Editing and reviewing scripts, I’ve come across a number of common grammar mistakes that are worth flagging. A good script can be greatly hindered by these errors: even with a solid story, clumsy writing can lessen the integrity of the project and turn off potential investors. Some of these mistakes can change the meaning of what you write. Some are a matter of style. With so many scripts out there, readers are looking for an excuse to reject yours, though, and any one of these points could give them that excuse. However, they are all mistakes that can be avoided with some careful attention and editing.
1. Incorrect use of capital letters
Capital letters seem to pop up all over the place in screenplays. There are debatable uses for them, for instance using ALL CAPS to introduce a character or POV, but that doesn’t mean the basic writing rules for capitals should be ignored. A common mistake I find is haphazard or inconsistent use of capitals in names. Proper nouns (direct names) should be capitalised, otherwise avoid capitals. If a character is known only as The Scientist, the capitals are fine. If you give the same description a capital when it’s not a name, it’s a mistake. For instance John, the Scientist, asks for more water. looks bad.
Why does this grammar mistake matter in screenwriting?
When I’m reading a script and I see a capitalised word, I’ll take it for a name. If you write Jane runs into the Road. the immediate impression is that she runs into an object called The Road. That could be an eclectically named bodyguard, a motorway-themed nightclub, or a stack of barrels – anything that’s been given a name. It doesn’t matter that the true meaning may quickly become obvious, the split-second it takes to consider it is enough to trip up a reader, interrupting the flow of the script and raising questions about the writer’s skill.
2. Incorrect use of commas
Commas create pauses. They can help break up a list, divide clauses or even work like parentheses. Commas shouldn’t be common in writing action because directions for action should be kept short and simple. And they have to be placed carefully in dialogue or you’ll choke the speaker. Incorrect comma use can greatly affect the flow and even the meaning of your screenwriting. Likewise, leaving out commas where you should have them can be disastrous. Consider the differences:
John drives uncontrollably weeping.
John drives uncontrollably, weeping.
John drives, uncontrollably weeping.
Although for that matter:
3. Too many adverbs
Many writers despise the use of adverbs, Steven King included. They make sentences clumsy. In a screenplay, venturing into the realm of adverbs generally borders on providing too much direction. They slow scripts down and are mostly superfluous – if your dialogue and action are clear, the manner in which events occur should be clear too. If you need an action to occur in a specific way, use a specific verb: Jane angrily walks away. works a lot better as Jane storms away. This isn’t so much a grammar mistake as an issue of style, but as a point of identifiable grammar (find all your words ending ‘ly’, for starters) it’s something you should pay attention to.
4. Incorrect use of apostrophes
These pop up all over the place when they shouldn’t, and are oddly absent when they’re wanted. Apostrophes are necessary in two key places in screenplays:
1. To show possession – before the possessive S on singular nouns and after it on plurals.
The girl’s dog. (owned by one girl)
The girls’ club. (owned by many girls)
2. To replace missing letters in a conjunction.
It is -> It’s. They are -> They’re.
You might also use apostrophes as inverted commas to provide emphasis or show a name, depending on writing style, but considering the variety of formatting options available in screenwriting this can generally be avoided.
Why does this grammar mistake matter?
The meaning is often clear with or without apostrophes, but if you think Janes dog’ is as good as Jane’s dog you run the risk of being judged as uninformed or too lazy to proof your work – I’m not sure which is worse, but either is unprofessional. You also run the risk of making the reader wonder if this dog belongs to Jane or if a Janes dog is a particular type of dog. Again, no matter how quickly the meaning is made obvious, the briefest doubt about what you have written will interrupt the flow of a screenplay and take the reader out of the moment. And possibly turn them against you with a vehement hatred for everything you stand for.
5. Not enough contractions
Like adverbs, improper use of contractions in screenplays doesn’t necessarily constitute a grammar mistake (except in the case of incorrect apostrophe use / spelling), but a lack of contractions is a common problem. This is especially true in writing dialogue. Scripts are there to be read as directions, as they are, without imagination – dialogue will be read as written. In everyday speech, most people talk in abridged form. If they don’t, there’s usually a good reason, and it stands out a lot in dialogue. Consider:
I have been to the shop.
I’ve been to the shop.
When you read them out loud, the first option sounds incredibly formal. It can be read as proud, pompous, even defiant, but it’s hard to read it neutrally. The second form can be very casual, or adapted in a variety of tones to fit the context of the scene. Contractions should be used as much as possible in dialogue, and really you need a reason not to use them.
Look out for all these points and your screenplay not only look a lot more professional but it’ll read better too. And please watch this space because I’ve been reviewing and editing quite a few screenplays, and the common mistakes I’ve been finding in them have given me all sorts of ideas for extra advice.