The Pattern’s the Thing: The Uses of Grammar in Screenwriting by Allen Gorney

It is with great pleasure that I introduce guest blogger Allen Gorney:

Allen Gorney is a Course Director in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Full Sail University. He earned his BA and MA in English (Film Analysis/Dramatic Literature Concentrations) from the University of Central Florida and has been teaching courses in literature, rhetoric, and film at the college level for several years. As an award-winning instructor, he has also earned the prestigious National Board Certification. A working actor, he received his dramatic training from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. Allen also worked in theater administration at the Tony-winning Roundabout Theatre in New York, where he was inspired to begin writing stage plays. As a screenwriter, he has earned recognition and critical praise from festivals across the United States. He has also written, produced, and acted in several plays, short films, and music videos and has served as a dialogue coach on both short and feature films. Allen specializes in screenplay adaptations of literary works. He is also an avid runner, hiker, and Crossfit enthusiast.

The Pattern’s The Thing: The Uses of Grammar in Screenwriting

I’m a runner. I know all the stretches. I know how to plan routes. I know how to economize my stride. I know the muscles involved and their mechanics. I know these details because I’ve done my homework. I may not be the fastest runner, but I am true to my abilities. I know I want to improve, and improving means dissecting my form and listening with an open mind. And that may be the most obvious set up to an analogy ever. You ready for the segue?

To master anything, you must be able to analyze. Just like the runner needs to analyze the body and the terrain, the writer needs to analyze the words and the syntax. There it is. There’s the segue. And there’s the rub.

If the writer cannot analyze the words and the syntax of his or her own work, they hit the proverbial wall. They reach an insurmountable cliff that cannot be scaled, a hill that not even the most agile runner can ascend. The character, the ideas, the world that has been so expertly crafted and envisioned gets blocked behind a sea of troubles.

I’m mixing metaphors. I know this. But the crux of this argument remains clear: the writer must know words and syntax. Okay. What was that last bit there? Syntax? What the bloody hell is syntax?

Syntax is roughly defined as the arrangement of the words—the structure of the sentence. Understanding syntax generally means having a strong working knowledge of the dreaded four letter word most people hate: Grammar. Okay, that’s six letters, but you get the point. Knowing grammar and knowing how to analyze it is important to all writers—even screenwriters.

When I was in graduate school, I took a class called English Grammar and Usage. That’s right. Graduate-level grammar. The class was as daunting as it was illuminating. I already had a BA in English (cue Avenue Q cast recording), and I figured I already knew the inner workings of my native tongue. Boy, was I wrong. Sure, I could recognize when someone was not speaking “proper” English, but I never realized that I couldn’t explain why. And once I learned the basic foundation, everything just fell into place. So are you ready for the basic foundation? Here’s it is:

Every sentence has a pattern.

In English, we have ten basic patterns. Everything we say or write is a derivative of those ten. Not surprisingly, they all feature nouns and verbs. Some feature linking verbs; others action verbs. Some feature adjectives, while others feature adverbs. Now, rather than losing you to the abyss of Grammatica, it’s not actually important to memorize these ten patterns. What’s important is your ability to recognize the patterns inherent in any sentence. The placement of the word in a sentence is as important as the choice of the word.

Take this example from FDR’s famous radio address: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” He chooses to place the USA first—a passive voice construction, generally less favorable when trying to make a point—to great effect. His placement of the USA first in the clause creates a sense of victimization, and its placement beside the word “infamy” magnifies its impact. And while that difference may seem trivial, consider that no words uttered by a president in a radio address are ever unscripted.

You may recognize that FDR’s line is particularly memorable. But what makes it memorable? Is it the timeliness of the speech? Perhaps. But consider the syntax. The clause “a date which will live in infamy” interrupts the flow of the sentence. It heightens and prepares you for the impact of the truth in the next clause. It makes the date resonate. It does all that because it’s an appositive. Now, you didn’t need to know that term to understand that this section of the sentence carries weight. You just needed to recognize that this part of the sentence accomplishes the aforementioned important tasks. That’s analyzing syntax.

Think about how I’ve been writing this entire piece. I’ve been using sentence fragments. I’ve been using repetition and similar sentence structures in succession.

And I’ve been forcing you to pause.

Spacing and punctuation also function as syntactical devices. They affect the arrangement of words. Once you analyze how a comma works versus a dash, you’ll understand how and when to choose one over the other.

