Grammar Police

Posted: October 7, 2011 in Uncategorized

In this blog, I’m going to draw upon all my writing experience and education to try and iron out a few issues people have with writing (particularly screenplays) as well as air a few of my own struggles, issues and qualms regarding ‘creative’ versus ‘academic’. I’ll try and keep it as closely related to writing a script for film as possible, as I think this would be more beneficial to the subscribers of this blog – it is the ‘the incomplete guide to hopefully one day becoming a screenwriter’ after all. However, before I talk about formatting scripts, writing dialogue, different writing styles etc. I want to tell you the story that inspired me to write this particular post and some of my own experiences and struggles as an aspiring writer.

A few weekends back, I went to the South Coast Championships to row and represent my club ‘Westover and Bournemouth Rowing Club’. It was a great day and we came 4th out of 26 boats, so we were pretty pleased with that result. Of course we wanted to win, but personally I was pretty happy seeing as I’ve only been rowing for a year. So anyway, on the way up there I was in a car with Ali (the stroke man from our crew) his wife Funda and their adorable little girl Mila. As we were approaching Dorney Lake
(Eton College), we took an exit with signs for ‘Slough’. Ali is Turkish and English is not his first language, so he turned to me and asked how to pronounce the word…he asked if it was pronounced like ‘slow’. I told him it was like ‘plough’, which also has ‘ough’ at the end, and then I tried to think of other words that were similar. I said, ‘or like cow’, and that’s when I realised the problem! There really is no consistency in the English language whatsoever…how the hell does anyone learn it? OK, I think we can leave place names out of this one. My advice about place names is, just do your best and you’ll be corrected. If you didn’t already know, I write adverts for radio stations all over the country. I still have no idea where Gillingham that’s pronounced like the part of a fish is, or Gillingham that’s pronounced like the girl who watch Jack crack his head open – they’re spelt the same for goodness sake. And don’t get me started on Wales! I have nothing against the Welsh, and I think it’s great they have their own language and funny place names, but when two people from the same place have an argument about how it’s pronounced, what hope is there for the rest of us??? So back to the inconsistencies in the spelling of English words. You’d think Oliver Cromwell, or Shakespeare, or Queen Victoria, or whoever it was that invented the English language, would have sat down and made a few ground rules. There are some, like ‘i before e except after c’ (which isn’t always right is it Mr. ‘Feisty’, that complete ‘weirdo’ that’s my ‘neighbour’ who lives at number ‘eight’ and loves ‘science’) hmmm or what about doubling the consonant when adding a suffix that starts with a vowel, such as ‘er’, ‘ed’ or ‘ing’? Like Mopping – it was mop, you add a p and the ‘ing’ (and a bucket, some water and maybe fairy liquid) and then you can get mopping! But wait, what if you want to go ‘boxing’ instead, but it’s ‘raining’ outside and it’s ‘blowing’ a gale??? I don’t know, I’m sure all you grammar wizz kids out there will have all the answers as to why certain things are done a certain way, but for us poorly educated folk and people whose first language isn’t English – give us a break!!! As for pronunciations, the list is endless! I always think, if it looks like another word, it should sound like another word, but back to ‘Slough’ (I know it’s a place name, but…) – if I knew that was pronounced like ‘cow’, I’d look at words like ‘tough’ and ‘rough’ and think they were pronounced  the same way too! Then that would mean ‘rough’ would be ‘row’ as in an argument, but what about ‘row’ which is what I do in a boat??? All I can say is, good luck to anyone trying to learn English!

My crew at the olympic lake

Just before I leave pronunciations and spellings, I have a confession to make – when I started writing for my job three years ago, I was hopeless! I’m still not great now, but at least I know the difference between there, their and they’re, I know where to put an apostrophe (most of the time), and I know that when you’re coming last in a race you’re a loser, not ‘looser’ as I’ve seen it written so many times. Now there’s a lot of grammar snobbery when it comes to writing, and I guess it’s justified really. A writer should know how to write, just as a session musician should know how to read music. If one of those musicians they get for the radio 1 live lounge turned up one day and kept hitting bum notes all the way through the song, you’d kind of question his ability to play or read music and they probably wouldn’t ask him back. Now that’s not to say he or she isn’t an unbelievable musician that can improvise and come up with some of the most glorious riffs or melodies ever heard, but I guess that takes us back to the whole ‘creative’ versus ‘academic’ argument. Now I know there should be no separation, and yes the two should work in perfect harmony, but for me it doesn’t always work. Stick with me on this and I’ll try to explain…just quickly though. The point I want to make is that I never had that level of snobbery some writers do due to struggles I’ve had with writing. I’m not sure why I struggled
so much…I worked fairly hard throughout my school career, I got fairly good grades at GCSE, but still I was lacking some of the basic knowledge in grammar and spelling. Not good for someone who wants to be a writer! Now, with a bit of hard work and practice, I think I’m doing a lot better now than I was 3 years ago. How did I improve? Well writing and reading everyday does help, being corrected at work by the grammar queen I used to work with was another big help, and I actually used to do little exercises and follow tutorials on the BBC Bitesize website. It may sound like I’m taking the piss, but I really did sit and read through kiddies ‘learning pages, which actually really helped! If you think you need to brush up on your English, I’d certainly recommend them. I can’t believe I’m advertising BBC Bitesize pages to aspiring writers!!! I guess I’d rather be honest with you about where I’ve come from, rather than be some arrogant twat that thinks he knows it all – because I definitely DON’T know it all, and hopefully you don’t think I’m an arrogant twat.

