Grammar: Your Ace In the Hole

By Michael Schilf · January 17, 2011

Your vs. You’re. It vs. It’s. Then vs. Than. Does the correct word win the gold every time? And what about comma splices, contractions, and possessives? Are you terrified of the semi-colon; do you avoid it under all circumstances? Can you find that misplaced modifier or add what’s dangling? And what about dependent clauses, run-ons, and subject-verb agreement? I could go on, but I’ll spare you any more grammar minutiae. I understand it can be painful.

But mastering spelling, grammar, and punctuation are only three steps on the long journey towards becoming a professional writer. Unfortunately, they are the first three. And yes, rules are made to be broken – writing a fragment as a complete sentence can be acceptable when done for effect – but you can only break a rule after you understand it first. Otherwise, it’s just a mistake.

It’s important to remember that Hollywood is a town where nobody really wants to read, and therefore, readers are looking for any reason NOT TO READ your screenplay, so never give them a justification to toss it in the trash because you snoozed through grammar class and couldn’t be bothered to sort out what you missed. Grammar, after all, is a language, and an important one at that. And like anything, the more you begin to understand its many complexities, the more you appreciate it and apply it in your own screenwriting.

But not only is a strong grasp of grammar important as a means of executing proper presentation, but applying it can also help you streamline your writing. Anyone who has written a few screenplays should be able to acknowledge the importance of script economy – finding ways to say the same thing in the most clear and concise way without losing your voice.

Take the “form of be verbal” as an example. Let’s say that a sentence in your script reads, “James is staring at the woman.” In that sentence “is” is the verb and “staring” is the verbal; however, the irony is that you don’t need a verb phrase to convey the action. Why not lose the “is” form of be and the “–ing” verbal and simplify? Make it an action verb: “James stares at the woman.” Now it might seem trivial to omit the “is” and “-ing”, but imagine doing that throughout an entire screenplay. You’d be surprised how many pages you would lose – and losing pages is a good thing.

The above example is just one of many ways to use grammar to minimize script length without compromising story content, and when it comes to screenwriting, script length is a big deal. The first thing every reader does is to look at the back page – but diving into a 95-page screenplay feels much more manageable than 120 lengthy pages. In screenwriting, among all other forms of creative writing, less truly is more.