Okay, I see you grasping for air, suffocating in a sea of semi-colons. Let me throw you an oxygen tank and show you how it applies to screenwriting—or any writing, for that matter.

Not surprisingly, dialogue relies heavily on patterns. The best dialogue has an air of musicality to it: cadences and rhythms that create a sense of personality unique to the writer. You can easily differentiate a Tarantino line from a Sorkin line. You can hear the difference between a line from Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges and one from Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

In In Bruges, Martin McDonagh uses short, staccato, profanity-laden lines, that, when coupled with the lilt of the Irish actors playing these characters, creates a unique musicality seldom seen in film.

Take this exchange:

Ken: You don’t even know that we’re not here on a job.

Ray: What? On a job?

Ken: Yeah.

Ray: Here in Bruges?

Ken: Yeah.

Ray: Here in Bruges? On a job?

Ken: Yeah.

Ray: Why? What did he actually say?

Ken: He didn’t actually say nothing.

Ray: So why do you think it might be…?

Ken: I don’t think anything.

So what’s the pattern here? Notice that these two characters answer each other by repeating the question. Actually, they do this throughout the film. And actually, McDonagh uses this pattern in many of his stage plays also. The lines are short and sweet to indicate the uncertainty Ray feels here, but the characters’ repeating each other’s words creates the sense of a bond between the two that will become very important.

When writing her adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson had the challenge of using some of Austen’s original dialogue from the novel as well as crafting original dialogue that sounded like Jane Austen could’ve written it. To add to the challenge, she had to also create a rhythm for each character, so that Marianne emerged as more of the romantic, while her sister Ellinor remained more restrained and prudent.

That’s another important point—while it is a nice trait as a writer to brand a unique style of dialogue, don’t drown while frolicking in the musicality of your own writing. Take heed, and recognize that each of your characters still needs to sound unique. Create a cadence for each of your characters, and together, they will create a symphony. Your symphony.

The same can be said for action/descriptive lines in a screenplay. Many novice screenwriters make the mistake of overexplaining actions so that their pages resemble a novel more than a film. As much as you create a sense of personality for your characters via dialogue, so too can you create a sense of personality in your descriptions. So how do you do that?

Be short and sweet and isolate the image. Take this description:

JOHN walks into the office. He is confident and projects an image that men want to be and women want to be with. He walks past many cubicles until he finds his. The heads in these cubicles turn as he walks past them. He puts his backpack down and looks up to see several WOMEN looking at him.

It’s an okay description. Nothing special. Nothing fun. Nothing unique. Let’s see if we can get the syntax and the word choice to work together to really illustrate this moment. Remember, we need to isolate the image.

JOHN saunters past cubicles as the heads of his FEMALE COWORKERS turn in succession, poking their heads out at the model of virile perfection that passes by. Le pant. Le sigh.

John releases his backpack and glances up to see his whole office devouring him with their eyes.

The latter description is significantly shorter than the former. It isolates the image and it gives the reader (your potential producer or agent) a sense of your script’s tone. Use your analytical skills to break down the description and dissect what works better in the revised description. Then, look at your own script. Determine the tone of your script and think about how you can create a pattern that helps to enhance it.

And perhaps my best advice: Don’t overdo it. Patterns are best when they are subtle. Sure, we can recognize them, but too much of a good thing can become stale. Pepper your scripts with personality, but don’t make your reader sneeze at it.

So. That’s it? Just patterns?

Yes. Just patterns. But the English language is vast and its status as a college major informs us that this expansive forest has many, many types of trees. For every sapling part of speech you recognize on the ground—verb, noun, adjective—a host of mighty chiasmus, epistrophe, and parasprodokian still hide in the canopy, awaiting your discovery. Make it a point to reach higher to those treetops by strengthening those analytical skills. The higher your reach, the more innate it becomes. As you reach, read often. Analyze films. And invest in a dictionary of rhetorical devices.

Your audience will thank you.

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  1. #1 by Carole Scala on March 2, 2013 - 1:24 am

    Allen, I agree with your observations on sentence patterns, Patterns create movement and emotion and anticipation. When the writer consciously assigns particular patterns to create a character the character then becomes the writer. Oh, and please do not discount my favorite punctuation mark the semicolon; it has so much elitist style! I loved the piece!

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