Dramatic Punctuation: Some Ideas for Beginning Playwrights

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[[This blog post originally appeared on February 1, 2013.]]

Dramatic writers aim to capture the way that people speak:  Therefore, grammatical correctness is not necessarily important in the text of a play or script.  What is unacceptable in academic prose is often quite desirable in drama. Unfortunately, students sometimes take drama’s emphasis on performance and the spoken word as a license for sloppy writing.  Dramatic writing, though often non-grammatical, must never be haphazard.

Frequently, I encounter in beginning playwrights a lack of attention to punctuation.  Perhaps they believe that, because punctuation is for the eye, it is unnecessary to writing that addresses itself to the ear.  However, such a belief ignores punctuation’s significance as a means of suggesting vocal techniques of expression—specifically, the pause—which are readily understood to the listener but hard to convey to the reader.  Because punctuation captures the rhythms of spoken speech, it’s essential that playwrights employ punctuation to its fullest potential.

While everyone is familiar with basic punctuation marks—such as the period, comma, exclamation point, etc.—there are others that beginning playwrights tend to neglect.  Here are some of my favorites.  (Similar lists can be found in textbooks such as Buzz McLaughlin’s The Playwright’s Process.)

  1. The ellipsis (. . .) indicates a trailing off, whether within or at the end of a speech.  It suggests confusion or a wandering of the mind, rather than an abrupt change of thought.
  2. The dash (—) indicates an interruption, whether within or at the end of a speech.  Characters interrupt themselves as their thoughts change in quick succession or as they make hasty additions to their statements.  Dashes are used, also, when characters are interrupted by other characters.
  3. The semicolon (;) links related thoughts.
  4. The colon (:) links related thoughts more closely than the semi-colon.  The colon is used for assertions that hinge on one another, suggesting a stronger—perhaps causal—relationship.
  5. The question mark followed by the uncapitalized question—e.g., “What do you think I am? a dog?”  This form suggests a subsidiary question that continues the first, rather than a wholly new question asked in succession.  This punctuation device can greatly affect an actor’s inflection.

Consider working with punctuation in class.  For instance, you might have students come up with sample lines of dialogue in which they use these conventions.  Such exercises can help encourage greater precision in writing.

To commit speeches to paper, dramatic writers should take advantage of all devices at their disposal—including italics, all caps, and the formatting of text as verse.  After all, playwrights have the difficult task of converting a complex medium (the spoken word) to another medium (the written word) and of doing so in such a way as to suggest delivery to actors.

How do you teach punctuation in the scriptwriting classroom?  How do you discuss micro-concerns like the line, as opposed to larger concerns like plotting or character building?

About the Author
David J. Eshelman teaches at Arkansas Tech University, where he is the founder and artistic director of the Arkansas Radio Theatre. His plays include Vim and Vigor, A Taste of Buffalo, Bathysphere, and The Witches’ Quorum, which had its professional debut at the Magnetic Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina. His essays about playwriting and his plays have appeared in Theatre Topics, Text and Performance Quarterly, Ecumenica, and Liminalities.