Punctuation

Punctuation in a screenplay, and especially within Dialogue is unique. Punctuation can be used strategically to convey to the reader the various ways lines should be delivered.

In this section, we'll look at the options afforded screenplay writers with Punctuation and how to properly use things such as ellipses, dashes, hyphens, underscoring, and more.

Commas:

Whether names are proper or improper, set them off with commas when the speaker is directly addressing the person to whom the name refers.

Here are a few examples:

Don't do this too much, though. Most of the time placing the name of the person to whom a speech is addressed inside the speech itself is considered filler and information the audience likely doesn't need. Do it too much, and you'll expose yourself as an amateur writer.

Exclamation Points:

It should be obvious when and how Exclamation Points are used. So why even include it here? Well, whereas in prose writing Exclamation Points can be anywhere and everywhere, in screenplay writing they should be used sparingly, and only when they are completely necessary.

If there is a scene in which the fact the character is yelling is obvious, then no exclamation points are necessary.

Look at this example:

Based on the context of the scene, the Exclamation Point may have been dispensed with. But since this is just an example, and we don't know the context of the scene, we aren't sure how the line is to be delivered. Ennis' line could just as easily been delivered in a calm and quiet, matter-of-fact fashion.

But whatever you do, don't use more than one Exclamation Point to emphasize a line. Don't tell me to calm down!!! doesn't really add to the line's punch and delivery, and done too often, multiple Exclamation Points look amateurish.

Acronyms:

In screenplay Dialogue writing, Acronyms are handled very differently than in other types of writing.

In journalism writing, for example, the rule is, if an Acronym is a series of letters that don't spell an actual word, then the letters need not be separated by periods. So, in journalism, FBI, ACLU, and NAFTA need not include the periods, but Acronyms like ICE, SEAL, and MADD (even though that's not the correct spelling of mad) would need to include the periods after the letters (I.C.E., S.E.A.L., and M.A.D.D.). Why? Because journalism writing is a reading medium and journalists want to be sure their readers know that ICE isn't referring to frozen water and SEAL isn't a cute polar animal, nor a soulful pop singer married to a super model.

However, screenwriting is a visual medium, and when a character speaks an Acronym it needs to be spoken how real people would speak it in everyday life. So, FBI would be F.B.I. to convey to the actor that each letter needs to be pronounced. NAFTA, SEAL, and MADD would be written without periods to indicate to the actor to pronounce the Acronyms as words rather than pronouncing each letter.

All of these examples are correctly written:

In the above examples, had the periods been left out of L.A.X. then the actor would have assumed it should be pronounced as a word (LAX).

Also, look at the last example. The way I've written N.A.A.C.P. MIGHT be wrong. This is a very common Acronym, but when it is said in the real world, it is pronounced N. Double-A C.P. I've written it as above because I assume the actor will know better than to pronounce each "A" separately (or the director will know how to direct the actor to say it). However, if in doubt, then spell it N. Double-A C.P. in the Dialogue.

Hyphens:

In Dialogue, Hyphens have many useful functions, so long as they are used correctly.

In regular writing, Hyphens are used to break long words at the end of a line. However, in Dialogue, words shouldn't be hyphenated unless they are already spelled with a Hyphen.

This example is WRONG:

The word deoxyribonucleic acid, as long as it is, should be carried over entirely to the next line:

Only words that are already hyphenated may be hyphenated at the end of a line in Dialogue, as in these two examples:

When a person's age is a compound word and a noun or an adjective (five-year-old Tommy...), the age will include Hyphens. However, if the age is not a compound word and is used simply to tell how old someone is, the age is not hyphenated.

Look at the difference between the mentions of age in this example:

We saw how periods are placed within Acronyms to cue an actor to pronounce each letter of the Acronym. Well, if an actor needs to pronounce every letter of a word, but the word is not an Acronym, then Hyphens are used to separate the letters, such as when one character is telling another how a word should be spelled.

Here's an example:

If a character is stuttering, say because he is really cold, a writer can write the stutter into the Dialogue using Hyphens to indicate how the line should be delivered, as in this example:

Of course, if this is going to be a longer piece of Dialogue, this sort of writing will get old quick. The writer might opt for a Parenthetical to indicate the stuttering rather than trying to spell it out, such as (stuttering).

What's more, if this is a character who has a stuttering problem and stutters throughout the entire screenplay, the writer would want to indicate the character's flaw in his initial introduction and description, but write his Dialogue normally.

Then, if he has a line he delivers without a stutter, that line can be indicated with a Parenthetical. Or, if the character overcomes his flaw entirely and speaks through the rest of the film without a stutter, the writer can indicate such with a notation in a Direction paragraph.

