Screenwriting 101: How Grammar Can Make or Break Your Screenplay

I know what you’re thinking. Here comes an overeducated navelgazer with an axe to grind and nothing better to do than talk about grammar in screenwriting. But I promise, the people reading your scripts are paying attention to your grammar, whether they realize it or not. Let’s talk about that person for a minute, shall we? The person reading your script, that is. Most likely, your feature or pilot is in the hands of a lower level reader, whose main job is to pass on or recommend your work to someone higher up the chain. This is true whether you are submitting to film festivals or to someone in the business.

Of course, grammar is only one of many criteria that these readers are using to assess your work. Along with character, plot, structure, dialogue, and concept, grammar plays a role in shifting a reader’s opinion from Pass, to Consider, to the hallowed Recommend. This is because grammar is necessary to communicate the heart and the head of the story, the emotion and the logical progression of events. Perhaps it’s better to simply say – grammar is necessary to communicate. In screenwriting, grammar takes on new levels of importance, as it is one of the main contributors to your script’s Investment, Immersion, and Impact.

INVESTMENT

No, this is not about securing financing. It’s not even about getting your readers to care about what’s going on. It’s about answering an important question – Are you serious about screenwriting? If your script is being sent out with numerous typos or grammar errors, then you haven’t taken every measure to polish your work. If your grammar is shaky, you need to keep working before you say “Good enough” and shoot your script out into the world. If you’re truly invested in this craft, you need to work through all of its steps. Every single one. No matter how drab you think it is on the writing end, remember that grammar is sexy for the reader. Grammar is the difference between a pocket square and a napkin. Grammar is a double-windsor. Grammar in a script is like grammar in a résumé. It shows professionalism. 

IMMERSION

When you write a slug line and describe the twisted labyrinth your heroes must investigate, I’m there with them. A well-written argument makes me take sides like an eavesdropping friend. An action sequence should get my heart racing. All of this can be ruined by a misplaced your, you’re, or god forbid yore. A grammar error ruins immersion because it takes me away from the moment and the emotion of the scene, and puts me back in my own head, thinking about the typed words and not what they mean. To, two, too often I’m diving into the first act of a script, getting involved in the characters and their plight, until I have to stop to make a note of an awkward line of dialogue. And if you think I’m making a mountain out of a mole’s hill, below are two examples that show how basic grammar can completely change your understanding of a character.

Mark
“I gotta do this. It’s the only way.”

Or

Mark
“I have got to do this. It is the only way.”

For the sake of the reader, make sure your grammar choices are actually choices, and not accidents caused by a lack of proofreading.

IMPACT

An emotional arc requires timing. You know what really interrupts timing? You know what really stops the flow of a read and makes someone furrow their brow and think for a moment before they can move on? A grammar issue. It doesn’t even have to be a mistake. If the grammar of your writing is academically sound but awkward to navigate, your reader will stumble. The work you put in getting me to care about this street race will be wasted, because I’m trying to figure out why Character X mustn’t’ve fired their nitrous at the right moment and what that means for his car. A better route is to use direct vocabulary associated with what you’re describing. I know what fishtailing is, and I can see it in my mind’s eye.

And finally, impact is about brevity. Your writing should be clear first, and concise second. Emotion, humor, horror, everything else is aided by a precise line. Also, pithiness helps keep your page count down, which can make your script more attractive to various moneyfolk. Look at it this way, we don’t want to hear about someone trying to punch someone. We want to hear about a punch or a miss. And yes, that means avoid gerunds. “Ing” means it’s still happening. “Ing” means it’s not finished yet, so we can’t see the consequences. We can’t feel the impact.

So brush up on your Oxford commas and your semi-colons. Your grammar expertise might not make you stand out, but poor grammar certainly will. So stay ahead of the pack, and keep your lines clean, clear, and controlled.


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