OK, so now for the hard part – writing a screenplay. But is it? Is it really? Yes it is bloody hard to write a feature length screenplay that really works and is good – in my opinion, I haven’t managed it yet. I’m getting there, but I’m realistic about the quality of my work. However, formatting a screenplay is another matter – it’s a bloody doddle! I’m not being funny, but I think most writers are fairly computer savvy these days, so really there’s no excuse for not being able to format a script properly. I’m all for keeping things ‘old skool’ (I still wear high tops and ride a bike from the 80s), so I’d be happy if we all went back to using ink and quill, or the good old typewriter, but if the resources are there to make things easier – why not bloody use them?  Here’s a tip, if you want to know how to format a screenplay, don’t go out and buy any books, don’t spend hundreds of pounds on intense weekend courses, just look online – it’s all there, and it’s all free! One place you should look is here… http://www.bang2write.com/ it’s a great resource for this sort of thing, and author Lucy V writes a great blog dealing with lots of interesting screenwriting issues. Secondly, google ‘Celtx’– it’s a free screenwriting programme that basically does everything for you. Obviously there are other screenwriting programmes (Final Draft being the industry favourite), but essentially, if you set the programme up properly, you won’t ever have a problem with formatting. Unfortunately it won’t write your script for you, or suggest plot points and character arcs, but it will make sure your script looks professional and is formatted correctly. I know this to be the case as my recent entry for the London Screenwriters’ Festival’s ‘Four Days In August’ competition has been shortlisted to the last 12. The competition rules specified the script had to be formatted correctly – I wrote mine with Celtx, and if it’s got this far I’m assuming I ticked all the boxes. So that’s your formatting sorted, but what about grammar and dialogue? Now this is where I get on my soapbox and stand to upset all those academics out there. A SCRIPT IS NOT AN ESSAY. Please guys, don’t take this the wrong way – you still have to be able to spell (spell-check is great for this) and you still have to be able to string a sentence together correctly, AND get your character’s name right! But as far as I’m concerned, a script is a piece of artwork – write it the way you want the reader to visualise it. I remember reading a book called ‘Before I die’ by Jenny Downham – it’s essentially about a 16 year old girl coping with cancer. She has months to live and writes a list of 10 things to do before she dies. It’s a really good read, and hopefully this won’t spoil it for you, but in the last chapter the author writes about her last moments and leaves parts of the pages blank to create a sort of rhythm as you read. I found it really powerful and thought it was a nice touch to help the book come to life. So I thought, why shouldn’t you
do it with a screenplay? If there’s an important sound, image or moment – give it space to come alive! Put it on a separate line. Sod it; put it on a separate PAGE!!! OK, maybe a bit far, but if you have a great story and well constructed narrative, why not go against convention and play a little. I’ve been told so many times that a script is like a blueprint – it is, but that doesn’t mean it has to be so regimented. When I was younger, I loved art. I still do, but back then I’d regularly visit art galleries and studied artists for fun as well as for my school work. The thing I loved to look at more than anything was an artist’s sketchbook. I guess these could also be compared to a blueprint, but for their masterpieces. They were fascinating things, all those sketches and notes, but never did I see a sketchbook that had measurements and formulaic designs for a painting. I guess what I’m trying to say is; be free with your writing and don’t get bogged down by trying to make your script a perfectly formed document that looks like every page is the same. Obviously if it’s well written, it will ‘flow’ and ‘live’ whatever it looks like, and it’s important to have structure and formatting to help with this, but worry about all that after it’s written. To start with, just write! See where it gets you.