Basically, reading stutters can be tiresome to the reader, so only write out stutters for short, quick lines.

Ellipses:

When correctly written an Ellipsis is three periods, followed by a space (ellipsis... example ) or three periods with a space on either side (ellipsis ... example). The former of the two ellipses is the way many screenwriting gurus suggest writing them within screenplays. The latter of the two is how the Chicago Manual of Style requires ellipses be written, as well as the other well-known style manuals.

Following those style manuals, this is correct:

Of course, most of those manuals also require a space BETWEEN each of the periods, a practice not necessary in screenwriting since the font used (Courier) is fixed-pitch. Bottom line: either way is fine in screenwriting.

For the rest of this lesson, we'll format Ellipses without the initial space.

Ellipses are an often used, and often MISused piece of Punctuation. Often Ellipses are confused with Dashes and are used interchangeably with them. Some screenwriting experts don't mind and really don't spend a lot of time differentiating between the two. Other experts draw clear lines.

When I edit a screenplay, I prefer to see Ellipses and Dashes used properly, but I don't make a big deal out of it either.

The primary use of an Ellipsis is to indicate a pause in a character's Dialogue, usually because the character is pausing to think about what he or she should say next. The Dialogue will trail off momentarily.

Here are two ways of formatting a character briefly losing her train of thought:

Sometimes when I character loses her train of thought, another character may jump in and finish the sentence for her. Here is how it might look on the page:

If a writer wants a scene to begin in the middle of a character's Dialogue, the writer may do so with an Ellipsis.

Look at this example:

Another great use of Ellipses is when writing Dialogue for a one-sided telephone conversation.

If a character is on the phone, but the audience doesn't hear the voice of the person on the other end, Ellipses are used to indicate the pauses where the character needs to allow the person on the other end of the line to speak.

Here's an example:

I included the Parenthetical (on phone). Of course, if the context of the scene makes it obvious the character is on the phone, the Parenthetical wouldn't have been necessary.

Finally, if a character says something but leaves the end of the sentence hanging (allowing the other characters and the audience to fill in the obvious blanks), then the writer will indicate the Dialogue is a complete sentence by ending it with a period, followed by an Ellipsis, thus having four periods in a row, as in this example:

Dash:

Similar to the Ellipsis is the Dash. A Dash is two hyphens in a row with a space on each side ( -- )

Dashes are used most often to indicate abrupt pauses within Dialogue, or interruptions of Dialogue by other characters, off screen sounds, or action.

In the example below, there is a very brief pause in the Dialogue as the character changes his train of thought. Had the pause been longer and more, well, thoughtful, an Ellipsis would have been used in place of the Dash.

Easily the most common use of Dashes is to show Dialogue being interrupted.

Sometimes a character will be in the middle of a sentence and another character will butt in suddenly and unexpectedly, as in this example:

Other times a character's Dialogue may be interrupted by a sudden action or sound, as seen here:

When writing Dashes in Dialogue, make sure the Dash is not left alone on its own line.

In this example, Victor's Dialogue needs to be rewritten so that the Dash isn't orphaned:

Here are two ways the Dialogue could be rewritten:

In the first example, a word is forced onto the next line so the Dash is not alone. In the next example, the writer writes a little more of the sentence so there is enough Dialogue to wrap to the next line.

Underscoring:

When emphasizing a word or a line of Dialogue, writers should NEVER format the word or phrase in bold or italics. Why? Because when you ship your script to a production house, copies may be passed around to many different people, which means copies of copies of copies of copies may be made.

When this happens, often words written in bold or italics can begin to look like every other word on the page, and the writer's intended emphasis will be lost.

So, to add emphasis to words or phrases in Dialogue, a writer has two choices: writing in ALL CAPS or underscoring.

When underscoring a word or phrase, make sure it is done correctly. This may SEEM like a no-brainer. But as someone who edits and analyzes scores of screenplays, trust me, you'd be surprised.

Here are two examples of how NOT to underscore a piece of Dialogue:

In the first example, each word is underlined, but the spaces in between the words are not. Incorrect.

In the next example, the underscore extends under the ending punctuation. Also incorrect.

Here is how the underscoring should have been accomplished:

Underscoring can also be used to indicate words that should be pronounced mockingly and with emphasis, as in this example:

In this example, the DRUNK BAR PATRON throws the word friend back at the person who originally said it, ironically sending the message, "We aren't friends."

Quotations Marks:

When a character is quoting something he or she is reading, the recitation should be enclosed in Quotation Marks.

Also, when a character is repeating what another character has said, such as when one is mocking the other, the phrase should be placed in quotes, like this: