The power of punctuation.
Each punctuation mark has its own meaning. It defines how we read a sentence, where we pause and what inflection we impose on the words. They also have informal corresponding implications when writing visual description in a screenplay.
As we get into the dots, dashes, slants and curves, there’s a lot of information to impart. To make it easier to grasp, I’m going to break this section into three parts.
Point of reference.
As an example, let’s use an excerpt from one of the most respected writers in Hollywood, Shane Black. Shane is a screenwriter, director, producer and actor. In 1987 he wrote Lethal Weapon, which defined the action genre for over a decade.
In 2005, his directorial debut was the film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Let’s look at an excerpt from the very first page of that script for clues how to use punctuation and grammar:
The girl starts to SCREAM.
SHRIEKING. Writhing in agony. Tears streaming. Harold stares dumbly. The kid with the saw, horrified –
Chaos. ADULTS converge on the scene. The girl is twitching. In shock, her DAD leaps to the stage. Grips the lid, HEAVES OPEN THE BOX. Eyes wide, staring –
Let’s look at this to see how the punctuation creates the visual imagery that Shane wanted his readers, cast and crew to envision when they read it.
A paragraph groups a similar collection of ideas into a cohesive unit. It also separates one group of ideas from the next, suggesting a pause – or a breath – if you will.
Shane uses paragraphs in two ways. He grips the action into events that happen one after the other in quick succession. He then uses the separation between paragraphs – the “white space” – to suggest a pause which creates suspense and tension.
Another way he uses paragraphs is to create impact by having one, single idea – one sentence – in a paragraph. A short sentence like, “The girls starts to SCREAM,” creates the impression that action of the sentence, the girl screaming is significant. The subsequent white space creates a tiny moment of tension as our eyes hurry to get to the next sentence and find out why the girl is screaming.
A period is a full stop. The end of an idea. Whatever the next sentence is that follows after that period is a new idea. The period that separates that juxtaposition is akin to an editor’s cut in a film.
When you use a period, you’re are creating a moment in which the focus of the reader’s attention shifts – just like a different cut in a film sequence does.
The paragraph, “SHRIEKING. Writhing in agony. Tears streaming. Harold stares dumbly. The kid with the saw, horrified – ,” creates the impression that we are seeing lots of quick cuts as each image flashes through our imagination.
A comma represents a pause in ideas, often as other ideas are added to the original. When a sentence uses commas, it implies that the ideas presented are connected. It suggests that the events happen in fluid sequence of events.
In the sentence, “In shock, her DAD leaps to the stage,” we imagine the father’s shocked expression happens concurrently with his leaping on stage.
Colons and semi-colons.
Semi-colons are seldom seen. Usually, if you feel the need for a semi-colon it’s because you’re about to introduce a self-contained, new idea. If that’s the case. A period would be a better choice.
Colons are different. They are half-way between a comma and a period. They’re not a full stop like a period. And they’re not a continuous.
A colon is a momentary pause before an unavoidable image or series of images crowds what has just happened. It might imply a cut. It might imply an ironic pause.
In another sentence from “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” Shane writes:
Shines his light on a doll: “PROTOCOP – Protector of Man.
The character Harry is shining his flashlight. What does the light land on? The doll. There is a cut – a shift in camera angles – from Harry holding his flashlight to the insert of the doll.
Shane could have used a period, but light travels at such a rapid rate that he didn’t want the reader to imagine the cut. He wanted the reader’s imagination to move as quickly as possible to the doll.
Next week, will continue looking at punctuation marks. The week after we’ll examine other ways to create emphasis, emotion and tension in your description.
So keep on coming back, we’ve got more to stress and more to stress over…!