OK, before I bore you all to death, the last thing I want to pick up on is dialogue. Everyone seems to struggle with dialogue (myself included), but I have been told (in some cases) that my dialogue isn’t too bad.  I’m no expert, but my advice would be – say it out loud. If it doesn’t sound right and it doesn’t sound natural…change it. I’m forever getting on my creative high-horse at work (not sure what a ‘creative’ high-horse would look like…maybe it would have its hair dyed pink) about the fact that dialogue doesn’t have to be grammatically correct. This is where I got the title for this blog from. The lengths of the radio scripts I write vary, but generally I’m writing 30 seconds of dialogue. So who are the grammar police? That would be the voiceovers. Now I don’t want to generalise here, but some voiceovers really don’t understand that they’re reading dialogue. I’ve heard them question some of my writing saying ‘it’s not grammatically correct’ (which may well be the case), but if they were to read their own ‘grammatically correct’ version, it would make absolutely no sense to the listener and would just sound odd. I’ve tried to find a specific example I remember from a script I wrote last year, but unfortunately I write so many I can’t for the life of me remember what client it was for. Anyway, I was right and the voiceover was wrong – that’s all you need to know. I’ll be the first to hold my hands up when I’ve made a mistake (spelling or grammar), like when I wrote ‘willies’ instead of ‘wellies’ in a country store script, but dialogue has to sound natural. Unfortunately, and I’m more guilty of this than most, we don’t all speak with perfect English rolling off our tongues in perfectly formed sentences – we do say things that don’t really make much sense, but at the same time do, you get me? Innit! Anyway, before I leave dialogue, I have a question for you! What do you do about accents or local dialect? We all know there are certain things people say differently in different regions of the UK, but do you write it in English and let the actor translate? Or do you research the accent and actually write it as it sounds? It’s something that’s always baffled me. We’re told as writers not to tread on peoples toes – don’t include camera angles or directions, they’re for the director or DOP to agree on, don’t put in directions for the actors, they should know how to deliver the lines upon reading the script…but does that extend to not putting in specifics for accents and local dialect? I remember when I was on the set of Channel 4’s Dubplate Drama – I’d been roped in as an extra for this scene (mainly because I had a funny car and the director wanted to get it in the show) and we were meant to be 4 lads from Birmingham driving to a rave, who then curb crawl beside the main character and ask her ‘is this where the party’s at?’ in a brummie accent. Originally it was going to be the guy in the passenger seat (who was from Birmingham) that delivered the line, but for whatever reason the director wanted me to say it. I asked the guy how to deliver the line, but he said – ‘I wouldn’t say that’. All I wanted was for him to say the line in his accent so I could mimic it, but he just kept saying – ‘we wouldn’t say something like that’. I’m not sure whether he was just bitter because I’d been given his line, but I actually wondered if he was right – he’s the actor (although he probably wasn’t trained in acting at all), he’s from Birmingham, and therefore he should know best. Maybe it’s a bit of give and take, but I’d be interested to hear your opinions.

Me trying to look ‘ghetto’

So now I wait patiently to see if my script goes any further in the London Screenwriters’ Festival competition – if it doesn’t, I’m already very happy I made it through to the last 12. Who knows, I might just make it anyway. For those of you who haven’t already got your tickets to attend the London Screenwriter’s Festival, I’ve heard it’s a fantastic weekend and I’ll be there for the duration – maybe see you there?

Until next time…

PEACE x

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Comments
  1. Simone Chaplain says:

    Good question.
    Some accents are easy to write phonetically.
    “Sank simpuw like Cockneh eh lav”
    Some accents are very hard.
    “Oh my its so hard” ( whispered in a dodgy French accent)
    I suppose it depends on how much confidence you have in making a stipulation as to how you would like your characters to sound.
    Another great blog. 🙂

  2. Simon says:

    To me there can be (and at times *should* be) a considerable gap between ‘academic’ and ‘creative’ writing. I wouldn’t word a work email the same way I word a script.

    Work email – polite, professional, correct
    Script – I completely subscribe to your ‘dramatic’ structuring concept. A script is a tool to allow the reader visualise your film/episode/whatever. I am a firm believer (and have only ever received praise/positive feedback doing so) in putting important moments/action on its own line.

    An example?

    “Mark enters a crowded bar. A dozen snarling, grizzled bikers – leather-clad and bearded – stop at once, staring back at him.

    Tense. intimidating.

    Mark stares, panicked, then-

    The bikers erupt with laughter, beckoning him to the bar with great enthusiasm.”

    Probably not the best example, as I just blurted that across the page, but the idea – I suppose – is that the line breaks *remove* the need for out and out blatant “Mr Director, please do this here” type stage direction. You’re letting the art, the drama of the scene influence/dictate the pace. By putting “Tense. Intimidating.” on its own line, it forces a beat, a pause, a solitary moment where Mark stares unsure of his imminent fate at the silent scary bikers.

    That’s the way I try and write it in my script, anyway. Whether it works or not in practise is another thing…

    Nice blogging as per mate, I could discuss this sort of thing for hours!

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