreen.  As the writer, you have a lot of information to convey in a short amount of time.

If you present too much information too quickly, you will confuse the reader.  For example, if you present too much information in one idea, with lots of subordinate clauses, and lots of different ideas all jumbled into one sentence when it could actually be two or three individual sentences, each with its own punctuation, you will overload the reader.

Ok.  See what I did there…?

Each sentence in your narrative description should contain a single idea.  Each idea should be clearly presented and easy to grasp.  There should be a rhythm to the sentences.  And the word choice should be impactful without being redundant.

Next week, we’ll get into punctuation and how those dots, curves and dashes can help you define how your reader sees your movie based on what you put on the page!


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