Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Screenwriting Mistake #2: Ellipses

This is by far the most overused device in screenwriting. Mel Brooks got so fed up with seeing ellipses all the time that in “The History of the World, Part 1” he had one character say, “dot dot dot” out loud every time he paused. The reason that ellipses are so annoying, in addition to being incredibly overused, is that they are just another way for writers to tell the actors how to deliver their lines. There’s no surer way for a screenwriter to piss off an actor than to tell her precisely how to deliver her lines.
If you believe that it’s important for an actor to pause at a certain spot, then make sure that your dialogue is good enough that this will be obvious to anyone who reads it. You could also interject a quick action description in the middle of the dialogue and then pick it back up where you left off. But by far the best way to write dialogue is to trust the actors to deliver their lines in the best way possible. They have worked hard for years to learn how to do this and they often interpret the dialogue in ways that are better than you imagined them.
In my opinion, there is exactly one time when it’s acceptable to use ellipses in a screenplay and I don’t even recommend that you use them then. This is when one character starts talking and then another character finishes his thought. For example:
WILLIAM
Do you remember how we used to…
GWEN
…have sex in your parents’ bed?
WILLIAM
No, I was going to say “play tennis.”
I recommend instead that you use two dashes (--) when a character stops talking in the middle of a sentence, regardless of the reason. You should always do this when one character interrupts another, but I think it’s better to do so in this case as well. Ellipses are so ubiquitous that if you submit a script that doesn’t contain even one of them, the reader will pass your script around the office just to prove that he actually found one without any ellipses. Hell, he might even be so excited that he will rip his four-year-old’s stick figure drawing of their family off of the refrigerator and replace it with your ellipses-less screenplay. If you want your reader’s undying appreciation (which you do), there’s no surer way to do that than to remove all of the ellipses from your script.

11 comments:

  1. Phil how do you feel about writing one sided phone conversations and elipses?

    Is is this still unnecessary?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've never had trouble reading one-sided conversations where the sentences just run together like a regular block of dialogue. If you have a phone conversation that's hard to follow, it might be okay to put something between sentences in that case. Ellipses could work, if you're sparing with them. I've also seen people write "(beat)" or "(pause)" though it's better to avoid parentheticals as well. Try writing this conversation without anything between the sentences and only resort to dividing them if absolutely necessary.

      Phil

      Delete
  2. I'm personally VERY annoyed that the comment form at this blog reads "Enter your comment..."

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for the advice, Phil. This is a great resource.

    Here's a quick formatting clarification question.

    Would you put a space before the two dashes or "butt" them up against the cut-off word?

    WILLIAM
    Do you remember how we used to--

    or

    WILLIAM
    Do you remember how we used to --

    Thanks again,
    Tom

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Any time you give me a choice between butt or no butt, I'm going to have a tough time choosing the latter. :-) Thankfully, this time it's actually the right choice, so butt the dashes up against the cut-off word as you did in your first example.

      Phil

      Delete
  4. Phil. Thanks for the great article. I agree with everything you say, yet I find myself using ellipsis in one particular way that you don't address. In narrative I sometimes use them to show a CONTINUATION of action from one line to another line. I use them to propel the action forward and down the page. Like this:

    He reaches for the gun. Quivering fingers stop short in the flickering candlelight. Pull back slightly. Then...

    Slowly, unsteadily, he picks up the pistol and aims the barrel at his chest, near his heart. Moments pass.

    Any opinion about this use of them? Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your questions, James. There's no need to write that "Then..." in the sample you gave. That actually slows down the reader a bit, when you want the reader to be able to move quickly down the page. There's no doubt that the next block of description is a continuation of the action above.

      In this example, I would also remove the "slowly, unsteadily" since you already demonstrated his hesitance by having him pull his hand back before picking up the gun. I would also remove "moments pass" since any actor would be able to milk the most possible drama out of this scene without that level of direction.

      Hope this helps!
      Phil

      Delete
  5. Hi Phil

    Your blog is fabulous. I am a novice starting out in screenplay writing. A question. How do I write telephone converstaion between two indivuduals without using paranthesis or action. For eg. if a person is talking on the phone how do I write the other person's conversations in the same scene ?

    Apologies if the question is too naive for the forum.

    Thank you

    Jeevan

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jeevan!

      If you want to show only one of the people who is having the phone conversation, then write their dialogue normally and write "(V.O.)" next to the other person's name for their dialogue.

      If you want to go back and forth between two people who are talking on the phone, then write a slug line for the first person's location and show that person answering the phone. Then write a slug line for the second person's location and show that person talking on the phone. Then before you go back to the first person, write on its own separate line "INTERCUT PHONE CONVERSATION." Then you can just write out their conversation as if they were in the same room. When the conversation is over, write a new slug line to indicate where the next scene will take place.

      Hope this helps!
      Phil

      Delete